This much is true. You may never look at a Champlevé dial in the same way again after a visit to Donzé Cadran. A walk-though the Le Locle firm, one of the few remaining firms that specialize in creating enamel dials for high-end timepieces, offers some wonderful insights into this centuries-old craft. It is one thing to read about the complexity of an enamel dial, but to actually see one come to life, goes a long way in building an appreciation for what these craftsmen do.

Donze Cadran was acquired by Ulysee Nardin in 2011

Enameling — the process of imparting a vitreous glaze to a surface through intense heat — is an ancient technique and can be traced as far back as the Mycenaean metalwork of the 13th to 11th centuries BCE. It has been reported that gold rings excavated from a Mycenaean tomb from 13th century BCE featured Cloisonné enamel technique. A dying decorative tradition, high quality enameling is only seen on timepieces made by a handful of manufacturers today and Donzé Cadran is at the forefront of efforts to preserve this tradition.

Bottles of enamel powder line the wall of the salon

A division of Ulysse Nardin (it was acquired in 2011), Donzé Cadran was established in Le Locle by master enameler Francis Donzé. In time he earned a reputation for producing high quality enamel dials, restoring them on antique clocks and pocket watches. The reason why Ulysee Nardin acquired Donzé Cadran is quite simple - throughout its history Ulysee Nardin, which is also based in Le Locle, has had watches with enamel dials in its catalog. This acquisition just ensured that these specialized skills remained in the company’s realm.

The enamel powder is ground with a mortar and pestle

And though it may be owned by Ulysee Nardin now, Donzé Cadran still produces dials for Patek Philippe, Hermès and Cartier. On a snowy winter’s day, I find myself in the salon that’s used to welcome visitors at Donzé Cadran. One wall of the salon is lined up with glass bottles containing the enamel in powder form, the bottles lined up as if the wall were a Pantone shade card. I’m greeted by Claude-Eric Jan, director of the facility, who was going to give me a whistle-stop tour of facility.

Enamel powder dusted on a copper base plate

Technically, enamel is a soft glass comprising of silica, red lead and soda. Elements added to the mix bring about a change in color – chromium creates green, iron turns it grey, the presence of iodine turns it red. When fired in an oven at 800-1200°C, enamel liquefies and bonds to the metal base and cools to become a hard-wearing material that retains its shines and color over centuries. This should explain why enamel work as a decorative technique has been around for centuries now.

Donzé Cadran uses four distinct enameling techniques – Grand Feu, Cloisonné, Champlevé and Flinqué. Each process requires some sublime skill and precision – from baking the dials, to finishing, polishing and bending wires into patterns to create the Cloisonné enamel dials. Here’s a quick rundown:

Grand Feu Enamel

The French world literally translates to the “Big Fire” and is used to describe the high heat under which these dials are baked during the production process. Although this is a complex technique, the Grand Feu enamel dials are more durable than the rest and can be traced back to the 17th century. Donzé Cadran still sticks to the traditional methods and techniques to create their Grand Feu enamel dials.

Grand Feu enamel dials are baked at as high as 900C

We watched as the enamel powder is dusted on to a copper base plate much like you would icing sugar on a cake. It was then fired in a kiln at a temperature ranging between 760 and 900º C. An alcohol-based mist is sprayed to keep the enamel powder glued to the dial before it is placed in the kiln again. There is a spectacular moment when the dials catch fire in the oven thanks to the aforementioned alcoholic mist. A dial makes repeated visits (up to 6 or 8 times) to the kiln before it is deemed right for the watch case.

The Ulysee Nardin Marine Tourbillon has an enamel dial

Even the decals (the printed numerals and branding) on the dial are also made in enamel. The sub-dials are manufactured separately and then tin-soldered to the main dial. A great deal of care has to be taken while preparing these dials – any damage cannot be undone. The fact that Donzé Cadran is often asked to create a copy of the original dial of a valuable museum piece is a testimonial to the skill levels of the artisans here. “Since we use the same time-honored traditions that were used to create the dial all those years ago, the watch doesn’t lose its value,” explained Jan. A good example of an Ulysee Nardin timepiece that features this technique is the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu.

Flinqué Enamel

Guilloché refers to a decorative technique wherein engraving (comprising intersecting straight or wavy lines) is done by machine using a rose-engine. When translucent enamel is applied to such an engraved base plate, you get a Flinqué Enamel dial. This kind of dial combines two ancient techniques – guilloché and enameling. A translucent enamel is preferred on such dials so that the engraving underneath is visible.

Translucent enamel is applied over a guilloche pattern dial

Though traditionally the base plates of Flinqué enamel dials have to pass through the hands of expert guilloché experts, modern methods also employ base plates that have been stamped with a pattern. A quill pen or brush is used to apply the enamel color on the engraved base plate before it is fired in the oven.

The San Marco is a good example of a Flinque enamel dial

The process is repeated up to four times under 800°C heat before the enamel dial is polished. Artisans have to constantly check on the thickness of the dial and ensure that the final product is given a glossy finish. The Ulysee Nardin San Marco watches in the late 1980s famously sported Flinqué enamel dials.

Champlevé Enamel

Like Flinqué Enamel dials, a Champlevé dial requires an expert engraver and an enamel artist to work together. The engraver has to cut away troughs or cells on a base plate which the enameler later fills with vitreous enamel. Once the enamel is fired and the dial polished, the engraver goes to work again and chisels all the metal partitions to create 3D borders that really stand out. Champlevé production flourished especially during the late 11th and 12th centuries in Western Europe.

An engraved base plate awaiting an enamel coat

Creating a Champlevé dial is tricky work because the engraver has to work with soft hands. If too much pressure is applied and the walls separating the compartments becomes too thin, there is a good chance that the enamel will be excessively filed down.

The Classico Rooster has a Champleve dial

The use of translucent enamel provides exceptional depth and enables a view of any elaborate hand engraving underneath on the base plate. The Classico Rooster from Ulyssee Nardin a good example of a Champlevé dial.

Cloissoné Enamel

To say that those who work on these dials have an enormous amount of patience is an understatement. This ancient technique goes way back to the BCE era as mentioned earlier. An artisan creates compartments or housings using gold wire, basically intricate patterns are created by hand-folding gold wire (only 0.07 mm wide, no larger than human hair). Pliers are used to tease out various shapes on the base plate, a job that calls for amazing finger dexterity. 

Gold wire being folded into frames before being filled in with enamel

These compartments are filled in with enamel and fired in a kiln. This process is a lot harder than how it is being described here. The Ulysee Nardin Classico Schooner America (pictured below) is a good example so is the limited edition for Dubai, the Classic Tourbillon Falcon.

The Classico Schooner America has a Cloissone enamel dial

Rolex made very few watches with Cloisonné enamel dials in the late 1940s and 50s including this Ref. 8382 with a dial depicting Neptune, the Roman God of the sea. You have to but walk away from an atelier like this with a newfound respect for this centuries-old craft.