Of all the fine crafts displayed across today’s métiers d’art watch dials, marquetry – inlaid decorations made from small pieces of material – is one of the most widely used, yet least known. Seen from a distance, its tiny details can be confused with enamelling or miniature painting, the premier practitioners of which are watch-world stars.
To create a seamless design takes considerable skill – cutting the minuscule pieces of a pictorial jigsaw and inlaying each one meticulously into the micro-dimensions of a watch face. Unlike gold-engraving or gem-setting, marquetry was originally worked in humble materials, including wood, straw or feathers, that Swiss farmers – the early watchmakers – had readily to hand.
These materials are still used and much prized now. Perishable substances including eggshell and rose petals have also been turned into miniature artworks, preserved in gold and sapphire crystal. Artist Rose Saneuil, who works with wood, straw, leather and even beetle wing, has created the first marquetry dial of a brilliantly coloured quetzal bird of paradise for new made-to-order brand XRby. The exceedingly rare art of wood micro-marquetry can be seen on Patek Philippe’s Alpine-scene watches, which feature hundreds of individual wood slices. Cartier has a farmhouse studio in the mountain meadows of the Jura, where artists can experiment with new versions of these old crafts.
There are contemporary echoes of these materials in fine pieces such as the elegant and fluid-lined Hermès Slim d’Hermès Pégase Paysage (‘horse landscape’ in wood) and Piaget’s subtly Op art Altiplano, a clever mix of wood and leather with a diamond bezel. Dior’s Grand Bal Plume series, meanwhile, inlays 25 tiny pieces of feather onto the dial-side rotor to suggest a swirling couture gown – the latest iteration is embellished with miniature, gold-set diamond drops.
Modern marquetry is made precious with materials more often associated with jewellery. Mother-of-pearl is enjoying a moment and its inventive use is seen on Bulgari’s Lucea sunray-effect dial in lustrous pale grey – the hand-cut pieces faceted to create the texture (and, starting from under £5,000 in stainless steel, it’s a great marquetry opener).
The mother-of-pearl petals are cut so finely on Chopard’s L’Heure du Diamant that they look translucent, inlaid on one side and overlapped on the other, creating a delicate texture in a bezel of large diamonds – also a feature of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Dazzling Rendez-Vous Moon – each numeral artfully set on its own inlaid mother-of-pearl slice.
Jewellery houses mix their full range of crafts to create the most spectacular marquetry dials. Diamond specialist Graff inlays specially cut, geometric diamonds in a mosaic of gold for the modern GyroGraff Endangered Species, each model depicting a different animal. Harry Winston turns to the ancient Italian craft of micro-mosaic, using nano-tubes of fired and polished coloured glass to create the dial of its Impressionistic Premier Precious Peacock.
A similar, but more geometric process creates the Cartier Ronde de Cartier Regard du Panthère, composed of tiny, hand-cut mother-of-pearl tesserae, some natural and glowing with light, some painted so subtly that they seem natural.
Equally striking yet very different is Van Cleef & Arpels’ brand new Lady Danse. This contemporary take on its famous ballerinas has a ponytailed dancer of sculpted gold wearing a pavé ruby dress, with hand-enamelled lining and shoes, high-kicking her way across a background of turquoise, chrysoprase and mother-of-pearl slivers, each cut higher and wider at one end to give perspective and movement. If métiers d’art dials exist to bring uplifting wonder to their owners, then the Lady Danse is a supreme example.