The art of scrimshaw is surrounded by layer upon layer of romance, tradition and controversy. Originating on whaling ships, where whalebone and marine ivory (mostly from walrus tusks) was plentiful, scrimshaw involves engraving on bone or ivory, with pigment applied to bring out the design. One of the great classics of American literature, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, depicts scenes of scrimshaw creation on board the Pequod by the whaling crew, and historical articles of scrimshaw were seen as exotic artefacts of a seaborne life — they often illustrated foreign sights or objects of sailors’ domestic yearnings.
Nowadays, of course, the trade of ivory and whale parts is strictly controlled, if not outright prohibited, and contemporary scrimshanders (as scrimshaw artists are called) ply their techniques mostly on synthetic bone replicates or non-controlled animal bone.
One example of ivory is exempt from stringent regulation, and that is fossilised mammoth ivory. The material is not as scarce as you might think — a 2009 story in the New York Times, as quoted by craft magazine Make, states that over 150 million mammoths (and their tusks, of course) lie encased in the upper strata of Siberian permafrost. Every summer, when the tundra melts, locals comb the land to unearth mammoth remains. The salvaged fossilised tusks, which can range from 3,600 to 400,000 years old, are then exported for various uses, mostly decorative.
This type of ivory is free of any ethical concerns with regard to poaching and wildlife conservation, and showcases the beauty of working with an organic (albeit transmuted) material.
For their Watches & Wonders collection, Piaget have brought out a second chapter of fabulous metiers d’art timepieces that follows from 2013’s Mythical Journey. This new collection, entitled Secrets and Lights, is inspired by two legendary cities along the Silk Route — Samarkand and Venice.
The Central Asia region was briefly explored in the previous Mythical Journey collection by way of the depiction of Ferghana horses on Altiplano timepieces (one with an enamel dial and another with bullino engraving on white gold). This year, one of the Samarkand-themed timepieces features a falcon engraved on a dial of fossilised mammoth ivory, using the age-old techniques of scrimshaw.
This is not the first time the technique has been used in a Piaget watch — last January we saw an exceptional example (executed by the same artist, Austrian Richard Meier, who did this year’s watch and also does the bullino dials) in the form of the Piaget Altiplano Scrimshaw. A map of the world, meticulously shaded to evoke the faded hues of old cartographic documents, was hand-engraved on a dial of fossilised mammoth ivory.
Samarkand, as a key city on the ancient Silk Route, would have seen plenty of ivory traffic, so the design and material of this piece come together perfectly to resurrect the romance of this mythical watchmaking journey. The falcon-dial Altiplano champions the majestic raptor of the sand seas, and is so well drawn as to capture the fierceness of the bird’s gaze and the texture of its deeply feathered breast. The roseate hue of the pink-gold case calls to mind the shimmering aridity of the region and emphasises the warmth of the ivory.