Watches & Jewellery

Art of preservation: The 2021 Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts exhibition

The Patek Philippe manufacture unleashed an unparalleled tour de force in paying tribute to its precious Genevan legacy of craftsmanship.
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As Europe opened its borders this summer after a tumultuous pandemic year, the timing proved perfect for Patek Philippe to present the Rare Handcrafts collection at the Patek Philippe Salons located at its historic Rue du Rhône headquarters.

Visitors of the exhibition, held from 16th June to 3rd July 2021, were treated to a particularly spectacular visual feast as they savoured the exquisite beauty of these extraordinary works of art in real life, besides being privy to artisan demonstrations showcasing the perfect mastery of expertise on-site.

After a postponement in 2020, the display of the extensive selection of over 75 pocket watches, wristwatches, dome clocks and table clocks, replete with an enrichment of a handful of 2021 new creations paying homage to the Genevan heritage, was the richest ever to be unveiled to the general public and aficionados before being shipped to private collectors around the globe.

The one-of-a-kind and limited-edition pieces showcased are endowed with the most refined craftsmanship techniques: manual engraving, grand feu cloisonn enamel, miniature painting on enamel, guilloching, gemsetting and wood micromarquetry.


Most exceptional about these rare handcrafts by the Patek Philippe manufacture is the wonderful legacy of safeguarding and handling these competencies from generation to generation. History informs us that from the outset, mechanical watchmaking was accompanied by the artisans dedicated to decorating their clocks and watches—primarily as aesthetical treasures of artistic beauty, before they were deemed reliable precision instruments. Over time, Geneva became the famous epicentre or “Fabrique” where these individual decorative techniques of all watchmaking-related occupations congregated.

Since 1839, Patek Philippe as an heir of the grand Genevan tradition, has consistently commissioned the most talented artists to elevate its creations. Persisting through decades with dips in demand, the manufacture has resolved to preserve and evolve these ancestral techniques, thereby saving them from extinction, in particular miniature painting on enamel.

Today, the manufacture is more active than ever in collaborating with the artists, and supporting anddeveloping their precious know-how into totally new techniques for watch decoration, among which is wood micromarquetry. A testament of Patek Philippe’s commitment to artisanal expertise is in the space being dedicated to it within the manufacture’s newly inaugurated Plan-les-Ouates production building.

The remarkable trove of rare craftsmanship used to embellish one-of-a-kind pieces in limited editions were also used to transform selected timepiece models in the current collection—six new versions being presented on the occasion of the “Rare Handcrafts 2020- 2021” exhibition.

In salute to these artistic skills, first on the list is manual engraving, ranked the oldest decorative technique for timepieces among the grand Genevan specialties—which boasted more than 200 Genevan engravers in the late 18th century. For the Rare Handcrafts 2020-2021 collection, we witness it on the case backs of pocket watches; as the frame for motifs executed with other techniques; and in damascening where contrasting gold thread inlays are worked into the decorative surface.

Next is cloisonné enamel, an age-old technique used to evoke the saturation and intensity of colour in many of the one- of-a-kind and limited-edition pieces such as the “Jazz” dome table clock where 48 transparent enamel paints were applied on tiny individual pieces of at gold wire, manually cut from a long piece and then shaped to the contour of the motif. To add a shimmery touch to enamel (paillonné enamel), grand feu cloisonné enamel utilises gold powder or tiny spangles (paillons) in gold or silver leaf.


A treasured Genevan handcraft specialty since the 17th century as reflected at the Patek Philippe Museum is miniature painting on enamel. It is popularly used on the case backs of pocket watches and the dials of wristwatches, applied by artists with tiny brushes to render the motifs stroke by stroke. Its strong presence at the 2021 exhibition sat alongside three unique and magnificent French-origin techniques seen on dome table clocks: Limoges enamel painting (featuring a few transparent enamel coats), fauré enamel (relief enamel) and Longwy enamel on faience (with black edges).

A watchmaking handcraft staple, guilloching is created by time-honoured hand-operated machines that cut delicate geometric patterns on metal. The interplay between reliefs and light in the classical flinqué enamel technique offers an effect that glimmers through a transparent enamel coating. Guilloching is employed in mixed-technique pieces featuring cloisonné enamel.

Getting increasing attention and appreciation is wood micromarquetry, used for several years now by Patek Philippe to adorn elaborate details on watch dials and the case backs of pocket watches. This technique is conceived by hand-assembling hundreds of tiny wood pieces and intarsias attained from a plethora of species with varied shades and grains to illustrate small-scale images.

One quintessential technique beloved especially in women’s wristwatches is diamond gemsetting, used to imbue bezels with sparkle and which is also applied to establish mesmerising ornamentation on haute joaillerie models.

Not just limited to a single technique to bedeck a timekeeping object, Patek Philippe optimises the breadth and depth of its creative and artisanal prowess by juxtaposing its rare handcraftsmanship disciplines in a host of mixed-technique pieces. One fine example is the one-of-a-kind “Panda” pocket watch, which headlines a wood micromarquetry case back, a grand feu flinqué enamel dial, and manual engraving on the case and the bezel.

In closing, we proceed to allow the visuals of these Patek Philippe masterpieces to complete the rare handcrafts discovery and experience—as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.

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