Watchmakers face dearth of craftsmen as luxury market booms

Wed Jan 29, 2014 11:42am EST
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By Silke Koltrowitz

GENEVA (Reuters) - 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 clamoring 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, enameling 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.   Continued...

Samples of colors are pictured in the workshop of enameller Anita Porchet in Corcelles-le-Jorat in western Switzerland January 29, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse