Watches have been a tool not only for time telling, but also for expression of the creative arts. There are many art techniques such as enamelling, open working, gem setting, engraving and so on, that call upon age old skills and training, often passed down across generations. It is in the application of these techniques that watches transcend into creations that speak of beauty and culture, along with their function of telling the time.
Engraving is an art that is all around us. Put very simply, it means carving out a design on a flat surface by making incisions using a sharp object. The art of hand engraving is a centuries old technique for decorating steel and precious metals such as gold and silver. It is most commonly seen on jewellery, watches, ornaments, firearms, knives and other assorted items. It is different from the normal machine engraving that is often used for quick engraving on items such as cups or trophies.
Hand engraving is an artistic tradition that grows in repute in an increasingly digitalized world. Hand engraving in watches also goes back a long way. The designs are more often than not, very unique and exclusive to the watch. It is also a time consuming process, often taking several hundred hours and even weeks to accomplish.
Small hand tools are used to cut and bring the design to life in the metal. Often it involves the inlaying of fine silver or gold into steel to add some more value and essence to the work. Because the work is so small and detailed some sort of magnifying devise like a microscope or loupe is needed to carry out the work.
It can be utilitarian or decorative. At a superficial and basic level, engraving could be done on the back of a watch. Today, there is a lot of talk about personalization in watches. Indeed, engraving is one of the oldest ways to personalize a watch. Whether a watch is given as a gift or as an award, or whether it is bought for oneself, engraving always adds a special touch. It makes the watch something unique and adds a value to it. Personalizing a watch with a special message may add sentimental value to the item and, in the case of business gifts and incentives, can also serve to recognize individual achievements. It transcends then, into something beyond what money can buy.
The decorative aspect of engraving is something that transform the watch from a mere timepiece into an heirloom. Each component of the movement can be adorned with minute sculptures or extremely detailed and fine motifs, creating astounding beauty on the small canvas of the watch.
Engraving can be done by hand or with machines. Of course, the value of hand engraving and the skill and finesse required in the process is extremely special and pure watchmakers focus a lot on this. Hand engravers use a hard steel tool, often known as burin to design on a variety of flat surfaces that could be metals such as silver, nickel, steel, brass, gold and titanium. Engraving can be done on various “locations” in the watch. The case back, dial, side of the bezel and even the watch movement, lend themselves as canvasses for the expression of the art of engraving.
Engraving movements is something that has put some watches in a very different league altogether. This calls for a very meticulous attention to detail and the engraved individual parts are a result of painstaking work on the part of the artist. It all begins with planning out and sketching everything from the dial and main plate to the crown wheel and drum barrel. The movement is stripped down to its bare bones and then each component is engraved and skeletonized individually. After this, the components are hand polished one by one and may also be plated in a metal. The movement is then meticulously reassembled and tested to ensure everything runs smoothly. Since this involves working with the very heart of the watch, it is a job that requires the highest degree of planning and application. Scenes can be reproduced on the small scale of the watch. It is different from mere drawing. Engraving is not only two-dimensional. It takes on a 3D form as well.
An incredible level of manual dexterity is required to execute the designs and engrave them. The engraving tool must be seated firmly in the palm of the hand. There is of course, a particular way and motion in which the tool needs to be worked. The real skill lies also in knowing the right amount of pressure to apply, with the tool in hand. This is something which can only come from many hours of engraving experience coupled with the engraver’s own dexterity.
The work of the engraver makes each object unique. There are machines that are used for engraving, but the hand touch and the individuality that an artist lends to a watch, is unique. Today, with advent in technology, we have digital screens and smart watches. Yet, the beauty of a perfectly crafted piece made skilfully by an artisan will always carry a charm that will remain unmatched by mass machine produced watches!