We’re incredibly proud to have partnered during the past two years with Craig and Rebecca Struthers, the married couple behind Birmingham-based Struthers Watchmakers, to create the dial for their landmark new watch, the 248.
Why is it a landmark? Well, the 248 is a watch that was designed and made (including its movement) entirely by hand, by two watchmakers working exclusively on antique machinery: the numbers ‘248’ stand for 2 watchmakers, 4 hands and the 8mm lathe they began the project with. It is a completely artisanal watch, which took Craig and Rebecca six years to create – and it is, of course, exquisite, with a design and construction deeply informed by their immersion in antiquarian horology. For British watchmaking, and for lovers of beautiful watches and handcraft in general, the 248 – made in five versions, each for private collectors – really is a landmark.
And it’s a landmark for anOrdain too, because it enabled us to dive into a technique that was new to us, but which is an old tradition within the realm of enamelling: the art of champlevé. It’s a technique where, instead of simply layering the enamel on top of the dial blank, you insert it into spaces hollowed out from the dial’s surface – in the finished result, you can see both enamel and metal elements. Getting this right took almost three years of experimentation and research, most of it carried out by our enameller Sally Morrison.
The original impulse actually had nothing to do with the Struthers and their wonderful 248. In all the anOrdain watches we’ve made to date, the numerals and dial markings are printed on top of the enamel surface; but back in 2019, Lewis began putting forward the idea for a watch with metal hour markers that were sunk into the enamel itself, protruding slightly from its surface – a very different, more dressy look.
This, our enamelling team explained to him, could be done through the established technique of champlevé; they just had to learn how to do it. Research and experiments began, much of it during the 2020 lockdowns; we figured out a lot, and also got stuck in a few dead ends. But we’d decided to shelve the project to concentrate on our core watches until we discovered, via Instagram, that the Struthers were working on a very similar concept. We got in touch in September 2020, and the idea of a collaboration formed – now we had a real reason to press on.
In high-end Swiss watches, champlevé is often found in complex patterns and images on the dial, in which enamel colours fill cells that have been carved from the dial’s surface – the cell walls act as clear outlines delineating the pattern. You may have seen this in ultra-rare watches from brands like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-leCoultre. (An alternative technique is cloisonné, in which the cells are formed from metal ribbon that is applied to the surface of the dial, rather than hollowed out within it.)
In the 248 dial, instead of forming multiple separate cells, the raised areas of the dial are the elegantly ornate numerals themselves (designed by horological typeface specialist Lee Yuen-Rapati), along with an outer circle of 60 dots for the minutes. These needed to lie flush with the enamel surface.
The numerals and dots require far greater precision and uniformity than the kind of hand-carving you might find in a Patek champleve pattern. That meant developing a process for machine-engraving the blank. This process leaves the markings as raised features on the surface of the silver, around which the enamel can then be layered.
That’s no simple job, since champlevé enamelling brings with it its own set of complications. The intricate details and serifs of the numerals, not to mention the spaces around and between the tiny seconds dots, create numerous zones where the enamel (being applied, as always, in multiple layers and firings) is in extremely slender sections – previously, we’d only had to apply it across the whole surface of a dial.
The more enamel you apply in these areas, the more tension creeps into the material as it is fired, since both the enamel and the metal areas within it are being heated up. Metal and glass expand at different rates in heat, pushing and pulling on each other. All of this can cause tiny cracks to develop or the blank to warp. We used up scores of dial blanks trying to get this right.
It isn’t helped by the height tolerances involved: since the final surface needs to be flush with the top of the raised parts of the dial, there’s less than a millimetre of height in which to build up a rich, uniform layer of enamel. It’s actually applied with a few degrees of extra height, before being polished, a process that gently (very gently) grinds down the top stratum of the enamel to leave a completely even, impeccable surface.
We didn’t really set out to make a champlevé dial for the sake of it; both we and the Struthers had a design in mind that happened to require it, so we found out how to do it. We reckon we went through over a hundred dial blanks during what’s been one of our longest projects – Sally has spent around a year of her working time on this. And all for the sake of five watch dials!
But the finished result, with those elegant metallic numerals apparently swimming in a pool of limpid, flawless enamel, is mesmerising, and quite different to anything we’ve done previously for anOrdain. And of course, it’s something we’ll be able to return to in the future. Watch this space.