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Enamel painting elevates the latest offerings of venerable watch houses

Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe demonstrate how the centuries-old art form continues to be a powerful medium for storytelling.

01: DRAWN FROM HISTORY
Jaeger-LeCoultre shares the stories of great paintings lost and found through its new Reverso watches.

The blank back of the swivelling case of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso has long offered an endless canvas for artistic expression, featuring engraved messages as well as enamel miniatures. The watch itself debuted in 1931, while the earliest known Reverso with an enamel painting – the portrait of an Indian woman – dates back to 1936, just five years later.

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Following a flurry of other Reverso launches in the model’s 90th anniversary year, Jaeger-LeCoultre recently unveiled the Reverso Tribute Enamel Hidden Treasures, a trio of metiers d’art watches featuring replicas of paintings that were long thought lost but later found.

Speaking to The Peak via a video presentation in August, CEO Catherine Renier shared: “We looked to these paintings as a way of paying tribute to the revelation that the Reverso provides. Turning the case over reveals the artwork underneath.”

Limited to 10 pieces each, the Hidden Treasures were produced in grand feu enamel at Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Atelier des Metiers Rares. The reproductions pay homage to three masters: Gustave Courbet (View of Lake Leman, 1876), Vincent Van Gogh (Sunset at Montmajour, 1888) and Gustav Klimt (Portrait of a Lady, 1917).

While the stories behind these artworks are all fascinating enough to warrant a novel (or at least a short story), the Klimt legend is the most intriguing. It’s the only known “double” portrait by the Viennese artist and has been “lost” twice. While Portrait of a Lady dates back to 1917, Klimt painted it over an earlier image of a woman believed to have been his muse who died prematurely. The fact it was a double painting was discovered only in 1996.

In February 1997, Portrait of a Lady was stolen from an Italian art gallery, where it had been on display since 1925. Over the following years, several fakes emerged. Then, in December 2019, gardeners discovered the original, concealed in a black bag, inside a recess in the wall of the same gallery. Quite the exciting conversation- starter to sport on your wrist.


  • Gustav Klimt's Portrait of a Lady is a double portrait.

02: SINGULAR ACHIEVEMENT
Vacheron Constantin’s latest bespoke piece is a masterpiece on the inside and out.

Dedicated to creating unique pieces for its top clients, Vacheron Constantin’s Les Cabinotiers is behind many of the maison’s most stunning horological and artistic blockbusters. Its latest one-of-a-kind creation, Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer, results from eight years of interaction between the collector who commissioned it and the Genevan watch manufacture.

(Related: Patek Philippe launches new versions of three of its complicated chronographs)

On the officer-type caseback of this 98mm yellow gold pocket watch is a miniature reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, dating back to 1665. Anita Porchet, an acclaimed enameller, took seven months to research and complete it. All challenges well known to grand feu enamel aficionados, multiple firings at high temperatures can cause colour shifts or cracks and even warp the metal base. Just the black background in the image required seven different shades.

The art of engraving also features prominently here. Executed over five months by a Vacheron Constantin master engraver, it highlights acanthus leaves running along scrolls and flowers with a pearl heart. The engraver’s work is also the proverbial cherry atop this timepiece. Sculpted from a block of gold, the bow is flanked by roaring lions.

The watch is also impressive on the inside. The new calibre 3761 was developed by the team behind Vacheron Constantin’s 57-complication 57260 pocket watch from 2015 and features Grande and Petite Sonnerie chiming complications and a minute repeater coupled with a Westminster chime mechanism with five gongs and five hammers. A tourbillon regulates the 806-part manual-winding movement with a double-wheel system to ensure smooth movement of the extra-long seconds hand.


  • Master enamellist Anita Porchet at work.

03: TIMELY TABLEAUS
Enamel miniature painting takes centre stage in Patek Philippe’s latest Rare Handcrafts collection.

Patek Philippe’s sports watches may be nabbing all the headlines these days, but true fans of the brand know that it has a lot more to offer, including its emphasis on the decorative arts. In June, the luxury watch company held an exhibition at its historic headquarters in Geneva, showcasing more than 75 watches and clocks from its latest Rare Handcrafts collection.

The one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces highlight a range of artisanal crafts, including engraving, grand feu cloisonne enamelling, enamel miniature painting, guilloche, gem-setting and wood micromarquetry. A Genevan speciality since the 17th century, enamel miniature painting figures strongly among these novelties – particularly on the casebacks of pocket watches and the dials of wristwatches. With the help of microscopic binoculars, artisans use tiny brushes to apply the pigments, consisting mainly of powdered metallic oxides.

Patek Philippe frequently depicts flora and fauna in its miniature paintings, and one of these is displayed in the Golden Ellipse watch. Known as Roman Garden, it reproduces a fresco that was discovered in an imperial villa from the first century BC.

Initially, the artisan applied two coats of white enamel that required three firings. In the next step, he used 12 base colours and a variety of blends to paint the plants and the bird, which he fired several times. Then, using a traditional Genevan method, five layers of a transparent enamel called flux were applied, and each required a firing. After that, the surface was ground, glazed and polished.

Make no mistake: there is a lot more than meets the eye with arts such as these.


  • "Owl" pocket watch.

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