Enamel Craft and Design

If you hadn’t heard about Scottish watchmaker AnOrdain before, you might have been introduced by their collaboration with The Armoury, offering a co-branded version of their Model 1, a 38mm time-only model with heat-blued hands and a striking, glassy dial. 

AnOrdain’s dials are made in Glasgow from vitreous enamel, using a process called Grand Feu: a slow, high-temperature fabrication that melts multiple layers of powdered minerals onto a metal base. The completed dial is smooth and almost organic in form, yet uniquely shaped during the layering and heating. The charm of the Model 1 is in the slightly imperfect enamel dial, which is part and parcel of being handmade, says Mark Cho, The Armoury’s co-founder.

AnOrdain x The Armoury enamel watch

AnOrdain x The Armoury

Defined simply, enamel is a smooth mineral coating applied to a metal base by heating it. Similar techniques can be used on glass or ceramics (where it’s usually called a glaze). The craft is somewhere between engraving and glass blowing. You work the surface by hand, like metalwork, but the sintering process creates a finish that’s irreversible and glossy. Enameling produces a rich depth of color (determined by the metal oxides present) and a hard, smooth, yet almost liquid surface.

But how did this ancient glassmaking technology reach contemporary watchmaking? To answer that we need to go back to the beginning.

A Brief History of Enamel

The basic technology is very old indeed. The earliest examples are from Europe and Western Asia, and involve precious metals; enameling was primarily a method of decorating jewelry until the eighteenth century, when enameled iron and steel were put to more practical uses.

We can’t be certain when enameling began, but gold rings with enameled decoration found in a Mycenean tomb in Cyprus have been dated to as early as the 13th century BCE. In Celtic England, enameled household items and weapons were made using both the champlevé technique (where the metal is carved with decorative designs and then enamel is worked into the recesses and polished) and the cloisonné technique (the opposite, where a metal surface is raised up with wire and then filled). The most impressive medieval example of decorative enamel might be the Byzantine altarpiece in the Basilica St. Marco in Venice, a vast design with 250 enamels on gold. 

San Marco Altar in Venice, Italy.

In the 13th century CE, Chinese enamelwork began to be produced, though the golden age of Chinese cloisonné was centuries later in the Kangxi period, when artisans created magnificent vases and dishes. Around the same time, a technique known as basse-taille was developed in Italy, using translucent enamel to cover without concealing a complicated, carved metal design. This technique was later applied to extremely fine guilloché (mechanically engraved) metal by Peter Carl Fabergé to create many of the jeweled eggs that bear his name. This method would later be taken up in luxury watchmaking.

Another technique was developed in the 16th century: painted enamel, of the sort championed in Limoges, France (previously famed for its own champlevé work). Painted enamel produced astonishingly detailed finishes, and was even used to make highly refined miniature portraits.

With industrialization came more commonplace uses. In the 18th century, enamel transfer printing was invented in England and used to create decorations and “toys” in a specialized factory in Battersea, London. Around the same time, German artisans began enameling iron, using the glassy surface not for decorative purposes but practical ones: making tough, corrosion-resistant cookware. This industrial application spread, as did the cookware itself. In the 20th century enameled plates and cups became popular in the home, for outdoor use such as camping, and in cafes, where tough, lightweight dishes and plates were economical as well as bright and attractive. 

The revival of enamel in jewelry and design in the 20th century is strongly associated with the art nouveau movement. The best-known example might be French designer René Lalique, who used enamel to create jewelry and luxury interiors. Other jewelers such as Cartier used enamel for brightly colored boxes, rings, and clocks. With its strong, synthetic colors and clean surfaces, enamel provided the decorative complexity of precious stones without their visual and literal weight. Notable designs also emerged from the company of David Anderson, a Norwegian goldsmith who created a legacy of bright, organic enamel designs.

Modern Enamel Design

Silver and enamel Cartier watch from the 1920s.

Today enamel is used both for cookware and jewelry. Much of the cookware has a nostalgic feel, recalling early 20th century aesthetics. British brand Falcon Enamelware still produces the same familiar designs it made in Birmingham in the 1920s: ice-white plates, cups, trays and bowls with a blue rim. They put their longevity down to the products’ durability, smoothness, and bright, lasting colors.

Enameled metal is also a lot harder to break than ceramic and can be placed directly on a stovetop. A more design-forward range comes from Danish designers HAY, who offer attractive speckled enamel bowls, trays and plates that are both nostalgic and playful.

HAY Enamel Bowl

Enamel still features in jewelry, from more sober settings, where it’s used in place of precious or semi-precious stones (such as these Deakin & Francis cufflinks in rose gold and black enamel) or in more lively ways, reminiscent of the art deco movement’s love of color (as in Roxanne Assoulin’s bright enamel bracelets).

But the most interesting use of enamel today for menswear enthusiasts is in watches. At the heart of it all is Donzé Cadran, a tiny Swiss enamel workshop founded in 1972 by Francis Donzé in Le Locle. Donzé specialized in restoring antique clocks and pocket watches, in the process refining the skill of making the dials themselves. His dials became highly prized by Swiss watchmakers, and in 2011, the family business was acquired by nearby watchmaker Ulysse Nardin. This expertise has translated into models such as the 2017 Classico “Grand Feu” with an enamel guilloché dial in deep blue, which was followed by 2018 models in opaque black and white enamel. 

Donzé Cadran still produces for other makers, from Lang & Heyne to Patek Philippe and Hermès, and enamelwork has flourished in luxury Swiss watchmaking, itself the inheritor of a centuries-old tradition of enamel jewelry-making. Near the pinnacle is Jaeger‑LeCoultre’s Master Ultra Thin Perpetual Enamel, with highly complicated guilloché work on the dial and subdials coated in shimmering mid-blue enamel.

At the more affordable end of the spectrum are enamel models such as those Seiko introduced into their mid-tier Presage line in 2017 for its 60th anniversary: a chronograph, a multi-hand complication, and two date-only models, each with a solid enamel dial and tall, lean Roman numerals, giving them a slight art deco feel (and perhaps a hint of grandfather clock). 2020 saw a sheaf of more contemporary models inspired by Riki Watanabe’s 1970s Steel Clock, the so-called “Riki enamel” models. Each has a pure color, glassy, teardrop edges and a clean, readable face.

JLC enamel watch

JLC enamel

Somewhere in the middle of the jeweled complexity of JLC and the quiet harmony of plain enamel faces such as AnOrdain’s and Seiko’s is a design like the Breguet Classic moonphase 7787: a smooth, almost-porcelain dial with an elaborate moonphase window. Personally, I prefer the subtle model 7141, whose second subdial sits below the surface, quietly sunken into the milky enamel. It’s Breguet’s nod to pocket watches and a tribute to enamel’s long history.

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Alexander Freeling

Alexander Freeling

Alex is a freelance writer and literature professor based in the UK. These pursuits turned out to share a theme: the history and practice of style. He is very slowly improving at DIY suit alterations.
Alexander Freeling

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