There are certain mistakes you never repeat. Sophie Quenaon, an enameller at Jaeger-LeCoultre, remembers hers only too well.
In the final stages of completing a miniature painting on the back of a Reverso watch – the house’s signature oblong-shaped model, with a plain metal caseback that can be flipped over to conceal the dial – she reached for what she thought was her loupe.
It turned out to be a pot of black enamel pigment, which spilt over her bench, ruining 80 hours of painstaking work.
"You do that once!" says Quenaon. Happily, she has the patience of if not a saint, then at least one of the monks who originally inhabited the Vallée de Joux, the serene region in the Swiss Jura mountains where Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture has stood since 1866.
From its beginnings, Jaeger-LeCoultre employed 500 watchmakers, earning itself the nickname ‘la grande maison’. It’s a moniker that still applies today. The six-acre headquarters accommodates 1,200 employees, who practise over 180 different skills. Its white walls vibrate with silent, fervent activity, as together they create every part of every watch.
In one of the newest wings is the ‘métiers rares’ (rare crafts) atelier, where Quenaon and two other enamellers sit within a team that also comprises five engravers, eight gem-setters and a single woman who uses a restored, 100-year-old guilloché machine to create rhythmic, repetitive patterns on dials. Together, they decorate between 100 and 150 watches per year, using tools and time-intensive techniques that date back centuries.
At the centre of the workshop, the view from the artisans’ microscopes is projected at 40x magnification on top of a table, allowing visitors to watch each minute stroke, tap and drill. This is the artistic end of watchmaking, and no one can be considered more of an artist than Quenaon, who reproduces historical paintings on a canvas no larger than a domino.
Invented thousands of years ago, ‘grand feu’ enamelling became commonplace in watchmaking during the 17th century. Glass and coloured metal oxides are crushed into a fine powder, which is painted on to a surface with a brush sometimes comprising a single hair, before being fired in a kiln at 800°C.
Each colour must be set individually, meaning one piece can be fired more than 20 times, repeatedly risking ruin if it is cooked for too long, or at too high a temperature. More modern, less risky enamelling techniques do exist, but only the grand feu process produces the intensity and longevity of colour required to match the exquisite watches in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s archive.
Created in 1931, the Reverso’s caseback was the ideal canvas on which to experiment with miniature paintings. Archive models show portraits of long-forgotten lovers, their colours still as vibrant 80 years on. But the practice gradually dwindled, and the manufacture hadn’t produced any new enamelled Reversos until the early 1990s, when Miklos Merczel, a watchmaker and painter, convinced the directors to reintroduce a specialist enamelling department.
"I always went to see Miklos’ work because it was so beautiful," says Quenaon, a petite, pixie-haired woman, who originally trained as an optician in her native France before seeking out a more creative career and joining Jaeger-LeCoultre as an engraver in 1995. "The enamel became so popular that Miklos needed an apprentice. This skill isn’t taught at the école [the Vallée de Joux’s watchmaking school], so I volunteered myself."
It was a steep learning curve. "The most important thing Miklos taught me was to be rigorous, not only with my brushstrokes but also with the temperature of the oven, the time the piece cooks for and having clean tools."
Pink gold, mother-of-pearl and aventurine Hybris Artistica mystérieuse; jaeger-lecoultre.com
Nowadays Quenaon works not just on the Reversos – whether completing a bespoke commission or recreating fine art by the likes of Gustav Klimt, Ferdinand Hodler and Katsushika Hokusai – but also on exceptional timepieces such as the Hybris Artistica range. When she started working with Merczel, they would choose their own subjects; nowadays the concepts are dreamt up in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s design department, following consultation with the atelier on what’s possible.
While her repertoire has expanded, miniature paintings remain Quenaon’s favourite as well as her greatest challenge. "If you don’t include all of the details that are in the original painting, it won’t work," she says. She spends hours studying not just the work that is to be copied, but the artist’s entire oeuvre. "You can’t do a Botticelli in the same way as a Van Gogh. You have to understand their process in order to achieve the same effect."
Most infuriatingly, Quenaon never knows how it will turn out until she has finished, as the colours change during the firing process. "You have to be patient. You can’t tell whether or not you’ve done a good job until the very end. You might have to start all over again!"
Nevertheless, after 23 years Quenaon still describes her work as a "dream". "I count myself so lucky to have a job where I can paint all day. And I’m constantly improving. I want to make each dial even better than the last – it’s never perfect but I’m always trying to get closer."
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