We visited the atelier of Travailler Watches in Singapore, possibly the only enamel dial maker in the island. The lead protagonist, Jeremy Moi showed us around and demonstrated how he makes his enamel dials.
We covered the secrets of making grand feu enamel dials when we visited the Donzé Cadrans. Interestingly, Jeremy, a young entrepreneur of only 27 years of age, and a recent graduate of the National University of Singapore, told us he first got a glimpse of how the enamel dials were made by reading that very same article.
He sought out a local enamelist, working in costume jewellery, to learn the craft. Armed with this tutor and our article, he learnt and taught himself to make enamel dials. He admits he has still much to learn about the craft. But he already have a steady clientele for the watches he sells. Visit the Travailler website for more details.
The Enamel Dial
As mentioned in our Donzé Cadrans article, enamel is a soft glass comprising of silica, red lead and soda. When mixed together with other elements, enamel takes on a persona with intense hues and a subtle, yet magical depth. Fired in an oven at 800-1200°C, it liquefies and bonds to the metal base, and when cooled becomes an extremely hard wearing, brilliant material which never fades. We have seen pieces in museums which are centuries old, which still shine brilliantly today as they did when they were made.
The starting point of the enamel dial is a copper disc. The Travailler dial is machined with a small lip on the outer edge to “contain” the enamel.
Instead of the Donzé method of spraying a thin mist of alcohol to the surface of the copper dial, Travailler uses a water based glue to do the same function. Jeremy tells me that he has seen our Donzé video where the alcohol bursts into flames in the oven, giving rise to the term Grand Feu (big fire), but his attempts to replicate this with alcohol resulted in burning of the enamel powder, leaving a residue of soot instead. He has had good results using the water based adhesive, and have to forgo the spectacle of the grand feu.
The enamel powder is then sprinkled onto the disc, much like sieving sugar onto a cake for icing. The enamel powder used in the demonstration is the one which will result in the Matin Blue in their collection. And the powder is sourced from Thompson Enamels, one of the handful of enamel powder suppliers worldwide.
He then inserts the powder coated dial into the oven. When we were there, it was set at 770°C on his Paragon kiln. After the first firing, the dial is removed, and examined. The movement facing side of the dial is also similarly coated and fired.
Up to 4 or 5 layers of coating and firings are performed. At each stage, the dial is examined for warping on a flat, level block of wood. This is done visually. Throughout this process, there is a high chance of failure from dial bending, cracking and uneven layering from the enamel melting.
Uneven enamel surfaces are then filed down with a hand file.
The parts removed are touched up with more enamel powder using a paint brush with the powder and water based adhesive.
This is then fired again. And depending on the final effect of the dial which is being made, a final clear coat may be applied at this stage. Or if the uneven texture, with pits and patterns on the dial is a feature of the design, then the clear coat is not applied.
The final step in the dial production is to do pad printing on the dial. The method used by Jeremy is the standard used industry wide. In our example, a white ink is mixed with a solvent by hand.
And applied to a template in steel with the artwork of the dial etched onto the surface. The etched grooves form a well for the ink, while the rest of the surface of the template is wiped clean. The top layer of ink becomes tacky as soon as it is exposed to the air and adheres to the transfer pad and later to the substrate.
The transfer pad made of silicone and shaped like a cone is pressed onto the printing template momentarily. As the pad compress, it pushes air outward and causes the ink to transfer from the etched artwork onto the pad.
As the pad lifts, the tacking ink is picked up on the pad. The pad sits on a precision rail mechanism which allows it to move over the dial, and when pressed down, transfers the ink layer picked up from the template onto the dial. Several passes may be made to build up the thickness of the print – showing up on the dial as small raised surfaces for the markers and brand name.
This method of pad printing is quite standard in the industry. For a slight variation, see our Visit to the Asaoka atelier for Hajime Asaoka’s version of pad printing.
The name emblazoned on the dials say, “Travailler Et Jouer” (Work and Play in French). The name embodies what goes on in the atelier. Travailler – to work, to labor; represents the laborious process invested in watchmaking. The dials are hand-made, hand-finished and produced in-house. And Play to symbolize the fruits of the labour.