Fans of the BBC motoring television show, “Top Gear” will instantly recognise the phrase “How difficult can it be?”, many times uttered by hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond at the beginning of the hour long program. Oftentimes prompted by the search for a solution to a problem, this phrase then sparks off ideas that send them off on an adventure to answer that question.
My own, “How difficult can it be?” moment came recently when I was invited by Jaeger-LeCoultre to attend a workshop on engraving. Well I thought, what is engraving really but just making some nice patterns in metal. All you need is a tool with a pointy bit and you’re set.
Want it to look nice? Well, just take it slow, follow the lines, and presto, you’ve got a beautiful Reverso caseback in your hands.
Should I have been so arrogant? Should I have had more respect for Dominique Vuez, master engraver, and the man responsible for many of the intricate and beautiful engravings that have been made on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watches over the years?
Well, follow me then as I recount the experience in pictures, then see the final result.
Here, Dominique Vuez, master engraver, poses for a photograph during a break in the proceedings. Taking time off from his busy schedule of beautifying the best watches of Jaeger-LeCoultre, he would find himself today in the presence of a bunch of journalists to show them the basics of his art.
A 17-year veteran of the brand, this is a man who when asked if he had worked at other watch brands before, replied in French without a moment’s hesitation, “My heart is only with Jaeger-LeCoultre!” Clearly then a man passionate about his company and a seasoned professional, he was a picture of calm and confidence as he took his tools to hand to demonstrate what was to be done.
Of course as the Master Engraver, he has worked on the decoration of the most complicated watches from the brand, as well as the iconic Reverso, in which some models offer a reverse side with a large blank space where engraving can be done. Aside from the more common initials and monograms of the owner, many other more intricate designs can be done, as these examples show:
I had come with the expectation, upon being invited to this workshop, that I would do an intricate design such as the dragon shown below. After all, as I reasoned, my latent artistic ability would suddenly make an appearance, and what I would come up with would be close in quality and beauty to these designs that Dominique Vuez has done:
So, as I began imagining what animal I would engrave to create my masterpiece in that one hour session, I was suddenly presented with this slab of stainless steel:
…upon which, as you can see, was the Jaeger-LeCoultre logo, as well as my initials A.S.(for Adi Soon) engraved below that. Dominique had done this engraving for me, personalising as well, this nice little pendant for the other participants in the workshop. Have a look at a close up of the engraving:
The challenge here could only be found by turning the metal slab over. Here, as you can see, on the reverse side, was a larger version of the logo, taking up much of the available space already. Where then, I wondered, would I be able to engrave my masterpiece?
Well, it turns out, there would be no animal engraving today. As was explained by my host Alexis de Laporte, Managing Director of Jaeger-LeCoultre, South East Asia and Australia: “You cannot be expected to create anything complicated, being that your training session is so short. Our engravers take years to master this skill, so you will do something simple today.”
What was this simple task then? It was merely to complete the JLC logo shown below, by connecting the dotted lines, or essentially to just engrave one straight line.
Of course, my immediate reaction was disappointment. “Just a straight line?”. I would have that complete in 2 minutes and be off somewhere for a snack. What was the challenge here? Dominique, who had planned the lesson, explained that this was all we were required to do. On that I thought, what was this “master” thinking?
Still I did not argue, I gathered my “echoppe” ( French for graver) and listened to the master as he showed us how to grip the sharp tool.
Holding the “echoppe” with the sharp end pointing down, and with the wooden rounded end firmly in the palm of the hand.
Here, the sample engraving that Dominique used to demonstrate how to control the pressure of the tool in the hand:
Placed in this heavy metal holder to stabilise the slab, it was important to note the placement of the hands in order to avoid injuring oneself with the sharp “echoppe”. After all, it would only take one strong ham-fisted swipe to stab one’s own hand if not done correctly.
As Dominique demonstrates here, the hand gripping the holder has to be below the level of the piece being engraved for safety as well as stability.
Lesson over and now it was my turn. Feeling vaguely confident, I took to it and got to work….
The Final Result:
I am embarrassed to show you this picture.
“How Difficult Can It Be?” – Very difficult indeed…