Wristwatches featuring delicate marquetry faces

AN incredible amount of work goes into one of Patek Philippe’s handcrafted watches, those which are elaborately decorated with enamel, etching, and marquetry.

Sandrine Stern, Head of Creations of Patek Philippe, gave members of the Philippine press an idea of what goes into these watches during an interview at the opening of the Watch Art Grand Exhibition at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

For each of the special exhibits — the Singapore version in the fifth and the largest so far — she does considerable research.

“I am involved for two years now to achieve all these beautiful watches and to find the right subject for the right country; to research on the culture, on the fabrics, on historical parts,” she said of the special watches. “It was very interesting because as soon as you start to do some research, you start to be interested by the country also. And you want to learn and you want to understand. It’s a nice way — you do not only have the creative part as when you do some watches for the Basel fair or like that, but when you do something for a specific country, you have to be interested in it. If you are not, you will be wrong in terms of choice,” she explained.

Making that choice is just the first step.

“Sometimes,” she said, “the design comes very quickly and sometimes, it takes time because you have to adapt the design with the technique.”

There are many decisions to be made when making a watch: first, the subject. Then the actual design, and then the drawing has to be adapted depending on the chosen technique to be used — marquetry (the art and craft of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures) or enamel, sometimes cloisonné style. That requires discussion with the actual artist who will make the piece. “It’s teamwork,” she said. “The designer will not do the drawing on the side and the artist on the other side. It’s really teamwork together and [the artist] saying this kind of thing, we can do it, maybe I [as the designer] have to change this and this.”

She used the example of making a watch face design using marquetry.

“First of all, you have to be sure that you have the design but then he (the artist) has to take all the little pieces for the face, for the flower, and then choose the wood. Sometimes, some part of the design has to be bigger or smaller depending on the wood you will use. It’s a lot of work… Once again, it won’t be fair to talk only about the time it will take to do the marquetry because all the design [takes time also]. Then the marquetry and then, you know, to assemble the watch, to everything.

“We talk always about three months if you really need to have something.”

And she took pains to point out that unlike in other companies, their artists do not work assembly-line style, rather one artist is in charge of one watch face from beginning to end.

“The customer wants to buy unique watches also so we do not want to do it ‘you do this part and you do this part’ on the same watch,” she said. “The person who will start enamel, for example, on one dial will start from the beginning until the end. Always. But, other brands, you can find he will put the green, [then] he will put the red, and [then] he will put…,” pointing around as if at different workmen. “We are not working like that. And I will never work like that. Never.”

Gesturing around the exhibit she noted that, “All the watches you see, they are unique. But for the wristwatch, we have small series between five and 10 maximum. All the watches that you see here are not prototypes. The ones you see, the customer will purchase.”

The company has just 10 artists in the fine handcrafts section, so those who are at the Singapore exhibit are working on actual projects — the tiger watchface that the enameler is working on, for example, will end up on one of Patek Philippe’s watches.

And craftsmen are increasingly rare these days, she noted, pointing out that there are just two schools in Geneva where the enamelers can train and one in Paris for engravers. But even then, just because one finishes in these schools does not mean that they have the skills needed to work in Patek Philippe.

“It’s not good to have someone who will teach you everything from the beginning until the end. This work is not working like that. You have to do your own experiences, your own research, your own frustration. It’s true. This kind of work cannot be learned in three or four years. It’s a lifetime,” she pointed out.

Asked if there are still young people in Geneva who want to be craftsmen, she said there are, but pointed out that “There’s a huge difference between ‘I would like to be’ and ‘to be.’ It’s a long experience and the experience will talk if they will be able to do it or not. But, yes, we have a lot of demand but sometimes they do not understand how will be the work. This is the only point.”

She demures when asked if she has a favorite watch, explaining that she feels it is unfair to her artists to choose one.

“I cannot answer and I will tell you why. All the artists who work on the watches here, they give the best of them. Telling I prefer this one or this one won’t be fair for the other one. I prefer to say I love all of them. It’s true. When you know how many months they work on it, it’s difficult to say I prefer one. Even if it seems to be easier at first look, maybe it was the last part of the old pocket watch so that’s a huge responsibility because many works was done before. So, I cannot say that I prefer this or this.”

The Watch Art Grand Exhibition: Discovering the World of Patek Philippe is ongoing until Oct. 13 at the Sands Theater, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. — A.A. Herrera