I’ve been told that it’s considered pretty gauche to cite oneself as a quotable authority, so I won’t tell you who it was who said, “If watchmaking seems akin to the magical arts in the eyes of the uninitiated, then enamelling — with its coloured vials and fiery kilns — owes much to the grave and beautiful science of alchemy.” The provenance of pithy horological observations aside, that statement is as true now as when it was first printed in these pages more than three years ago.
Vitreous enamel, which is what we mostly refer to when discussing decorative enamel in watches, is an enormously historical and sophisticated craft that involves the application of minutely ground-down bits of glass and pigment onto a substrate (usually gold) that can withstand extremely high temperatures. The object is then carefully positioned inside a blazing oven in order to liquefy the glass powder and fix the pigment within its amorphous depths. Treated this way, the aesthetic power of a vividly coloured enamel dial will remain undiluted for millennia — it’s very possible that an enamel artefact might retain its looks for an eternity, but no one has stuck around long enough to find out.
Of course, there’s a downside to this immortal beauty — there always is — and the hideous portrait in the attic to the everlasting brilliance of enamel is painted in brushstrokes of intense labour and painful fragility. For every enamel-dialled timepiece you see in a glittering shop window, resplendent in a gorgeous hue or armoured pellucid white, there are countless buckled, cracked, discoloured or uneven dials that had to be discarded, even under the hands of a professional enameller. This is why some enamel timepieces cost more than the total black-market value of all your donor organs.