The Amazing Anita Porchet.Date: Mar 25, 2007,10:52 AM - (view entire thread)
The Amazing Anita Porchet
© November 2006
The world's best is too easily used in media by marketing mavens today. As common sense would dictate many of these hyped promotions fail to live up to expectations so I always remain skeptical when this superlative is used as a label. Ms. Anita Porchet is considered a master in the art of enameling. Her unsigned work can be found on many enamel dials for various prestigious watch brands but she is widely known to the Jaquet Droz community as the creator of the Paillonnee dials. When I heard that we were visiting Ms. Porchet's workshop on a recent trip and that she was "the best" in the art of enameling I began to silently worry?
Reminiscent of artisans from centuries past, Ms. Porchet works independently out of her home studio located in the countryside between Geneva and Lausanne. Anita's home, a fusion of an old farm house with a newer addition, serves as an outward representation of its owner within: a modern day craftswoman practicing an art form which has essentially remained unchanged in the watch industry for over 200 years.
A simple yet elegant family plaque on the old wooden door and Anita's warm smile welcomed us in!
Ms. Porchet's workshop is small, I would guess less than 400 square feet, and this space is divided into 2 separate working areas. The first half is actually her manufactory. A laboratory of sorts, Anita stores and performs experiments with her vast collection of various enamel powders in this zone. This area also contains two small furnaces/ovens where the firing of the enamel dials take place. These small ovens are energy efficient, ensure even temperature distribution, and provide faster turnaround time (some enameling techniques require up to twenty firings before completion) for the small number of dials that Anita creates each week.
The second half of the workshop consists of 2 desks with microscopes, tools, and reference books. This is Ms. Porchet's design studio where her artistic thoughts become reality. No CNC machines, computers, or extra human help here - every enamel dial is truly hand crafted by Anita herself.
As I toured this space my worries started to melt away?
As we gathered in her dining room Anita describes the three enameling techniques for which she is best known for. An enamel dial can use just one, a combination of, or all three of these techniques: cloisonne, enamel painting, and transparent/colored enameling.
Although cloisonne enameling has been used as a decorative technique since the 6th century AD, I have never appreciated the handwork involved until I listened to Anita's description. Gold wires, .004" thick by .040" high, need to be placed exactly perpendicular to the surface of the watch dial outlining the desired pattern. These extremely thin wires allow for intricate designs and are hand made (not available commercially) by Ms. Porchet herself for her custom cloisonne dials. If the spaces formed by these wires are not perfectly aligned and closed, the colored glass/enamel powder will leak out during the firing process (around 1500 degrees F) destroying the dial. Multiple firings are required until the colored enamel layers are at the same height as the cloisonne wires. (Sorry. The sample cloisonne dials that I have pictures of are production dials from a manufacturer which prefers to remain anonymous). With the introduction of CNC technology, Ms. Porchet warned us about attempts to simplify the cloisonne technique while retaining the 'look' behind this ancient technique. CNC machines can mill out spaces and create the illusion of a cloisonne wire outline; effectively eliminating one of the most challenging steps!
Enamel painting originated in France around the 15th century. This is a skill that Anita said she had to go back to school to learn because she wanted to develop and improve her 'painting' skills. Anita uses a microscope, very fine brushes, and a steady hand to apply the enamel paint. The enamel painter has to work, not with actual colors, but with mixtures. This color tray helps Anita predict the final outcome as the enamel paint mixtures will change from its original color during exposure to heat.
The final product is not created from just one layer of enamel paint and one firing - imagine having to paint sections of the same miniature portrait or scenery multiple times, one layering over the other and firing the dial after each layer, to create the rich shades and color contrasts! Upon closer inspection of these enamel masterpieces I can say Anita's skill rival those found on vintage Jaquet Droz pieces which were created in the 1700s.
The last technique described by Ms. Porchet was the use of transparent and colored enamels. Using a mortar and pestle with a bit of old fashioned elbow grease, Anita grinds glass down to enamel powder suitable for her needs (she determines this by tactile sensation as well as by the sound produced from the mortar and pestle during the grinding motion!). Uniformity of the enamel powder is very important. If some powder particles are larger than others you will have a bad (i.e pitted) enamel surface as the larger glass particles do not fuse as quickly as the small ones.
Using the Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute (PHM) Paillonnee dial as an example, Ms. Porchet outlined the important steps involved. An interesting side note is that there are no records from artisans in the 1700s on their enameling techniques - multiple experiments were performed and many months were spent by Montres Jaquet Droz and Ms. Porchet during their attempts to replicate the paillonnee motif.
The choice of a base dial material is important. Gold, not copper, was chosen because of its medium high melting point, suitable coefficient of expansion, and low modulus of elasticity. These properties are important for the base metal because glass also changes properties during heating and cooling - ignoring these characteristics would cause cracks to develop inside the enamel. White gold alloy also has oxidation characteristics which allowed for the reproduction of the trademark Jaquet Droz blue color while maintaining as much of the brilliant and translucent properties of glass. Who would have known that J*D spent so much time experimenting with different gold alloys to give Ms. Porchet a chance to rediscover the original Jaquet Droz Paillonnee technique used in the 1700s?
The base dial is then hand guilloched for a subtle but distinctive pattern under the transparent enamel (flinque). This tray demonstrates the appearance of guilloche patterns under various colored transparent enamels.
After application of 3 layers of translucent blue enamel, Ms. Porchet then places the gold paillonnee leaves (about 220 in this PHM dial) and arranges them into the design one leaf at a time by hand. She also cuts the gold leaves to the exact size necessary at the edges. Once the individual gold leaf is set it is permanent. A mistake requires Anita to start over again. Notice that there are no computers or other means of artificial assistance. This is all done with by Anita's eye and experience.
The Paillonnee leaves of 14 K gold were hand produced in the 1700s. The leaves are not "flat" but have small engravings on them to give them a three dimensional appearance. The Paillons were given to Ms. Porchet from a retired headmaster of an enameling school and are the last examples remaining. An old catalogue showed different paillonnee designs that were available some time in history but are now impossible to find!
Another 6-7 applications of the translucent blue enamel and firing of the dial, followed by a final polish results in the final product! Total working time from start to finish is 4-5 working days per dial.
During our casual conversation Ms. Porchet revealed that in the year 2000 she was "unemployed" but now she is working 10-12 hour days trying to meet demand. Kudos to Montres Jaquet Droz for recognizing Ms. Porchet's talents and continuing to support the revival and preservation of time honored craft in the watch industry.
By this point all my initial worries were completely gone, completely satisfied that Ms. Porchet is worthy of being labeled "the best". In fact Anita's professionalism, dedication to perfection, keen hand-eye coordination would have made her one of the best neurosurgeons I know if she had chosen to practice medicine. Anita, thank you for generosity in time, opening your home, and sharing your knowledge and passion with us!
Thanks for looking,
My thanks as always to Nathalie Kottelat, Nathalie Laurent, and Montres Jaquet Droz for their support and assistance in arranging our visit with Ms. Porchet and for providing translation assistance.