LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, Switzerland — Standing in front of a wide window with views over a green valley dotted with buildings and houses, one of Cartier’s marquetry artists gently tapped his foot on the wooden power pedal of a custom-made crossbow saw.
He was using the fine, needle-like saw to cut the delicate dried petals of some Ecuadorian roses that had been dyed orange, green and turquoise — and now were being shaped to resemble the feathers of a parrot, for the dial of a Ballon Bleu du Cartier watch.
The bespectacled artist, whom Cartier would not permit to be identified because of its personnel policies, had been trained as a cabinetmaker and had used his marquetry skills to devise the trimming method. First, he tried using a very small scalpel, but it dented the petals’ edges. When other ideas failed, he designed the table saw, about five feet long, customizing it to his own body shape and sensitivities.
It was, he said later in an email, “a thrill” to see the finished crossbow saw for the first time. “I would never have thought I would be transforming rose petals into parrot feathers. It’s magical.”
It has been a year since Cartier opened its Maison des Métiers d’Art, an atelier that has brought together about 30 highly skilled artisans and craftspeople to, well, create magic. Having everyone under the same roof enables them to share know-how and to develop even more,” Edouard Mignon, the product and services director at Cartier Horlogerie, wrote in an email. “What’s more, this ambiance of creativity is not supported by meetings or other boring tools but is simply generated by the building itself. Since the people are close together, they can talk and share, without having someone tell them what to do.”
Before the Bernese-style farmhouse, which dates to 1872, was opened in its new iteration last November, the artisans had worked in different spaces in the company’s watch manufacturing complex nearby. Their skills are used in limited-edition watches, restricted to fewer than 20 pieces of any design.
Cartier, which is owned by the luxury giant Richemont, had three main goals for the farmhouse project, including the preservation of techniques that are rarely taught anymore, and the sharing of expertise among craftspeople, as well as the watch engineers and creative team. The last and maybe the most significant goal was to innovate, creating new skills such as the floral marquetry. “It is really a challenge for them, but also they are really proud and it raises the bar really amazingly, so it is good for everyone,” Mr. Mignon said during a telephone interview. “Learning the trade of your neighbor, you can also adjust your own trade, especially when you mix the techniques.”
The farmhouse’s renovation took about 18 months and was designed by a local architect, Stephane Horni, who also created the watch manufacturing building. Mr. Mignon said the company’s specifications for the remodeling were somewhat difficult to achieve, considering the building’s original design. Cartier wanted an airy interior and open-space workshops, but the traditional farmhouse — the boardroom is where the animals used to be kept — did not have a lot of light and did have a lot of walls.
The exterior retains the look of a 19th-century Swiss farmhouse, but inside there is a mix of the historic — exposed beams, stone floors and some of the original woodwork — and California start-up features like floor-to-ceiling windows and an atrium with a glass elevator. Maria Doulton, editor and founder of the website The Jewellery Editor, said the farmhouse proved Cartier’s commitment to preserving and extending craft. “The ability to have craftsmen of this sort is, in itself, a huge extravagance,” she said. “People like Fabergé could afford to have a number of artisans all in one place. That opulence was possible when luxury really was luxurious, as opposed to what it has become today.”
The métier d’artistes, who wear white lab coats like scientists, perform a wide range of tasks — using expensive microscopes for the precision placement of diamonds on watch dials and cheap Bic lighters to fire up small torches used in the gold granulation process to make the Rotonde de Cartier panther watch. To create the piece, gold threads are heated, instantly forming into small balls. Those tiny balls — eventually numbering in the thousands — are calibrated with a sieve-like device and strategically placed on the watch dial to create a three-dimensional feline image.
The Etruscans invented the granulation process, but over the millennia the technique was lost. Cartier designers, artists and watchmakers were determined to figure it out, so on a research trip to Paris they met with experts at the Louvre for help. The company also used a particle accelerator on antique pieces to determine how their makers had attached the golden balls. “If you heat them too much, they will melt on the dial,” Mr. Mignon said. “So there was a real secrecy by the Etruscans, because it was not evident how to do it. And it took us more than a year to be able to weld the first grain onto our first dial.”
It is exciting to rediscover such techniques — this year, the artisans have been working on a filigree technique that dates to the Sumerians — and to create new ones. But it also can be time-consuming and frustrating: The research and re-creation of the Etruscan technique, for example, took about three years from start to finish.
Any of the new discoveries or designs developed at the farmhouse will not be seen by the public until the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the watch show held every January in Geneva. “I think in order to keep things interesting, they are going to have to invent new things,” Ms. Doulton said, “as there are only so many wooden marquetry bear dials that you can make before ‘been there, done that, moving on.”’
While the artisans — who must have four years of basic art training and 10,000 hours of experience to be hired — meet with designers and watchmakers each week to discuss progress, they also go on annual field trips to discover different métier d’art practices. A recent journey took them to central France to meet the Benedictine monks at Ligugé Abbey and learn their technique for making a gold paste. The Cartier artisans mixed that knowledge with the traditional enamel technique called grisaille, in which enamel becomes whiter as more coats are added, to create a gold paste grisaille, used to create a leopard in black and gold on one watch dial. “The project really expresses very well the essence of the maison,” Mr. Mignon said. “Preserving old techniques while always trying to make them evolve.”
There is, of course, value in all of this experimentation. Not only do the watches sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars when they first come onto the market, but they also retain — and gain — worth over time. “People value these pieces, and there are collectors who specifically collect these as art,” said Thomas Perazzi, the head of Christie’s watch department in Geneva. “For sure there is demand, and collectors know that these techniques are extremely difficult to produce. It is not just the pleasure to have in their collection these kinds of objects, but potentially to have a return on their investment.”