With the Swiss watch industry’s recent obsession with traditional metiers d’art, artistic techniques such as enamel, engraving, guillochage and skeletonisation are going through a renaissance. This has led to the rediscovery of other art forms that span from obscure decorative methods such as scrimshaw to ancient crafts like granulation (which first appeared in 2500BC) and lacquer work (used since 5000BC).
In 2015, both the SIHH and Baselworld watch fairs offered an exciting selection of artistically decorated watches. One of the most memorable examples is Blancpain’s Villeret Cadran Shakudō Ganesh, with a dial made in shakudō, a special alloy with a unique patina that is traditionally used in Japan to embellish katana (longsword) fittings.
The partnership between Swiss mechanics and Japanese art is a natural one that stems from a common alignment in values and beliefs. Like the Swiss, the Japanese hold on to the same fastidious attitudes towards quality and craftsmanship. They are also known for perpetuating tradition and heritage. While Japan may be commercially known for its delicate cuisine, quirky sartorial inclinations and penchant for orderliness, it is perhaps its lesser communicated speciality in handicraft that is truly worth mentioning. Here are three traditional Japanese crafts that have elevated the dial into an exquisite artistic canvas.
Strictly speaking, shakudō isn’t a craft technique. Instead, it is a metal alloy principally composed of copper and about four to 10 percent gold. Before Blancpain showcased it in its Villeret Cadran Shakudō pieces in early 2015, the craft element was rarely seen in the watchmaking world. Historically used in Japan to construct or embellish katana fittings (such as the tsuba, a sword’s hand guard which separates the hilt and the blade and menuki, ornamental designs that are found on the hilt), the alloy presents a dark patina that ranges between blue and black, depending on the variation in its composition and texture. Now, this is where the decorative technique involving shakudō comes into play: The material’s distinctive patina is achieved through a process called passivation, where a solution (known as rokushō) composed of copper acetate is applied to it. With added applications, the patina takes on a deeper and richer hue.
Most notably, the dark patina serves as a visual contrast against the other elements on the watch’s face and adds depth and realism to the images etched on it. This then ensures that the fine and intricate details of the engraving are not lost within the dial’s landscape. In this new collection by Blancpain, shakudō and gold are used as inlays for the watch’s damascened dial (a craft technique of Chinese origin that involves the hand-chiselling of troughs on the piece’s surface before hammering in rolls of gold or silver into these troughs and polishing it flat). They are available in four unique pieces, each presenting a different motif on its face: The Hindu god Ganesh; the rare and elusive Coelacanth (a deep-sea fish); a gryphon (the legendary eagle-lion hybrid creature); and a bonsai.
Lacquering is one of a few Japanese traditional arts that has found its way onto watch dials. Although it was the Chinese who first developed lacquering, the Japanese later adopted this craft and gave it their own spin, becoming their own masters of the craft.
Maki-e is an urushi — the Japanese art of lacquering — technique that involves the application of metal powders (usually gold) onto the lacquer to create different colours and textures. Developed during the Heian Period (794-1185), maki-e grew in prominence during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and was initially used to beautify household items for court nobles. The elaborate designs soon garnered the attention of royal families and military leaders, who viewed it as an indication of power and embraced it for themselves as well.
As maki-e literally translates to “sprinkled picture”, the powders are transferred onto the still-wet lacquer using a makizutsu (a sprinkling canister), a kebo (paintbrush) or bamboo tubes. The lacquer used in this art form is made from the sap of the urushi tree, which is mainly found in Japan and China. Through a process similar to rubber-tapping, resin is harvested from these trees once a year in small quantities and kept for three to five years before it undergoes treatment to achieve a honey-like texture and consistency.
One of the most emblematic creations featuring urushi is by Chopard. Nine unique models featuring maki-e dials were created and presented exclusively in Japan under the supervision of respected Japanese artist Kiichiro Masumura. Christened the LUC XP Urushi collection, the watch dials were decorated solely by Minori Koizumi, a world-renowned urushi and maki-e master. Gold dust procured from the Yamada Heiando Company (the official appointed supplier of lacquerware to the imperial family of Japan) is applied to the lacquered watch dials using bamboo tubes and small paintbrushes made from rat’s hair for the tracing of extremely fine lines. While one of the timepieces portrays the universe on its face, five others depict the basic elements of the universe according to the Chinese natural science philosophy (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) in the form of legendary creatures including a dragon and a phoenix, while the remaining three feature a peacock, a red fish and a jungle scene. More recently, the watchmaker also released the LUC XP Urushi “Year of the Monkey” in line with the Chinese zodiac animal associated with the year 2016.
French Maison Chanel also adopted the maki-e decorative method in its 2014 Mademoiselle Privé Camélia Maki-e Dial, which showcases a dial painted with black urushi resin. To create volume for the petals of the flowers in the design, several layers of lacquer is applied — a time-consuming process as each layer requires a day to dry and has to be slightly burnished before the next one can be painted on. Finally, the yellow gold paillons are sprinkled on to complete the picture. The watch is also made in a variant that also features quail eggshells and mother-of-pearl paillons on the lacquered dial.
Other examples of fine watchmaking brands making use of the maki-e technique in dial decorations include the Midnight Extraordinary Japanese Lacquer pieces (2010) by Van Cleef & Arpels and the La Symbolique des Laques (2010) collection by Vacheron Constantin.
First produced around 1640, aka-e roughly translates to “red picture” and is a type of ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock print and painting that flourished in Japan from the 17th to 19th century) that is printed entirely or predominantly in red. Though the traditional Japanese art form was largely popular throughout the 19th century, one would be hard pressed to find an artisan who still wields this technique today. One such rare practitioner is Buzan Fukushima, who hails from the Ishikawa Prefecture located in the Chūbu region of Japan. Hermès approached him when it sought to combine exquisite French porcelain (forged in the ateliers of Sèvres, a commune in the southwestern suburbs of Paris) with the historical art of aka-e, in its Slim d’Hermès timepiece in 2015.
In this watch, Fukushima revisits an age-old Japanese horse-racing ritual that has been performed annually at the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto since the year 1093: Koma Kurabe. Originally held in the imperial court, the race is part of the Aoi Matsuri Festival (one of Japan’s largest and most ancient celebrations), which is said to bring the nation peace and prosperity. The master artisan recreates a scene from this renowned ceremony on a delicate porcelain dial in subtle shades of red and ochre, before finely outlining certain parts of it in gold. After which, the painted porcelain dial is subjected to three rounds of firing to seal the landscape picture in place. The intricate timepiece is produced in a limited series of 12 only.
The same technique is also used on a second variant that features a paddy field scene on the dial. Named the La Femme aux Semelles de Vent (which translates to “the woman with soles of wind”), the motif on this other piece was first presented in an Hermès scarf dating back to 2009 to honour French-Belgian explorer and writer Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), best known for his extensive travels to Asia. It is also available in 12 exclusive units only.