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Artist shortage hits luxury watchmakers

Wednesday, January 29 17:08:31

Anita Porchet has a skill that Swiss watchmakers can't afford to do without. As an enamel painter, she decorates watches for the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin which can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the industry is facing a severe shortage of craftsmen and women who have mastered the techniques of enamel painting, marquetry and engine-turning - at a time when there is growing demand for high-end handmade watches.

One of Porchet's masterpieces is a miniature painting on a watch dial of Marc Chagall's ceiling of the Opera Garnier in Paris which took her three months to create.

Having been taught by her godfather as a teenager and worked tirelessly to refine her art over the years, the 53-year-old is determined to stay independent and has resisted recent overtures from big brands that wanted to recruit her.

"I said no. I want to keep my freedom to be able to explore my creative possibilities," she said. "Many old women have taught me their enamel secrets in their kitchen."

The clamouring for her skills reflects the industry's wider problem.

"I have seen some crafts disappear during the last 30 years," said Juan-Carlos Torres, head of Vacheron Constantin, which is owned by Richemont. "Engine-turning almost disappeared, enamelling as well, (at one point) there were only two or three decent enamellers left in the world."

Faced with this dearth of talent, the likes of Richemont and Breguet owner Swatch Group - hungry for the high margins offered by the handmade watch segment - are trying to recruit artisans and investing in training programmes so they can secure these skills by bringing them in-house.

Richemont, which also owns Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Piaget and is the biggest player in high-end watches, is currently building a fine watchmaking campus in Geneva where it will train enamel painters and engravers for its own needs from 2016 - part of a 60 million Swiss franc ($67 million) investment in training and research over 10 years.

Decorative crafts have a long tradition in Geneva, tracing their roots back to the 17th century and the arrival of the Huguenots from France who turned to decorating watches because other luxury objects were banned at the time.

Enamel painting is one of the oldest techniques, Patek Philippe, whose most sophisticated timepieces can cost $1 million, says on its website. The painters apply a vitreous substance based on silica sand and coloured with metal oxides that is later fired at over 800 degrees Celsius.

"At the last firing, a piece can be damaged, it can crack. A lot of patience is needed for this difficult work," said Sandrine Stern, head of creation at Patek Philippe. "Miniature painting on enamel is even more rare, it's a true gift."

In engine-turning or "guillochage", an expert creates kaleidoscopic patterns on metal with a hand-operated machine, while marquetry involves assembling up to hundreds of tiny pieces of wood, straw or even dried flowers to create an image.

After their heyday in the 19th century, artistic watches and the know-how needed to make them entered a period of slow decline, coming close to extinction in the 1970s when the market for mechanical, hand-decorated watches collapsed due to the arrival of cheaper, battery-powered quartz watches.

Because of the consequent lack of demand for watch decoration, training programmes were scrapped, such as the renowned enamel painting course offered by Geneva's art school.

But growing appetite for luxury goods from the 1990s led to renewed interest in Swiss mechanical watches, with sales growth in the high-end segment outperforming growth in entry and mid-priced watches over the last decade.

The number of Swiss mechanical watches exported more than doubled from 2.7 million in 2000 to 6.8 million in the first 11 months of 2013, while the number of quartz watches dropped from 28.7 million to 19.1 million, according to the Swiss Watch Federation. Over the same period, the average price of a Swiss watch rose to 728 francs from 323 francs.

High margins - Richemont's operating margin exceeds 31 percent versus around 23 percent for midprice-focused Swatch - are also attracting new players to the high-end segment, such as Hermes' watch unit. (Reuters)