Enameling, often used by Patek Philippe to decorate cases and dials, is one of the most high-risk of the rare handcrafts. The precarious fusing of powdered glass at ultra-high temperatures can produce heartbreaking disasters but, when successful, the result is luminous beauty, from designs in radiant, jewel-bright colors that will never dull, to lustrous, gently traditional looks.
Over time, this delicate skill has become an endangered one – but not at Patek Philippe, where it has been preserved and nurtured and is used to create breathtakingly lovely pieces (taking anything from several hours to several weeks – or even several months for miniature painting).
The technique involves grinding colored glass or enamel pigments to a talc-like powder, mixing it with water or oil (Patek Philippe usually uses lavender oil), and painting the resulting paste meticulously (sometimes using a brush as fine as a single hair) onto a prepared metal surface. Once dry, the paste is fired in a kiln at temperatures of around 850°C, so that the powdered glass or pigment melts to form a new, impregnable surface and fuses to the metal base.
Dozens of firings may be needed as multiple layers are built up; a coat or two of transparent enamel adds a final depth and brilliance. Because colors can alter during firing, the enamelist must be not just an artist but an alchemist and visionary, able to calculate how the pigments will interact and accurately imagine the finished hues in advance.
The enameler uses one or a combination of age-old techniques – cloisonné, champlevé, paillonné, and miniature painting. For more on each of these complex procedures, see our Rare Handcrafts section.