For connoisseurs: The traditional cloisonné enamelling technique

Cloisonné enamelling is a combination of two ancient forms of artistic craftsmanship. Cell enamel, as suggested by the literal meaning of the words, was first used on wall clocks when valuable dials were made from enamel. Cloisonné means that tiny gold wires are used to delineate cells on the surface before enamel is applied to the cells in different colours. The resulting pieces are unique, everlasting pictures in an extremely small space. But let us start at the beginning. It starts with a drawing, a draft for a motif. It may feature a pair of pandas, a tiger, a dragon, Pegasus, a volcano, Poseidon or a map of the world. Next the colours are chosen, and many hours later the initial drawing is transferred onto what will later become the watch face.  Then the different colours of enamel are applied in different layers, heated in a kiln and hardened until eventually a timeless work of art has come into being. Each individual step in this process needs a very steady hand, many, many years of experience and also instinctive flair since enamel is a very delicate material that can shatter if mishandled in even the slightest way before it is finally hardened. The limited and numbered series of artistically finished Vulcain watches really are a thing to behold. They are the ultimate object for true connoisseurs of artistic craftsmanship.

«Email cloisonné»

The centrepiece of Vulcain's cloisonné enamelled special editions is the proprietary Cricket V20 calibre. It shows hours, minutes and seconds and also boasts our alarm function. It is encased in 18-carat red gold. No connoisseur will be able to look at this watch just to find out the time; their gaze will always remain on it for longer. After all, the watch face is quite simply a work of art. It may feature a pair of pandas, a tiger, a dragon, a volcano, Poseidon or a map of the world. There is only a handful of master craftsmen left in the world who still practise the ancient art of cell enamelling. Their gift to the world comes in the form of miniature paintings that can survive for centuries without losing any of their intensity of colour. In this way an enduring work of art is produced that can withstand the passage of time. It will delight not only its present owner but in due course his or her descendants as well. 

What exactly is the cloisonné technique?

It starts with a motif and colour scheme. The master craftsman produces sketches, for instance an artistic world map, for approval by the customer. Then this drawing is transferred onto the face of a Vulcain wristwatch. The lines of this drawing are reproduced by hand with gold wires just 0.05 mm in thickness. The face passes through the kiln for the first time to fuse the gold wires to form distinct cells. Next, one at a time the cells are filled with enamel paste of the desired colour. This operation is performed using a goose quill as that is the only tool that has the right capillary action. The enamel hardens up in the kiln, after which further layers are applied until the colours correspond exactly to the specifications. The final step is to grind and polish the gold wires with a diamond file in the event that they are still protruding slightly. Et voilà.

Why is cloisonné enamel so expensive?

There are four clear reasons for this. Firstly it takes many long years of experience to apply and work with enamel accurately in such a minute area. Even just affixing the wires requires not only a steady hand but also a great deal of patience. Even this first step in the process takes many hours. Secondly, after each layer of enamel has been applied it must be hardened in the kiln at 850 degrees. This process must be constantly monitored because there is no fixed length of time for the faces to be left in the kiln. The thickness of the layer and the colour both affect the length of time required, and so the only solution is to perform frequent visual checks. Thirdly, even an experienced master craftsman can experience a mishap resulting in the artwork shattering or forming small black oxidation marks: Reject. Fourthly, at the very end of this lengthy process the piece, which was previously slightly uneven, must be made absolutely flat in order not to adversely affect its timekeeping. The face is heated up one last time and then carefully pressed flat using a piece of smoothed charcoal. If anything goes wrong at this point, all those hours of work will have been in vain.

How widespread is the tradition of the cloisonné enamelling technique?

There is now no more than a handful of master craftsmen in the world who still practice this ancient form of artistic craftsmanship. Its roots lie in China, and in Japan it was combined with porcelain. Enamel is similar to porcelain and is a molten mineral glass that was also used for the faces of grandfather clocks and later wristwatches. Enhanced with cloisonné enamelling, in other words subdivided into different cells, miniature paintings come into being, and these can survive for centuries without losing any of their splendour or intensity of colour. The wristwatch was first invented at the beginning of the last century, and Vulcain played a part in its invention. Since that time enamel has been used less and less frequently in their decoration as it is replaced by more modern materials. These have enabled watch faces to be manufactured on an industrial scale. There now remains only a handful of specialists who command a mastery of and apply the technique of cloisonné enamelling because it is an unbelievably time-consuming manual process of which not even one single step can be performed with mechanical assistance. This is why there is only an extremely small and exclusive group of watchmakers who can offer watch faces created in this artistic way. Vulcain is one of those firms.

Does Vulcain also offer any other limited editions?

In total Vulcain offers seven limited collections. These include, other than cloisonné-enamelled models, the 50s Presidents' Special that is dedicated to the artists Herbie Hancock and Heiner Lauterbach. Then there is the Aviator GMT Pilot DLC-Steel and the Chronograph Steel, the Cricket Extreme in its Air Force One and Automatic Titanium & Steel versions, and there are the special versions of the Aviator. Last but not least there is the Vulcain Tourbillon with its 60-second tourbillon, an indicator for power reserve and a retro date display. Even for aficionados and connoisseurs who are looking for something special and out of the ordinary, Vulcain can offer a wide choice. This gives people the opportunity to experience the world of time in its entirety.

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Manufacture des montres Vulcain S.A.
Chemin des Tourelles 4
CH-2400 Le Locle

Tel: +41 32 930 80 10

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