E namel dial watches are masterworks of stunning beauty. The time-honoured art of miniature enamelling is difficult to master and requires a painstaking layered process of painting and re-firing. The technique known as polychrome enamel is the process with which the artist applies the material directly onto a surface. The result is an exquisite and intricate painting of rich colour and lustrous sheen, which elevates timekeeping to a veritable work of art. Despite the artistry and meticulous execution of their craft, the creators of these miniature paintings are, with rare exception, anonymous. We look at two highly important pocket watches from an important collection to appreciate and celebrate these unsung artists.
Marthe Bischoff: Patek Philippe Hunter Case Pocket Watch
Among the greatest enamellers of the past century was Marthe Bischoff, whose rare works for Patek Philippe are so revered that they are on permanent display at the firm’s prestigious museum in Geneva. Important examples of Bischoff’s works include a double-sided miniature enamel pocket watch commissioned by Patek Philippe. She is known for her a versatile style that draws from Old Masters and a whole range of 19th Century Paintings. For example, the inspiration for Bischoff's painted panels that depict a hunting party in the countryside came from a famous 1824 painting by Antoine Charles Horace Vernet, Chasse Pres de Fontainebleau, now at the Musee de la Chasse in France. Bischoff started the enamelling for the cover in 1969 and finished on 10 June 1970. It wasn’t until five years later that she completed the second painting on the reverse side of the case. The scene is titled “Le débucher” which is a hunting term referring to driving game out of thick cover. The watch was then sold by the famous Swiss retailer Gubelin for the staggering sum of 36,000 Swiss francs in 1976.
The hunter case watch is exceptional in many ways and is one of only three known double-sided miniature enamels made by Patek Philippe. The one currently in the Patek Philippe museum was painted by Nelly Richard, and the only other known example, painted by Suzanne Rohr, sleeps with an important collector in Europe. The hunter-case timepiece showcases Bischoff’s rare talents. It is a beautiful work of distinctive design, vibrant colours and meticulous detailing.
Helen May Mercier: Vacheron Constantin Lake Geneva Open Face Watch
Helen May Mercier was another accomplished enamellist who studied and worked closely with Charles Poluzzi, the celebrated artist responsible for some of the most beautiful decorated polychrome and cloisonné enamel dials for Vacheron Constantin as well as Rolex, Patek Philippe and Universal. The Vacheron Constantin open face pocket watch, made in 1948, is an exceptional work by Mercier that portrays Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc in all its glory. Inspired by her home city of Geneva, she rendered the sense of an idyllic countryside and majestic alpine vistas, down to the fishermen on the shore and a row boat in the distance. The wonderfully painted polychrome miniature enamel has been executed with painstaking care. The details are sensitively observed and faithfully recreated to perfection, bringing to life one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
The exquisite open face watch is perhaps one of Vacheron Constantin’s most important miniature enamels. The watchmaker seldom created such masterpieces because of the exceedingly difficult and expensive enamelling process. Despite Mercier skills and talent, very few works have been credited to her, making this beautiful watch a very rare and highly sought-after marvel.
Words can hardly express the wonder of experiencing these exquisite enamel masterpieces firsthand, representing the utmost in creativity, vision, and painstaking effort. Both works are from one of the world’s leading collectors, purchased on the market individually almost a decade ago; the two pocket watches were each consigned to auction at the time by the families of the original owners.