Meet the world’s greatest watch painter
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The silvery notes of the Westminster chime hang in the air, so clear and precise that they seem almost to have physical form. The familiar four-bar melody booms out over central London every 15 minutes from the bells of the Elizabeth Tower. But here at Vacheron Constantin’s headquarters in Geneva the crisp refrain emerges from a pocket watch almost so large as to contradict its name, about the diameter of an orange and the thickness of a pack of cigarettes.
Its size, its extreme horological refinement and the rich engraving and chasing of a case topped by an elaborate bow featuring two miniature lion’s heads suggest that it dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. It is exactly the sort of trophy timepiece that would have quickened the pulses of the plutocrat collectors of gilded-age America and the aesthetes of belle époque Europe. And yet remarkably this is a 21st-century watch, on which work began in 2013 and was completed a matter of days before I saw it. The unnamed collector who commissioned it eight years ago is clearly someone of rare sophistication who has resisted the temptation to use what is, in watchmaking terms, a cavernous space to cram in dozens of abstruse complications.
Instead, the most important aspect of the watch is the hinged “officer” caseback, elevated from its mundane protective function to sublime heights by a miniature enamel painting of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which gives the watch its name: “Tribute to Johannes Vermeer”. It is described by Vacheron as a “reproduction” of Vermeer’s work but I would prefer to call it an interpretation. Much in a way that a great musician is said to interpret a piece of music revealing new aspects of it, so this watch is an interpretation of a masterpiece and a masterpiece in its own right… by an artist whose name is almost unknown outside the watch industry, Anita Porchet.
“The success of an enamel painter requires not just artistic talent and training but an intimate knowledge of the behaviour of the medium: 98mm may not sound large, but compared to her usual ‘canvas’ of a watch dial of, say, 35mm, it is enormous,” says Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s director of heritage and style. This large scale makes it more of a creative and technical high-wire act than usual. “Any infelicity will be much more visible on the larger work; the time taken with the painstaking detail is correspondingly greater than the usual wristwatch dial. The girl’s turban required two weeks of work, and all the time there looms the risk of months of work being damaged or destroyed during any of the 20 or so firings necessary to fix the colours.”
Since the retirement of the legendary Suzanne Rohr from Patek Philippe, Porchet is acknowledged as the greatest enameller in the Swiss watch industry. She and Madame Rohr were jointly honoured with the Special Jury Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2017. Typically self-effacingly, Porchet devoted her acceptance speech to expressing what an honour it was to share the prize with someone she had admired her entire working life.
Porchet is usually to be found in her large and airy studio in a hamlet about an hour out of Geneva, one wall stacked with jars of enamel collected over decades (some now impossible to replace), her desk barely visible beneath a covering of brushes, pots, and work in progress. What sets her apart is her mastery of the branches of enamelling: translucent plique-à-jour; paillonné, with its hundreds of tiny pieces of gold suspended in layer upon layer of transparent enamel; the subtle black, white and grey of grisaille; champlevé, in which the enamel is placed in declivities engraved in the surface; cloisonné, whereby a filament of gold is shaped into a series of cells, or cloisons, into which enamel is placed with the point of a brush; and miniature enamel painting, which is regarded as the most complex.
She has been besotted with enamel for almost half a century. “I was doing enamel work from the age of 12,” she says. “I don’t think I chose it, it became a necessity.”
She studied fine art for five years in Lausanne, where she requested that her final year be dedicated to engraving and enamelling – that she had to make a special request to study the technique for which Switzerland had once been famous shows the state of enamelling at that time. She was learning a métier on the brink of extinction.
This is the 25th anniversary of her working for Vacheron Constantin. Until the Vermeer watch, her best-known work for the watchmaker was a piece that recreated the Paris Opera ceiling painted by Marc Chagall. And she has worked for many other watch brands.
“In 2008, I opened my atelier thanks to Philippe Stern,” she says of the Patek Philippe scion. Among the highlights of her work for Patek are a watch that recreates Klimt and a piece for Stern himself that features five depictions of dawn on Lake Geneva by different Swiss artists. Stern Sr is both a noted collector of Swiss art and a champion yachtsman. “He lent me the money for the studio, but above all he left me free to work for other marques.”
Over the past dozen years or so she has worked for brands as different as Jaquet Droz and Chanel. For Hermès she has translated the designs of silk scarves into watch dials. “She has a hand like no one else,” observes Catherine Lacaze of Louis Vuitton Watches and Jewellery.
“She brings something to the enamel that others don’t have,” agrees the creative director of Piaget, Stéphanie Sivrière. “We have nothing but love and admiration for her and her work.”
Having had the fortune to see her latest masterpiece, I find it hard to disagree.