Meet the Maker: Martin Koval

Nov 2, 2022

Over the past couple of years, the team here in Glasgow has expanded a lot: we’re now up to 17 people in the studio, every one of them bringing something different and valuable to anOrdain. But perhaps no-one’s route here was more unlikely, or more unexpected, than that of Martin Koval, who joined our enamelling team in May. At the start of the year, he had no plans to be making watches: he was expecting to keep building up the jewellery and enamelling practice he’d established in a village near Kyiv, in Ukraine. By March, he and his family were refugees – first in Poland, then in Spain. By late May, after a flurry of visa applications, they were here in Glasgow, and Martin was turning his enamelling skills to making watch dials at anOrdain.

Martin comes from a tradition of craft and enamelling that’s very different to anything we were used to at anOrdain. It’s an incredibly rich tradition that we hope, one day, he’ll be able to continue. So today, we wanted to tell you his story.

In watches, we think of the art of vitreous (or grand feu) enamel in a very specific way, but really this is one small part of an artform stretching back millennia, and across continents. In Eastern Europe and Russia, there’s a rich tradition of decorative enamelling that takes in folk art, ornamental objects, religious iconography and jewellery (think of the work of Carl Fabergé, for instance, or of elaborate Russian Orthodox icons).

A Nautilus Cup, a diploamtic gift, made in silver cloisonné enamel by Martin’s father.

It's in this milieu that Martin was plying his trade. Born in Kyiv, he learned the art of jewellery making and enamelling from his father, a professional jeweller. After an early career in accountancy, he packed in corporate life to go it alone as a maker, bringing diverse influences to the traditional art he’d grown up with. Besides jewellery and decorative objects, he developed a specialism fashioning ornately embellished and bejewelled frames and settings for antique religious icons.

“I’d be making everything myself from start to finish – silverwork, enamel, finishing. One piece could take three or four months,” he says. “I like experimenting with different styles. Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Russian enamels, Ukranian enamels, Byzantine art – it’s about mixing these up to make something new.”

The clientele for these prestigious collector items came from among the business and political elites in Ukraine and Russia – he’d visit Moscow several times a year to meet clients. He even got to know Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yuschenko, at antiquities markets in Kyiv where he’d hunt out old icons to work with; Yuschenko, a fan of antiques and Ukrainian art, ended up commissioning him.

Mother of God, enamel icon miniature and Maelstrom, enameled knife handle by Martin Koval

“Before the war, Ukraine was starting to grow up, the economy was getting good, and I had a lot of plans,” Martin says. Tragedy had struck late in 2021, when his father passed away during the Covid pandemic. But Martin, who worked from the home he shared with his wife and three children, was expecting to now take on his father’s workshop – a cornucopia of tools, materials and enamels, built up over decades.

Martin's workshop in Kyiv, Ukraine

With the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, all that was about to be lost. “After 10 days, the Russian military was 40km from us and getting closer. We decided to go,” Martin says. “First we went to relatives in the west of Ukraine; then to more relatives in Poland, and with help from people there we went to Spain.”

The family stayed in Madrid for three months as Martin sent out letters to anyone he could think of who could make gainful use of his skills. “I’d never thought about watchmaking; I’d never been interested in it. But I found information about anOrdain on the internet, and saw they used enamel dials, so I wrote to them. After three days Lewis wrote back, and said they were interested.”

At the time, anOrdain was not looking for a new enameller; rather, with order books growing, the team in place was focused on developing an efficient, smooth-running operation. “It wasn’t in the plan, but we discussed it with the whole team, and everyone was really keen,” says Lewis Heath, anOrdain’s founder. “The plan was to get Martin over for an initial visit to see if it was a good idea; but it became clear if we did that, he might not be able to go back. So the whole family just came.”

A flat was found in Glasgow; Martin’s children (Leyla, 9; Louisa, 6; and Phillip, 3) were registered for a local school; and, in late May, the studio gained its newest enameller. “The first time Martin came in, the language divide was obviously a big thing,” says Lewis. “But then around enamel, there was suddenly this common understanding – it’s goes beyond language. That was wonderful to see.”

A box of Martin's enamel colours and samples

For Martin, as you’d expect, there’s been a learning curve: while the principles are the same, enamelling a watch dial is a different proposition to the decorative formats he was used to.

“I’m still learning. My own work was on a much larger scale, to be displayed, whereas a watch lives on your hand and you look at it all the time, so it has to be perfect. It’s more difficult than I’d have thought, but I’m practicing and practicing.”

And, of course, the anOrdain team are learning from Martin: about Eastern European art, about decorative enamel and about techniques and traditions to investigate and experiment with. When the team recently went on a visit to Limoges in France, recognised globally as the home of the enamelling arts, Martin’s contacts within the international craft community were invaluable. We’re incredibly happy to have him here with us in Glasgow, bringing his own skills, experiences and knowledge to anOrdain.

“AnOrdain is a company that’s growing up fast, so it’s a very interesting place to work,” says Martin. “What will happen in the future? I don’t know. But for me, for my family, it’s good to be here, to learn English and to be secure. I’m continuing to work on my own projects when I have the time, though with three kids that’s not easy. But I’m making sure I don’t forget what I know, and I’m adding to my knowledge too.”