ial enamellists are a rare breed; dial enamellists of the calibre of Anita Porchet even rarer. Heir to a centuries-old and once neglected culture, she is a longstanding collaborator with some of watchmaking’s most hallowed names: the likes of Patek Philippe, Chanel, Hermès, Piaget, Chaumet and Vacheron Constantin.
The recipient of several prestigious awards, she remains humble nonetheless, acutely aware of the unpredictable nature of an art that is not easily mastered and, even after decades of practice, continues to experiment in her studio-cum-research laboratory. The economic implications of her art are not lost on this fiercely independent craftswoman, who defends a new idea of her profession and its future.
- Anita Porchet prepares all her enamels by hand in her studio. She is seen here crushing coloured glass with a pestle to obtain sand-like particles which, combined with an aqueous solution, she will apply to the dial.
- ©Audemars Piguet
- ©Hubert de Haro / HDH Publishing
- ©Hubert de Haro / HDH Publishing
Europa Star: Enamelling is an ancestral technique that is experiencing a resurgence. In layman’s terms, what is enamel?
Anita Porchet: There’s a little trick I have for explaining enamel to children. First I grind coloured glass into grains as fine as sand, which is a handy reminder that glass is made from sand. Next, I apply this coloured glass powder to metal and fire it in the kiln at high temperature. The glass melts, runs and adheres to the metal. Once out of the kiln, it hardens. And there you have it: enamel!
You often quote the work of Carlo Poluzzi2 and Suzanne Rohr3. Is there such a thing as an “Anita Porchet” style?
Compared with them, I still feel like a student. My godfather introduced me to enamel. He also warned me that nobody used enamel anymore and that I would have to stand on my own two feet! Despite the fact there were no jobs for enamellists in the early 1980s, I took a late eighteenth-century watch we had at home and studied the exact colours and techniques used until I was able to reproduce it myself. It took me two years to research and complete my first piece. I think I have now developed my own hand, particularly in paillonné6 and cloisonné4.
- Anita Porchet has acquired a private collection of thousands of gold paillons, some of which she will use in forthcoming creations.
- ©Hubert de Haro / HDH Publishing
You set up your studio in the early 1990s in response to growing demand from watch brands, at a time when the term “métier d’art” was working its way into marketing communication.
Before going freelance, I spent six years teaching an introduction to enamel course in La Chaux-de-Fonds1. It didn’t matter that none of my pupils intended to pursue enamelling as a career. I just wanted to make young jewellers and engravers aware of a different decorative technique. I felt I was sowing seeds and that possibly one of those seeds would take root and grow. Then I met Philippe Stern, the president of Patek Philippe, who offered me financial support. Thanks to this, I could set up my studio and take on apprentices. He also left me the possibility to work for other watch manufacturers, not just Patek. I’m very much indebted to him.
Who else was interested in your work back then?
Japanese collectors were the first to show an interest. They used to come and see me in the studio and always asked very specific questions. Japan doesn’t differentiate between art and craft. The reason, as somebody once explained to me, is that the country suffers frequent earthquakes and therefore maintains its traditional skills to rebuild what the earthquakes have destroyed. As early as 1950, Japan invented the concept of “living national treasure”. The government pays a lifetime subsidy to artisans who, in return, are expected to pass on their expertise.
- Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse White Egrets wristwatch ref. 5738/50G-026 from the 2023 Rare Handcrafts collection, exhibited for the first time in April 2023 in the Geneva boutique. For this interpretation of a 1920s Japanese print, Anita Porchet has used the cloisonné technique not to separate the different colours but to accentuate the contours of the egrets, huddled amidst a flurry of remarkably realistic snowflakes.
- ©Patek Philippe
- Patek Philippe pocket watch with enamel by Anita Porchet. Interpretation of The Kiss by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).
- ©Patek Philippe
In Europe, there’s a tendency to undervalue artisanal professions even though some, including watchmaking, are attracting more and more young people. Has this lack of recognition affected you?
I consider myself to be an artisan, which for me is equal to being an artist. A profession such as enamelling requires that you master a series of constraints relating to the tools and the medium itself. When a musician interprets another’s work, no-one would dream of telling them they are “less” of a musician because they didn’t compose what they play. Enamelling is back in fashion and, like other métiers d’art, in demand among watch brands. Of course the ultimate goal of any business, apart from a few of the big independents, is to make money. Because of this, I’m somewhat suspicious when all of a sudden marketing departments start putting the métiers d’art centre-stage.
Practicing enamel on a daily basis requires time, concentration and experience in techniques mastered over a period of years. Have you ever been tempted to apply these skills to other crafts? Stained glass, for example?
Stained glass is different to enamel because it doesn’t require firing. I’m interested in all types of craft, from stained glass to pottery or weaving. Japanese lacquerwork is especially fascinating. It’s also a delicate art. Every craft is wonderful in its own way. Think of luthiers transforming a piece of wood into a musical instrument. It’s extraordinary. I could have learned lacemaking or any craft that would have allowed me to express my creativity. The medium is important, too. I did try to make jewellery but the sensation of working with metal wasn’t for me. The thing I love about enamel is that you’re never in control, you’re always on a knife-edge.
- Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grand Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie
Which is your favourite technique?
Any! Sometimes I’m asked to describe the techniques, say how many colours I used or the number of times the dial was fired, which is silly. All that matters is the emotion, what the customer feels. The rest is marketing.
Do you sign your enamels?
I trained at the Beaux-Arts in Lausanne1 and have always enjoyed exploring different creative environments but I’ve never felt the need to have my own brand. I’d rather be second than first, meaning I prefer to improve on or interpret the work of an artist or a designer. Having said that, over the years my work has developed a style that distinguishes it from others. Now customers ask me to sign my work. For a unique piece which I create entirely myself, I sign A. Porchet. For small series produced in my studio, I sign A. P. Even then, I start and finish every piece. Anything else would be unethical.
Do you think other enamellists should sign their dials, making them the “author” of their work?
In the case of enamelled miniatures5, tradition requires that the enamellist always sign their work. For the other techniques, many of today’s enamellists work for a company and, as employees of that company, it would be hard for them to claim “ownership”. As a freelancer I have that liberty although I have been known to refuse to sign a piece when I’ve felt it didn’t contribute real artistic value to the finished dial.
Do brands take inspiration from your techniques?
Yes, and I’m afraid to say they are sometimes copied. On the bright side, it encourages me to go on inventing new solutions.
Is it still possible to innovate in enamel?
Definitely. You only need look around. Take Hermès, with its 25 in-house designers and a repertoire of thousands of scarves. It’s not a question of creating new designs. As far as I’m concerned, an interpretation of an existing design is a new creation. Enamelling isn’t about producing an exact reproduction. Each colour brings its own set of problems. You can have the exact same colour as the original with no bubbles in the enamel, put a different colour next to it and realise there is no harmony between the two. Applying the wires for cloisonné is another difficulty, but that’s what I love about this profession: the constant challenges.
- Anita Porchet has a long and fruitful collaboration with Hermès, as these watches show.
Your work and your method suggest a certain “restlessness”, always wanting to learn...
That’s true. Spending four months on a single watch isn’t enough for me. I like to research several projects at the same time.
You’ve always shown a particular interest in paillonné6, a technique you’ve refined and which you regularly use.
Absolutely. From the very beginning, I’ve been fascinated by these tiny spangles stamped out of gold leaf, amazed by how perfectly formed each one is and by the ‘manual intelligence’ of the artisan who succeeded in achieving such quality without computerised tools. It’s magical. Recently I managed to get my hands on a stock of thousands of paillons from the early nineteenth century. The only trouble is… they’re all mixed up in the same jar!
There is an infinite number of shapes - leaves, arabesques, numbers, etc. - that I now have to sort through. Sometimes I tell myself I’m completely mad and that it will take for ever. I’ve been known to stay up half the night but a whole new world is appearing before my eyes. I created a special piece for the Patek Philippe exhibition in Japan that incorporates paillons. When light passes through enamel, paillons sparkle like precious stones.
- One of five unique pieces created in 2013 for the Mademoiselle Privé Coromandel collection, named after the Coromandel screens in Gabrielle Chanel’s apartments on Rue Cambon. Chanel was a fervent admirer of these decorative objects: “I’ve loved Chinese screens since I was eighteen years old. I almost fainted with joy when I saw a Coromandel for the first time. Screens were the first thing I bought.” Cloisonné enamel with gold paillons.
You’ve adapted the cloisonné4 technique to watch dials, using the gold wires not just to separate colours but to emphasise lines and contours, to great effect. What are the particular challenges of this method?
It’s important to be relaxed with cloisonné. It takes a steady, careful hand. You hold the wire, guide it into place while applying a certain amount of pressure, not too much, not too little, before cutting it. When it just isn’t working, I prefer to grind pigments or go for a walk in the forest. Nature is a great inspiration. My palette is a reflection of these walks.
- Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie pocket watch (2021). The enamel miniature, signed A. Porchet 2018-2020, is an interpretation of Girl With A Pearl Earring by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Unique piece.
- ©Vacheron Constantin
And what’s on your palette right now?
I used to like sables, blue-greys, mauves, muted shades. Now I like every colour, even the ones that don’t particularly appeal to me but can resonate with other colours on the dial.
Coming back to your profession, are you in contact with other enamellists?
I joined an enamellists’ group in Geneva when I was starting out. The idea was to bulk-buy enamels and share them, but eventually the group folded. Given that there is no enamel school, and therefore no enamellist diploma, as far as I’m concerned no-one can call themselves an enamellist. Not even me! It’s a very secretive profession, the result of years of experience, successes and failures. For example, I’ve never seen Suzanne Rohr3 when she’s working. She waited twenty years before starting to share with me what she knew and what she knows. One day maybe, when I’ll have completed a miniature based on advice she’s given me, and she’s satisfied with the result, I’ll be able to call myself an enamellist!
Is it important to you that you pass on the skills you’ve acquired and has anyone ever asked you to set up an Anita Porchet school of enamel?
Yes, of course. I teach enamelling every day, to the two women in my team. They’ve been with me for eight years; enamelling is a long learning process. As for an enamelling school, I’m all for it but it would have to be independent of the major groups, and that would be hard.
Should you be thinking about expanding your studio?
Definitely not, given that I finish and polish every dial myself. Also, I expect the big groups to bring more enamellists in-house in a not too distant future, which I don’t think is the best solution for them. As a freelancer, I’m extremely loyal to my customers whereas an artisan who is employed in-house moves from one company to another.
How do you see your future and that of your profession?
Pretty bright. Right now I’m working with customers who have involved me with their project from the early stages, which is great. With Hermès, for example, I can suggest very different techniques. I can engrave the dial prior to enamelling or miniature paint certain parts. As for the future of the profession, in Switzerland it’s too limited to watches which is a real shame. Enamel has a huge range of applications. Jewellery is one, of course, but there are plenty of others. Bag clasps, for example. As you can see, the possibilities aren’t lacking!
- Anita Porchet demonstrates her mastery of cloisonné enamel for the tiger’s head on this Hermès dial. Colours are separated by gold wires that are applied by hand, to create a wonderful impression of depth.
1 Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, Anita Porchet (b. 1961) works out of her studio in Corcelles-le-Jorat. After studying at École des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne (where she met François Junod), she gained her Certificat Fédéral de Capacité in engraving and enamel at Haute École Arc in 1984, where she would go on to teach drawing and an introductory course on enamel. In 1985 she completed her Certificat d’Aptitude Artistique at École Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne. Her early years as a freelance enamellist weren’t easy: enamel wasn’t yet fashionable for watches but, with the support of Philippe Stern, the then President of Patek Philippe, she gradually developed her own style. Her technique evolved, combining miniature painting, cloisonné, champlevé and grisaille. She began working with materials that had fallen out of favour, especially paillons6. Her numerous collaborations with such prestigious brands as Patek Philippe, Hermès, Chanel, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget and, more recently, Audemars Piguet have earned her the recognition of her peers. In 2015 she was awarded the Prix Gaïa in the Artisan-Creation category. In 2017 she shared the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Special Jury Prize with the renowned enamellist Suzanne Rohr3. She is also the recipient of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie Hommage au Talent award and the Prix Culturel du Patrimoine Immatériel Vaudois.
2 Native to Bologna, Italy, artist and miniaturist Carlo Poluzzi (1899-1978) rose to prominence in Geneva. Little is known about his life. He is thought to have begun his career as a goldsmith before turning to enamel, earning fame for his landscape miniatures. Poluzzi worked independently for numerous watchmakers including Patek Philippe and explored virtually all the traditional techniques, in particular cloisonné, champlevé and most of all miniature painting, incorporating gold, silver and copper into his miniatures to stunning effect. This internationally renowned enamellist was awarded the Grand Prix de la Triennale de l’Émail in 1935, 1948 and again in 1951. Outstanding examples of his work are held at the Musée Patek Philippe in Geneva, Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
3 Suzanne Rohr was born in 1939 in Geneva, a city with a long tradition of enamelwork. This specialist in miniature painting on dials, having trained at École des Arts Décoratifs in Geneva, went on to open her own studio in the 1950s, a difficult period for enamellists. Her encounter with miniaturist Carlo Poluzzi2 would prove decisive, as would her long collaboration with Patek Philippe, made possible by Henri Stern, the then president of Patek Philippe, and his son, Philippe Stern, both enamel miniature collectors. Suzanne Rohr was presented with the 2019 Prix Gaïa in the Artisan-Creation category for her outstanding contribution to enamel, just two years after sharing the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Special Jury Prize with Anita Porchet.
4 Cloisonné uses metal wires, generally gold, to isolate the different elements of the design so that the colours remain separate when the piece is fired.
5 Miniature enamel painting mixes coloured enamel powder with oil to produce a paste with a relatively liquid consistency that can be precisely applied. For every other technique, the powder is mixed with an aqueous solution.
6 Paillonné is the addition of paillons between layers of enamel. Paillons are tiny pieces of metallic foil, often gold, that can be given any number of forms, from circles, squares, rectangles and triangles to numbers, arabesques, foliage, and many more. Paillons are also used in jewellery as a backing to enhance the colour of gemstones.