The watches produced by Jaquet Droz since the name was relaunched by the Swatch Group in 2001 have for the last 11 years been notable mostly for extremely beautiful high-art dials (using everything from extremely exotic enameling techniques, such as pailloneé, to rare minerals like meteorite) and for very distinctive implementations of classic complications. (We still think the Twelve Cities is one of the most original and satisfying multi-time-zone watches ever made.) Though the firm’s recently dabbled in somewhat sportier designs, as in the Urban London collection, it’s kept a firm grip on the high-art end of the spectrum as well. And in 2011, it released a limited-edition watch that demonstrates that it’s still maintaining its commitment to producing watches with dials that represent a full mastery of traditional decorative techniques.
The American Eagle timepiece has a dial decorated with an enamel miniature painting of a bald eagle in flight over an urban landscape. The dial is that of the Petite Heure Minute watches, which disposed of the large seconds subdial of the Grande Seconde watches, providing a large blank canvas for the realization of almost any image or decorative technique imaginable. (By the way, for the curious, the myth that Ben Franklin championed the turkey as America’s national bird over the bald eagle is just that: a myth.)
The advantage, of course, is a watch that allows an almost unobstructed area for the display of various decorative techniques, without detracting from its legibility. Jaquet Droz is one of the few manufactures to show a consistent willingness to play with negative space as a design element. (Another notable manufacture in this regard is Blancpain, which boasts a number of watches that demonstrate its equally canny ability to use a restricted design palette to great effect.)
Miniature painting in enamel is one of the most demanding forms of dial decoration and, as it’s inherently time consuming and labor intensive, hand-painted fired enamel dials remain rare. Despite an increase in the number of artisans capable of making them in the last decade, real mastery of the art form comes slowly. Fired enamel dials are produced by grinding glass pigments to a very fine powder, then mixing them with oil or water and applying them to the dial. It’s a slow process — the American Eagle dial takes about a week to produce — and an incremental one; the pigments are applied in layers and then fired at a temperature high enough to vaporize the carrying substance and fuse the glass particles. Multiple firings are necessary, and each carries a risk of complications occurring, which can ruin the work and require the artisan to begin all over again. Some of the brushes used consist of a single sable hair, and most of the work is done under low-power binocular microscopes.
The results, however, speak for themselves. The detail, vibrancy of color and permanence of real fired enamel cannot be duplicated by any other technique. (True grand feu enamel should be distinguished from so-called “cold enamel”, which is actually an epoxy resin — capable of beautiful results, but not the same material or process.) The Jaquet Droz American Eagle is released in a limited edition of eight red-gold pieces, powered by the Jaquet Droz caliber 2653 automatic movement. It’s a great reminder of what defines real luxury: not cost as such, but rather inherent difficulty and refinement of craft.