Breguet Cameo engraving This in-depth article looks at the art of cameo engraving at Breguet.

  • WatchEast
  • June 12, 2017
  • Comments Off on Breguet Cameo engraving This in-depth article looks at the art of cameo engraving at Breguet.

A Breguet timepiece will always be rare. Indeed the exclusiveness of every Breguet watch has been memorialized by individual numbering dating back to the opening of the founder’s workshop on the Quai de l’Horloge in Paris in 1775. But there is an added dimension of singularity which accompanies every women’s Reine de Naples Cammea and Secret de la Reine. Both women’s timepieces feature and incorporate Italian hand carved sea shell cameos, in the case of the Cammea, for the dial and, in the case of the Secret, the case cover in the shape of a rose. For every watch, these natural cameo adornments are unique, each subtly asserting its individuality. In the language of watchmakers, every Reine de Naples Cammea or Secret can be called a piece unique as no two examples will be exactly alike.

Cameo engraving

Cameo carving is one of the world’s oldest art forms which historians can trace back to the 3rd century BC in Greece with carved stone pieces. The most acclaimed example of early Greek cameo carving from the 2nd century BC is the Tazza Farnese cup, the oldest surviving major cameo work. This exquisite sardonyx shell cup with its vivid color contrasts and three dimensional carved allegorical figures demonstrated the emotional power of carved relief images in white set upon a contrasting dark color background and came to define cameo expression for the more than two millennia which have ensued since its creation. Today, the sublime Tazza Farnese is housed in the Naples Archaelogical Museum. Over the centuries that have followed these early Greek efforts, in common with other art forms, the popularity of cameos waxed and waned. A tremendous surge in vogue, especially for shell cameos, occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria, whose fondness for them led her on occasion to wear more than one at a time. Adding to the fashion wave was Catherine the Great who likewise favored them. Along with the upswing in demand propelled by eager buyers in Victorian England came the flourishing of cameo artists working at the feet of Mount Vesuvius in the village of Torre del Greco. It was here that cameo carving of sea shells, as opposed to other carving materials such as glass or gemstones, found its natural home. And it is in Torre del Greco that, today, Breguet found a team, father and son, for the crafting of the cameo elements for its timepieces.

Cameo engraving

Although both historically and currently many different varieties of sea shells have been and are used for cameos, the finest works are carved using the sardonyx shell. Of course, all of Breguet’s cameos are realized in sardonyx. Sometimes colloquially referred to as “Helmet Snails” or “Emperor Queen Helmet Snails”, the scientific name for the sardonyx is “Cassis Madagascariensis”. The official name is hugely misleading because these mollusks are most commonly found not near Madagascar as the name would suggest but in the Western Atlantic. They are prized not only for their large size but for the striking color contrast naturally found in the shell. Although the outer layers of the sardonyx shell are milky white, as the artist carves down, darkly colored layers emerge. This double contrast, both in color and in depth, allows for the creation of white figures in relief lying above a dark background, the classic style roots of a the Tazza Farnese.

Cameo engraving

The art of cameo is deeply layered into the very fabric of life in Torre del Greco, its veins and traditions spanning generations within families. Breguet’s cameos are crafted by a father and son team, Pasquale and his son, Fabio. Pasquale acquired his craft from the Grand Master of Cameo Giuseppe Scialanga (1889–1960), his initiation coming at the age of but seven years when he began his apprenticeship. Fabio enrichened his training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Naples. Prior to their engagement by Breguet, Pasquale and Fabio were renowned for their shell cameos depicting Botticelli’s legendary Three Graces in Primavera (the original painting displayed in the Uffizi) and a variety of Biblical scenes and traditional images of Neapolitan saints.

Cameo engraving

The studio is tucked into a small apartment, bathed in natural light, and lying just south of Mount Vesuvius. Here since the beginning of their collaboration with Breguet, Fabio has been working exclusively on the dials and roses for the Reine de Naples; his father dividing his time between Breguet and other cameos. Historically, many of the shell cameos were carved upon shells brought into the port by Naples fisherman. That tradition no longer endures as shells of far higher quality, and certainly sardonyx, are purchased abroad by merchants who sell them to the artists in lots of 50–100 shells. These shells are completely natural and untreated. They arrive after a drying process which places the shells upon bamboo canes, leaving them in the open air for 12–18 months.

Cameos begin with a careful inspection and selection of the shells. Father and son meticulously scrutinize the best shells searching for the most miniscule signs of cracks or flaws, retaining only those shells deemed to be perfect. Once that sorting has been completed and a shell chosen, they must identify the areas on the shell suitable for a dial, in the case of the Cammea, or a rose, in the case of the Secret. At most a single shell may yield two dials or two to three roses. The shapes for a dial or a rose are marked in pencil upon the interior of the shell and, once satisfied with the choice, cut from the shell with a fine saw. Following the cutting, the edges are delicately smoothed and rounded. Several steps remain before the carving can begin. Mixing a solution of wax and pitch, the cut shell is mounted upon a wooden stick. Next the outer surface is leveled. Not only does this provide a flat surface, essential for a watch dial, but it removes the rough outer portion of the shell revealing the milky white layer that will become the image. Finally, they have their canvas and can begin the carving.

Cameo engraving

Fabio and Pasquale start by sketching the motif with pencil. The Cammea design is of a sunflower, with the hands nestled into a recess which is at the center of the flower. That, too, would be sketched upon the surface in the same way. Working with a form of awl, known as a bulino (originally invented by an Italian artist), they begin the process of scraping the surface. Large outlines at first, and then, with ever finer tipped tools, the details of the flower are delicately carved into the surface. The background colors emerge as the artists dig deeper into the layers of the shell. Most importantly, all of the colors are naturally present in the shell; nothing is painted upon it or added to it. The revealed color of every shell is unique in tone, opacity and depth within the shell. When this diversity of color is combined with the subtle variations in the flower motif that come from hand sketching followed by hand carving, it can truly be said that each cameo stands apart from all others.

It should be remembered that the cameo for the Reine de Naples Cammea is the dial of the watch. Thus, this miniature tableau must marry their artistic virtuosity and the strict demands for fitting to a watch’s movement, hands and case. When the cameo carving is completed, several flat spots on the back are located and a base, for precise fixing to the movement, is glued into place.

Cameo engraving

The Reine de Naples Cammea is housed in a white gold case set with 40 diamonds (weighing 2.42 carats) around the bezel. The cameo rose of the Secret is fixed onto a hinged case cover, that, in its closed position, hides the dial from view, with the diamond set bezel appearing as a bow tied around the rose. Swinging the rose cover to the side on its hinge, reveals the secret, an invisible set diamond dial with a mother-of-pearl oval inscribed with the Breguet logo. The Secret is available in both rose gold and white gold, with either a leather strap or a woven gold bracelet. Both the Cammea and Secret are fitted with self-winding movements.

In addition, the cameo rose occupies a prominent place in Breguet’s Jewelry and Fine Jewelry collections as it adorns, depending upon the collection, earrings, rings, bracelets, pendants and necklaces in a variety of sizes and in different combinations of gold and pearls.

The Reine de Naples Cammea and Secret de la Reine stand alone in the world of fine watchmaking as the only timepieces offering the art of cameo. Not only are they unique for their uniting of a traditional craft with haute horlogerie, but each example asserts its individuality in its colors and design.