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Engraving: an endangered art?

Engraving: an endangered art?

Monday, 21 December 2009
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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6 min read

Manufactures are giving unprecedented emphasis to the applied arts, yet at the same time engraving is under threat from modern machining techniques. A review of the situation with CIFOM, the only school in Switzerland to teach this art.

Life, so it seems, is one long honeymoon for Fine Watchmaking and the applied arts. Stone-setters, enamellers and engravers play an all-important role, as every self-respecting manufacture likes to remind us. Only they have the ability to personalise, adorn and bestow an almost exclusive appearance on watches of indubitably industrial (read “machined”) origin. Jaeger-LeCoultre provides one example among many: “There is something sacred in every Jaeger-LeCoultre timepiece: a passion for detail. The love that guides each craftsman throughout the watch’s creation and which continues to the final embellishment.”

"The applied arts are a cornerstone of our heritage"

Speaking at a study day organised by the Société Suisse de Chronométrie (SSC) on the theme “Watchmaking and its Artists,” Estelle Fallet, curator at the Musée de l’Horlogerie et de l’Émaillerie in Geneva, insisted on the vital importance of the craftsman’s hand in the watchmaking segment. “The applied arts are one of the cornerstones of our cultural heritage. They are heir to a multitude of expertises that have been developed and painstakingly transmitted throughout the centuries. Their history is a nurturing source of inspiration which enables them to embrace contemporary artistic currents. They add to a heritage which they also safeguard, through restoration work. Synonymous with perfection, these arts are a combination of gestures drawn from tradition and new technologies that are a prolongation of the human hand. They transform an ordinary object into a masterpiece. Materials are ennobled at their touch. A watch, worn as a symbol of prestige, is a work of art that requires the contribution of savoir-faire in multiple domains.”

It is equally essential that our training centres and schools perpetuate this expertise.
Zian Kighelman

“So many professions perpetuate this striving for perfection in every detail: the engraver, jeweller, enameller, dial-maker, engine-turner, case-maker, stone-setter, chamferer and designer, to name but some,” said Zian Kighelman, revolving president of the SSC, in his introduction. “We are fortunate in that our country is home to these centuries-old professions. And yet despite an increasingly marked interest, finding the craftsmen who master these arts can be an arduous task. We must learn anew the all too numerous knowledge and skills which have been lost over time. Hence we must take care to keep these professions alive, and ensure that they evolve alongside today’s industrial contexts. It is equally essential that our training centres and schools perpetuate this expertise.”

Two sides to the coin

This message has been received loud and clear by the Centre Interrégional de Formation des Montagnes Neuchâteloise (CIFOM), the only school in Switzerland to teach engraving through its faculty of arts, the École d’Arts Appliqués (EAA) in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The undeniable popularity of the course owes much to the boom in the watch segment over recent years, with each class making its full intake of three to four students. However, the slowdown that hit the sector in autumn 2008 has put the squeeze on employment opportunities. Last year, the EAA still received seven or eight firm job offers for newly-qualified engravers. This year, it has had none. “Business did slacken off somewhat towards the middle of the year, but the past two months have seen a return to normal,” confides Dolorès Schwab, a freelance engraver whose clients include Golay Spierer, a specialist in made-to-measure watches. “The question is, what kind of support are manufactures willing to offer freelance artisans?”

Should we be talking about "hand-made" or "hand-finished"?
Jean-Bernard Michel

Jean-Bernard Michel admits to having the same thoughts on his mind. Another freelance engraver, he also teaches at the EAA. “It’s ironic to say the least,” he comments. “The applied arts have never been so much in demand as these past few years, and yet it’s obvious this ancestral savoir-faire has taken a serious knock, if we can judge by end results. What happened to added value? Should we be talking about “hand-made” or “hand-finished”? Two examples come to mind. First, I spent exactly 12 minutes engraving a manufacture watch that was presented as a masterpiece of handcrafting and sold for CHF 150,000. Second, apart from an enameller demonstrating her skills, I didn’t see a single one of the applied arts showcased at the last Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie.” Similarly, he is convinced that the vertical integration of manufactures isn’t all good news. Yes, by incorporating these skills into their structures, manufactures are helping to keep them alive, but they are also wearing thin a region’s economic fabric without acquiring the most advanced expertise in these domains.

The threat of new technologies

Engravers also face danger from other quarters: the advent of new technologies, such as those used for Vacheron Constantin’s Les Masques collection. These were produced at the Geneva workshops of renowned engraver Olivier Vaucher, using a combination of three-dimensional scanning and traditional techniques. “Let’s be clear about this,” Jean-Bernard Michel continues. “These timepieces are a significant and impressive achievement, but they are more the work of an artisan than an engraver. With three-dimensional imaging, five-axis CNC machines and laser cutting, we’re on the verge of a major shake-up. And because, in my opinion, the next war that watch companies wage will be about costs, and therefore prices, I’m concerned quality and respect for tradition will be pushed into the background. This doesn’t bode well for the profession of engraving, as enamelling has already seen. Having said that, it’s absolutely vital that we support training as a means of preserving this savoir-faire.” Safeguarding these professions is, beyond doubt, a worthy combat.

Centre Interrégional de Formation des Montagnes Neuchâteloises (CIFOM)
General Administration
Rue de la Serre 62
2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
Tel: +41 (0)32 919 29 50
Fax: +41 (0)32 919 29 60

École d’Arts Appliqués (EAA)
Rue de la Paix 60
2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
Tel: +41 (0)32 919 23 23
Fax: +41 (0)32 919 23 33

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