A Miniature Canvas

At Jaeger-LeCoultre, a watch originally designed for polo has become an artisan’s preferred canvas.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Van Gogh Reverso à Eclipse
Jaeger-LeCoultre Van Gogh Reverso à Eclipse

Fine watchmaking is unusual in its ability to combine disparate skills and crafts. In addition to the watchmaker we all think of hunched over his bench, loop in eye and tools in hand, innumerable craftsmen contribute their own threads to the rich tapestry of quality timepieces. In Switzerland, this collaborative process of highly specialized skills is referred to as the tradition of établissage. One craft with particularly deep historical roots in haute horlogerie is miniature enamel work, prized for its invariability and visual richness.

The best practitioners of the craft can render a beautiful, highly detailed image on a canvas about the size of a quarter. It’s not only spatial demands that complicate working in this highly specialized medium. The scorching furnaces that lock in color and stability for the resulting image also contribute to a very high rate of cracked, bubbled, or otherwise imperfect examples that must be discarded and started again from scratch. Patience is perhaps the most essential quality for the master enameler.

At Jaeger-LeCoultre, a technically diverse watch company known to collectors by the apt sobriquet “the Grande Maison,” the hand-painted enamel watch dial is just one in an exhaustive list of metiers practiced in-house. Jaeger-LeCoultre is also one of a few watch companies in the world where the trade is plied in-house.Jaeger LeCoultre Self Portrait Vincent van Gogh

The accomplished artisan behind the enamel-adorned Reversos is Miklos Merczel, a craftsman with decades of experience at the esteemed manufacture. Merczel personally founded the enamel workshop at Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1996. Before that, he worked at the manufacture as a watchmaker. Over a period of four years, through trial and error, Miklos developed his own process for decorating the cases and dials of the Reverso and a handful of other Jaeger-LeCoultre models.

Merczel’s method for enameling is a multi-step process that begins by baking the enamel straight onto the watch’s case or onto its dial. Next, he hand-paints the desired artwork straight onto the enamel. Finally, a transparent protective layer is applied over the image. A final trip to the oven locks in the image and protects it from external damage.

Enameling at Jaeger-LeCoultre
Enameling at Jaeger-LeCoultre

“During the first trials, many times I would get cracks on top of the miniature after heating it,” says Merczel. “It took me four years to master the process before I was ready to start an enameling shop.”

The Reverso à Eclipse seen here is in fact a three-faced watch. There is the enamel dial, decorated with a reproduction of a Van Gogh self-portrait. There is the platinum upper dial, which can be extended and retracted to cover and uncover the painting. And finally, because this is a Reverso, the whole case can be swiveled to reveal the caseback, long the signature of the timepiece. This part of the watch is a canvas ripe for another form of horological decoration: miniature engraving. – Jonathan Bues

Jaeger LeCoultre Self Portrait Vincent van Gogh