Métiers d’art… Métiers d’art… Métiers d’art…” These days, the phrase seems to be on everyone’s lips, as if it were a password that could magically open the doors to international renown.
In recent years, artistic crafts have become watchmaking’s new frontier. Far from mourning their demise, we see enamellers, engravers, miniature painters, straw marquetry artists, plumassiers, stone mosaic specialists and embroiderers popping up all over the place.
Thierry Stern comes right out with it: “I want to get a few things straight, for the record.” Faced with this groundswell, the young CEO of Patek Philippe has decided to come out of the woodwork and speak his mind about this resurgence of interest in crafts with which he is eminently familiar. And for good reason.
From its earliest days, and throughout the intervening 175 years, Patek Philippe has relied on master craftsmen to create its exceptional engraved, painted, enamelled… you name it… pieces. And they have done it discreetly, without shouting from the rooftops. At certain periods of their history they have continued this practice for the sole purpose of preserving the traditional crafts, when virtually no one else seemed to value them any more.
- Aube sur le Lac, REF. 993/100G by Patek Philippe
- Pocket watch with caseback and dial decorated with miniature painting on enamel with silver spangles. The back of the watch pays tribute to the work by Swiss painter Louis Baudit (1870–1960) entitled Le matin devant Cologny, which dates from 1943. The painting is part of the private collection of Philippe Stern, Patek Philippe’s chairman.The dial, created using the same technique, displays details of works inspired by five Swiss painters: Alexandre Perrier, Edouard Vallet, Mafli, Ferdinand Hodler and Paul Klee. Both sides of the watch are decorated with enamelled silver leaves embedded in hand-engraved settings. The caseband of the 44.1 mm diameter case is set with 54 cabochon diamonds. Cabochon emerald- set crown. Two brilliant-cut diamonds on the bow. This one-of-a-kind piece created to commemorate the manufacture’s 175th anniversary is presented in the centre of a white gold arch decorated with hand-engraved and enamelled leaves, mounted on a translucent blue enamel circular base.
“We have never stopped producing decorated pieces, not even when artistic craftsmanship seemed to be at its lowest ebb. We have always considered it crucial to continue to give work to artisans, to ensure the survival of their crafts,” explains Thierry Stern. “During some of these periods we have had as many as 80 Dome table clocks in stock. And when you realise that every one of these clocks requires four to six months’ work, and that we generally make a maximum of ten or fifteen per year, you can understand what such a stock represents, not just in terms of asset value, but in accumulated expertise.”
In its 175 years of working with enamellers and engravers, Thierry Stern concedes that Patek Philippe has amassed “a colossal amount of knowledge”. “The artisans love that, because they know that not only do we work on a long-term basis, but our quality standards are among the highest in the world. Each piece must be perfect, museum quality. What is more, some never even go on sale. They are immediately added to our collections, to take their place in our Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.”
THE GREAT CONFUSION
Thierry Stern has decided to lay his cards on the table and speak openly about the métiers d’art gospel according to Patek Philippe, because there is at the moment, in his view, “great confusion on the ground. You can’t suddenly declare yourself to be an enameller or miniature painter.
This status is the result of lengthy professional development, complex apprenticeships.
In my view, a solid background in history and art is essential for anyone embarking upon this path. Any enamellers who work for us must be among the best in the world. Now that the métiers d’art seem to be flavour of the month, you find many young people who claim to be enamellers, without truly mastering all the intricacies of the profession.
There’s enamel, and then there’s enamel. There’s a world of difference. There are workshops today where artisans work virtually on a production line, each one applying a different colour, while someone else prepares the cloisonné. If you want things to be done properly you can’t work like this, not really taking account of the materials with which you are working, not understanding the chemical compatibility of the colours, not having all the firings and chemical interactions at your fingertips. Not to mention the specific talents and stylistic tastes of every enameller worthy of the name. But our clients are not fooled.
They appreciate the depth of the colours, how they work together, their almost organic subtlety, the quality of the gold wires, the consummate mastery and fluidity of their shaping, the style… these elements are what make the difference.”
MINING A TRADITIONAL SEAM
Sandrine Stern, Thierry Stern’s wife, is creative director at Patek Philippe. She is in charge of all the artistic pieces, which are subsequently individually assessed by the family company’s management board. She explains the procedure the firm follows to create its works of traditional craftsmanship.
“In the beginning everything is done by hand, starting with the preparatory sketches. These drawings allow us to identify and select the exact techniques or combination of techniques that will be used; these might include various forms of enamelling and miniature painting, but also engraving and gem-setting. The sketches are then formatted and adapted to the specific shape of the Dome table clocks, pocket watches or wristwatches. The decoration must harmonise as closely as possible with its case, in a refined and subtle manner.”
The inspiration for these preliminary sketches could come from anywhere.
Even, as on the day of our meeting, from a simple but beautifully decorated thank-you card sent by a retailer. But the main source of inspiration remains the Patek Philippe Museum and the many treasures housed within its exceptional collections.
Lakeside landscapes, odes to nature, exotic animals, birds of every hue, floral motifs, scrollwork, ornaments, portraits… an incredible diversity of immense richness, bearing witness to the long and illustrious history of enamelling in Geneva.
Far from dying out, this traditional craft with its highly decorative motifs has continued uninterrupted up to the present day. “We still favour the traditional approach: our clocks and watches must be enduring, they cannot be allowed to follow the currents of fashion, which is by definition ephemeral.
Each generation nevertheless brings its own new ideas and its slightly different techniques, and research continues constantly. But we owe it to ourselves to create pieces that will stand the test of time, that stand outside time, that are timeless.”
Within this formal and yet artisanal framework there is considerable variety in style and in the elements of craftsmanship. As Sandrine Stern points out, “Each enameller, each miniature painter has their own tastes, their own inclinations, their specialties and their secrets. We work with around twenty different enamellers in total who, together, represent a huge amount of accumulated knowledge, and to whom we have a long-term commitment.
Some of them work on our premises, but many of them are artists in their own right. As such, they are possessive of their way of working, fiercely independent, defensive of their style. We recognise this explicitly, as every one of our pieces is signed by the artist who created it. Everything goes through our internal team, who check each item. Their expertise comes from a daily diet of 175 years of history and extensive experience working with these crafts!”
“They appreciate and listen to what we ask of them, because we never ask the impossible,” adds Thierry Stern. “When we demand that they push themselves to the limit, it’s because we are intimately familiar with what these limits are, and the difficulties of their craft.
They know they are dealing with a team of professionals who know exactly what they are talking about, who will supervise their work, back them up, and accompany them on their journey. They also know that we are committed to this relationship over the long term. From that point of view the continuity of a family business is a welcome guarantee against the vagaries of the market.”
Another factor is the rarity of these pieces, which is part and parcel of their unique character, given that they are all the unique products of the hand that created them. “This paucity, if I can call it that, is a real problem, but it’s a good problem to have,” says Thierry Stern with a smile.
“It is certainly a source of frustration, and we have to be able to handle that. Take, for example, the Sky Moon Tourbillon, which combined a sculpted case with a dial in cloisonné and champlevé enamel. We received 650 requests for the 75 pieces we produced. It just goes to show… But there is no room for compromise. We could increase production, but the quality would automatically decline, and that is something we refuse to countenance.” Such is the enduring appeal of Patek Philippe.
Source: Europa Star March 2015 Magazine Issue