Over the last five years, the world of luxury watches has become that much more beautiful, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of traditional métiers d’arts, or artistic crafts, imbued into mechanical watches. While haute horlogerie is, in itself, an artistic craft, métiers d’arts bring the fine arts into watchmaking and they include hand engraving, miniature painting, grand feu enamel, gem setting, and more. Among the watch companies with the most profound interest and know-how of the métiers d’arts, the one that practices the widest repertoire of crafts, including the most arcane and age-old crafts, is undoubtedly Cartier.
With a long and fabled history with the world of art that continues till today, it is only natural that the luxury maison gains full mastery of the métiers d’arts. What’s more surprising, though, is Cartier’s ability to blend technique with creativity and to marry lost arts with modern watchmaking. Also impressive is the extent to which Cartier is devoted to métiers d’arts. Now that they have become a major preoccupation of the maison, they deserve a dedicated space where the crafts are consolidated and artisans can work uninterrupted. Fittingly, Cartier calls this space Maison des Métiers d’Arts, or house of the artistic crafts.
Just a short distance away from Cartier’s magnificent manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds, what used to be a Bernese-style farm dating from the end of the 18th century is now the Cartier Maison des Métiers d’Arts. Considering how watchmaking used to be a part-time job for farmers in the winter when there are no crops to tend, this beautiful historical mansion is a perfectly chosen site. Cartier preserved as much of it as possible even as the interior has been refurbished with a modern framework – perhaps a metaphor for its gift for bridging the past and the present. All this becomes apparent as soon as you step into the mansion. Abundant light streaming in from the roof and open-worked gables lead one to think of the classical architecture of watch manufactures while wooden panelling and 18th century limestone flagstones, lime plaster, and period furnishing keep the spirit of the original building intact. Three rooms occupy the ground floor: Grand Salon, Petit Salon, and Salle de Présentation.
King of jewellers and jeweller of kings, Cartier prides itself on jewellery making know-how and the mansion’s first floor is given to all things gilded and glittery. Traditional gem setting and jewellery making are both accomplished here by Cartier’s master craftsmen and women, and motifs that are perennial favourites of the maison like the panther and the caiman, in addition to all manner of flora and fauna, sparkle with life. A painstaking process, the pieces are first rendered in an open-worked design drilled with cavities, which will eventually be studded with precious stones. It is the master gem-setter’s eye that decides which stone goes with which and then he carefully crafts the appropriate setting – prong, claw, collet, or bezel. The piece is polished several times throughout the crafting process, and is a consummate skill requiring years of experience to master.
In recent years, Cartier has expanded its repertoire of skills to include gold granulation and filigree work. To much critical acclaim, Cartier launched the Rotonde de Cartier Panther with Granulation in 2013, a watch that introduced a completely new craft to modern watchmaking. Having discovered the ancient Etruscan art of gold granulation, Cartier promptly researched deeply to study its technique. Likened to sowing seeds of gold, granulation involves creating gold beads using long gold wires that have been cut up, rolled in charcoal dust, and heated with a flame. The beads are then assembled one by one to create a motif, and then fused with a gold surface. Cartier’s panther with granulation is made up of nearly 3,800 gold beats and took approximately 360 hours to complete the underlying engraving and bead fusing.
Filigree work is just as intricate as gold granulation. Attributed to the ancient Sumerians, this craft dates back to 3000 BC and is done by twisting gold or platinum wires and then hammering to flatten the strips, which are shaped to form a motif and then soldered onto a surface. The latest craft to join Cartier’s repertoire, it will be featured in the Ronde Louis Cartier in 2015 which combines filigree work with the application of lacquer and gem setting. Taking the form of two panthers locked in an embrace, the filigree work in yellow gold and platinum takes no fewer than 10 days to complete.
Colour & Fire
One of the best loved forms of métiers d’arts, enamelling can be done with a wide range of techniques. Found on the second floor, the most superior and traditional technique is said to be grand feu enamelling, which requires the enameller to create a mixture of raw enamel and metallic oxides to be fired at a temperature of over 800 degrees Celsius. In order to create an elaborate painting with shades and colour nuances, the enameller has to use a palette of coloured raw enamel and each shade of each colour has to be fired individually. The result is a painting brought to life by layers of colours.
There are different techniques to apply enamel to a dial, all of which are considered traditional. Champlevé enamel involves carving out cavities where the raw enamel is to be applied, leaving only strips of metal in between the cavities. Cloisonné enamel is quite the opposite, as it involves applying strips of metal on the dial to demarcate where the raw enamel is to be applied. These strips are called cloisons (meaning partition) in French. Much rarer than champlevé or cloisonné is the plique-à-jour enamel, which resembles stained glass windows in churches. Plique-à-jour is similar to cloisonné except it does not have a base.
Grisaille enamel is also very rare. In fact it was almost a lost art. To perform grisaille enamelling, the enameller begins with a dial of black enamel and uses only translucent white enamel called limoge blanc to paint the desired images. Multiple layers of the limoge blanc is needed to achieve a clear white stroke, and each layer has to be fired individually, making grisaille enamelling one of the most laborious techniques of all. Yet, Cartier has managed to find a silver lining, make that a gold lining, with grisaille enamelling. Working with a gold paste instead of limoge blanc, the maison utilises the same technique with a precious material, adding just that bit of prestige to the age-old craft.
In addition to enamelling, this part of the Maison des Métiers d’Arts is also where one of Cartier’s most talked-about watches, the Ballon Bleu de Cartier Floral Marquetry, is made. Marquetry as an art traditionally involves combining pieces of sculpted wood to form a larger canvas. Instead of wood, however, Cartier made stunning works of marquetry using rose petals and straw. Again, these painstaking processes call for enormous concentration on the part of the craftsman as well as inordinate numbers of man-hours to complete. The Ballon Bleu de Cartier Floral Marquetry took two weeks just for the marquetry work alone while a straw marquetry creation like the Rotonde de Cartier Straw Marquetry with lion motif, where individual blades of straw were hand chosen, split blade by blade, flattened with a burnishing bone, and assembled by hand, took 45 hours to make.
Similar to marquetry, stone mosaic is another craft practiced by Cartier and is done on the Rotonde de Cartier Stone Mosaic with tiger motif. In this watch, the maison combines small miniature square stones for the background with irregular-shaped stones known as tesserae that are used for the motif. Observe how the natural nuances of stone has been used to create shadowed hues. Nearly 500 tiny tesserae and up to 70 hours of work were required to literally put this dial together.
Ascend to the eaves of the Maison des Métiers d’Arts and you would enter into a sacred space devoted to Cartier’s creative universe. Not just reserved for exhibitions and private events, this area is open to the artisans of the maison should they seek a place to exchange ideas and share knowledge. Indeed, the exchange of ideas and sharing of knowledge is the primary objective of Maison des Métiers d’Arts. It is also why all the floors and rooms are designed with an open concept and are easily accessible from one to another. Like the masterpieces of yesteryears, Cartier’s modern creations break boundaries and rethink conventions but they are always beautifully interpreted. Now with Maison des Métiers d’Arts, Cartier looks set to bring haute horlogerie even closer to the fine arts.
This article was first published in WOW.