Art on the Wrist: Craftsmanship Worthy of the Muses

Mosaic art developed during Greco-Roman times with the purpose of creating decorative geometric and figurative designs on floors and walls. It was dramatically enhanced in the 8th century with the use of colored paste developed by Venetian glassmakers and then brought to a whole new level by Byzantine craftsmen, using gold leaf coated with protective glass in order to enhance the brilliance of the small cubes or tesserae—each carefully inclined to catch the light and create mesmerizing effects. 
Giacomo Raffaeli is credited with inventing, in 18th century Rome, a new mixture of fused silica mixed with metallic oxides that could be spun and turned into thin rods, which could then be cut into tiny tesserae measuring less than one millimeter in diameter. The art of micro-mosaic was born and quickly embraced by others. One of the most notable early masters, Antonio Aguatti, further refined the art with a technical innovation that allowed for multiple hues to be combined in a single rod, thus significantly enhancing coloration possibilities.

“Initially the technique was applied to painting, and this art was called an "eternal painting" because paintings were reproduced with the clear advantage that the color would not fade like oil paint did,” explains Leo Placuzzi, President of SICIS, a Ravena-based company founded in 1987 that launched its first jewelry and watch line at Baselworld 2012 and propagates the tradition of micro-mosaics. Paintings in the Vatican museum were reproduced with this technique and then, “the experts in micro-mosaics started to apply the technique to jewels,” Placuzzi added.
Emily Barber, department director for jewelry at Bonhams, notes that although micro-mosaic jewelry started to be made in the late 18th century, it only became fashionable during the 19th century.
The artistic technique was given a royal seal of approval by Napoleon and his wife Empress Josephine Bonaparte, both of whom became avid collectors after Pope Pius VII presented Napoleon with a pair of vases and a clock decorated with micro-mosaic for his coronation in 1804. During the occupation of Rome by Napoleon’s forces in 1808‑1814, the Vatican workshops were commissioned to create pieces to furnish Napoleon’s apartments at the Palazzo Quirinale; the emperor liked to present micro-mosaics as gifts to dignitaries, even as his wife spent lavishly on decorative jewelry.
Placuzzi of SICIS explains that at the time, the jewelry pieces created were brooches, medallions, and charms, “mainly classic portraits of the Roman times, or landscapes with a classic touch, in a few cases naturalistic elements like flower compositions.”
The word mosaic derives from the Greek musaik√≤n, which means “patient work, worthy of the Muses,” and the craftsman using the technique on a timepiece will indeed have to summon up all their patience to realize a motif, especially if using hard stones, instead of the glass rods to create its mosaic. Then the stones have to be split to create very thin slices, maybe 0.4 mm thick, which are then further cut into tessarae that will be positioned one by one with a very fine pair of tweezers on an engraved plate to create the composition.
Olivier Vaucher of Atelier Olivier Vaucher, who has worked for Cartier on several occasions, has developed a machine that allows him to engrave his already thin stone slabs to create what look like miniature chocolate tablets, in effect, pre-cut squares thinly attached to each other to make them easier to handle. Pairs of tweezers are his indispensable tools: one, a more rigid set, to break off and hold the pieces, and a much finer, more delicate pair to position the tesserae in the mosaic.

In 2010, Cartier released a stunning Rotonde de Cartier 42 mm watch with a turtle mosaic motif, created by Vaucher, using gemstones like onyx, falcon’s eye, tiger’s eye, yellow pietersite, and yellow agate, amongst others. Last year, the jeweler presented the Santos-Dumont XL watch with a horse motif of gemstone mosaic using different types of jasper stones, pink opal, and chocolate obsidian. The dial actually used two different mosaic techniques—one with the tiny square tessarae to create the background, and one with irregular-shaped cacholong tesserae to make up the thoroughbred motif. This year, Cartier unveiled a new Rotonde de Cartier Mystery Movement watch decorated with a royal white tiger or Bengal tiger motif made out of cacholong on a blue background of lapis lazuli, dumortierite, and blue agate. According to the company, 30 to 40 hours are needed for the creation of the background of the dial and an extra 25 to 30 hours for the tiger itself with around 500 tesserae.

Last year, Piaget also presented an Altiplano micro-mosaic dial that interpreted the famous rose Yves Piaget, and this year as part of its Mythical Collection, the watchmaker unveiled two Piaget Procole XXL Micro-Mosaic that represent evocative landscapes from India and China.
Armed with epic patience, master craftsmen of time-pieces are successfully layering the tradition of mosaic artwork on their noteworthy creations.