One of the upshots of the watch industry’s revival over the last 30 years is that watchmaking and many of the skills associated with it have been saved. Insiders will tell you the job is not yet done, though – Switzerland’s imminent application to get watchmaking UNESCO listed and therefore protected is proof of that – but all the same, compared to the dark days of the 1980s, watchmaking is in rude health.
More recently, watchmaking’s rebirth has also injected momentum into the world of métiers d’art, or artistic crafts (the English language lacks a term as elegant as the French). High-end watch companies now routinely produce low-volume pieces and collections featuring cases and dials decorated using rare techniques: from miniature enamelling to marquetry (the skill of creating images or graphics with small pieces of material, often wood), and from gem-setting to miniature sculpture.
Traditional companies such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre lead the way, working with lodestar artisans, such as miniature enameller Anita Porchet. Often, they take these skills in-house.
But the old guard are not alone. Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton have merged high-fashion, high-jewellery and watchmaking to create some spectacular métiers d’art pieces, while newcomers such as Graff and Jacob & Co are starting to make a name for themselves as masters of these traditional crafts, too.
Which begs the question: why are there now so many more métiers d’art watches? Dubai Watch Week considers five reasons.
Our tastes have become more refined
The simplest explanation for the growth in métiers d’art watches is that consumer tastes have become more refined. Watch appreciation has deepened, and following in its wake is a keener understanding of the decorative techniques that elevate a watch’s artistic status. This creates a virtuous circle – the more consumer tastes turn to métiers d’art, the more brands create métiers d’art watches. These pieces aren’t afterthoughts, either. This year, Vacheron Constantin’s Les Cabinotiers Mécaniques Sauvages collection, which features enamelling, engraving and marquetry, was unveiled not just alongside its high complications and more commercial lines, but as a proud crescendo to the new collection.
Consumers are demanding greater exclusivity
Not that long ago, a mechanical watch made by one of the fine watch houses was a status symbol nonpareil. But success has bred higher volumes and greater saturation, so much so that the wealthiest consumers are now looking for low-volume and piece-unique designs that deliver greater exclusivity. That’s created a niche in the market for métiers d’art watches. Graff’s GyroGraff Drive pieces from last year, a trio of one-offs, were aimed squarely at the very top end of the market and prove the point.
More consumers are turning to watches for wealth investment
That same exclusivity also fuels the market in territories where buyers view watches as a sound way to invest their wealth and to protect it long-term – a growing trend in the Far East. A piece that’s been hand-decorated by a rarely qualified artisan, using traditional, ageless techniques, is seen as a big tick in that box.
We do know what we’ve got – before we lose it
Conservators may be worried by a loss of skills, and rightly so, but lack of consumer appreciation is not the cause of the problem. The growth in métiers d’art watches and the values attached to them are clear signs consumers understand exactly what they’re being offered, and that they comprehend how endangered some of these crafts are. Instead, the reason these crafts are endangered is that the next generation isn’t following in the footsteps of the current crop of artisans. For example, it’s becoming harder to recruit enamellers. Enamelling takes years to master, and it’s a perilous craft – every time a dial is fired, there’s a risk it’ll be ruined, a stressful side of the job that’s not often acknowledged. It’s because consumers grasp this that demand is so high.
Buying watches has become a more emotional business
The application of métiers d’art in fine watchmaking isn’t a contemporary discovery – the Swiss were engraving and gem-setting watches in the 18th century – and nor therefore is the charming, poetic effect created when the two are brought together. But the difference is that nowadays watches are essentially non-essential, so the importance of that emotional response has become much greater. Crude as it is, brands recognise métiers d’art watches drive that response in the collector, sybarite and novelty-chaser alike, and so turn to them more and more.