Watches with hand-painted enamel dials are among the most costly items in the watchmaking world, largely thanks to their difficult production. Ématelier, the brainchild of passionate watch collector and businessman Alex Landa, is a new company that’s managed to revamp the manufacturing process and create pieces whose quality is on a par with elite brands at a fraction of the conventional price.
Established watchmakers like Patek Philippe, Van Cleef & Arpels, Vacheron Constantin and others have unbeatable access to artists, distribution networks, and big marketing budgets, but Ématelier has an edge. Alex broke down and reorganized the manufacturing method, significantly cutting the cost of production without compromising an iota of quality. The result is a collection of stunning enameled wrist watches at unheard-of prices for pieces of this caliber. Here is how he did it.
Creating hand-painted enamel dials is a four-step process. It starts with the creation of a blank dial plate, which must be resilient enough to resist warping through multiple firings at extremely high temperatures.
Gold is the typical material of choice since it does not warp or produce firescale, a problem known to happen with other materials, such as copper. Next, the base plate is covered with two perfectly smooth layers of white enamel on the face and two layers of counter-enamel on the back. Counter-enamel is necessary to prevent the dial from warping during future firings. The result is a canvas ready for painting.
Once the canvas is set, miniature painting in enamel can begin. This is a painstaking, laborious process that takes a week to 10 days or longer depending on the design. It involves multiple firings—one after each color is applied. The slightest error can cause the dial to warp, bubble, or crack. Once the painting is complete, most high-end companies apply up to three translucent coats of enamel in a process known as the Geneva technique. This technique was developed for pocket watches to prevent scratching. It is used today because it creates a smooth, luxurious finish and adds depth and richness to the dial.
During his research, Alex identified a number of inefficiencies built into this method that contribute to the high price of enamel dials. First, creating a dial from scratch is so complex that it can only be accomplished by a highly trained class of craftsmen. Enamelers with this level of expertise are rare, train for lengthy periods, and charge accordingly for their services. “There is a very limited number of artists who can hand-paint a dial with enamel,” says Alex. “You can’t learn it by taking a course; you have to apprentice and acquire the skill over a long period of time, and there are no shortcuts. It is a long process for one enameler to complete a dial. Even the established brands only produce these watches in very limited quantities.”
Another problem is the high cost associated with errors in manufacturing. These occur frequently, regardless of an enameler’s skill, due to the temperamental nature of the material. The dials often warp or bubble in the final stage when the clear coat is applied—a point at which many days of labor have already been invested in the piece.
In order to overcome these factors, Alex resolved to take control over all but the miniature painting stage. His new system begins with the dial plates. For almost a year, he experimented with plates made from various copper alloys rather than gold. Given that gold is used for its resilience in extreme temperature rather than its appearance (the metal is completely covered during the painting stage), this option does not affect the quality of the outcome, provided that the substitute material is resistant to warping and firescale.
After testing 25 different copper blends, he found a rare medical grade alloy that does not warp or create firescale in the firing process. Finding a copper alloy with these properties translated into significant savings, since gold plates are much more expensive in cost, manufacturing, and logistics. Once he found a suitable base material, Alex needed a way to access top-quality enamel artisans without paying exorbitant prices. He did this by taking over part of the manufacturing process. Instead of giving artists a blank copper plate, Ématelier applies two layers of white enamel on the face and two layer of counter-enamel on the back, sending a prepared canvas to the enamel artist.
Once the artist completes the miniature painting, rather than applying the Geneva technique themselves, they send it back to Ématelier for finishing. By taking control of the first and last stages of the enameling process, Alex is able to solicit the services of highly skilled enamel artists without demanding the large amount of time (and cost associated with that time) typically required for them to complete a dial.
“There are no shortcuts in my method, just a different way of organizing the process,” says Landa. “The quality of the dial is the same or better than watches produced by the top brands. I simply broke the process down into stages, and I handle the logistics of the chain. Doing it this way gives me ultimate control of the quality, which leads to a much lower rejection rate,” he adds.
Alex also controls the distribution chain, eliminating the heavy costs associated with maintaining a wholesale or retail network. “My pieces are sold directly to collectors, friends, and referrals,” he says.
Ématelier started selling enameled timepieces in January. The first collection, the Harmony, features gorgeous botanically accurate floral paintings. This exclusive collection is available in a limited production of ten editions per design, many of which have already been sold. “Lux Execution” automatic movements, decorated and customized for Ématelier, come from Soprod. Handmade Alligator straps in a variety of colors are manufactured in Italy, and the cases are made in Germany. Assembly takes place at Ématelier’s workshops in Toronto, Canada. The price of an artistic enamel dial wristwatch made by major brands, such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin or Van Cleef typically runs into the six-figure range. Ématelier’s watches are priced at $9,000 USD and $6,000 USD respectively with or without diamonds on the bezel. ematelier.watchematelier.watch
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