THE NIELLO WATCH CASE.
ARTISTRY IN TIME
BY JAMES H. WOLF.
Pocket watches are collected and admired for many reasons.
Mechanical ingenuity, accuracy of time-keeping and superior
engineering of the movements are aspects which lead to the value we
place on antique watches. There is also the artistic element which is
exhibited on beautifully engraved watch cases. Multi-color gold cases
have been eagerly collected for many years, and they represent the
pinnacle of American case production. Along with fancy engraved gold
cases and multi-colors, pocket watch cases were also decorated with
various forms of enamel. Enameled watch cases were not produced by
American factories except for some scarcer examples which were
generally from the earlier years (pre-1900.) Larger gent's watch cases
were rarely embellished with enamel, and the ladies enamel cases were
typically specialty items which were produced for the European market.
Inspired by the great Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, a new
type of ornamented watch case appeared in the early 1900s. The niello
watch case became a canvas for outstanding art works that will likely
never be duplicated. The term niello comes from the Latin word
nigellum that is the diminutive of niger (black.) It was a technique
used by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians. Niello is
a black or blackish-blue composition of lead, silver, copper, sulfur
and ammonium chloride. The mixture is fused onto an engraved or
cut-out metal base by firing the mix in a process similar to champleve'
enameling. Silver was the most often used metal for niello objects
since the soft white silver color contrasted beautifully with the
darker niello. Rose-gold inlay work was also seen in combination with
niello and tri-color effects were achieved by the use of rose-gold,
niello and silver (Figure 1.) When the niello was heated and fired
onto a silver watch case, it actually fused with the silver very
strongly, almost as if it were soldered in place. The niello would be
filled, finished and polished, leaving the surface of the watch case
smooth and flat. One can readily assume that the process of engraving
the areas which were to be filled with niello, the firing stages, and
the finishing stages were very time consuming and therefore costly.
Aside from the production end, the niello cases also had to be
designed by artists who would pre-determine the subject matter and
then the cases were finished by engravers who produced the fine
The American watch case factories were geared for a much more
mass-produced, with stamping machines, engine turning machines, and
case designs that were used over and over again. The costly niello
cases were never produced in quantity by the American factories;
however, a few factories or workshops in Switzerland did specialize in
case manufacture with an emphasis on decoration and design.
These fine makers included the
Huguenin Brothers of Le Locle
(Figures 2a and 2b,) Duchene of Geneva, and Ed Favre of Le Locle.
Longines of St, Imier also played a prominent role in the design and
marketing of decorative watches during the early 1900s. Longine
products not only have fine movements but the cases were always
interesting and attractive in design. A very ornate engraving style
known as taille-douce was used on solid gold watches of the period
(Figure 3,) while niello was favored for the silver cases. The
outstanding attention to detail that these fine Swiss houses showed
was due in part to the watches being marketed to diverse cultures
worldwide. The cases needed to have an instant appeal in order to
catch the eye of a potential buyer. The engravings reflected this with
designs and thematic material that were en vogue and very exciting and
new for the time. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences were the
main artistic impulses behind these rare niello cases.
The Art Nouveau period was rich in free flowing designs featuring
animals, flowers, and themes inspired by nature. The period began in
the early 1890s and was influenced by the symbolist movement in art
and literature. The Nouveau approach to art and design emphasized
figurative subject matter, imagination, and expressive quality which
contrasted with the older, more rigid, Victorian styles.
A premier jewelry designed of the period was Rene' Lalique of
Paris. His creations were remarkable for their imagination. The motifs
most often used were based on nature, mystical design, and exotic
Oriental art forms.
Enamel was used by the artists of the Noveau period in a style and
manner that was new and exciting. The color range expanded to include
nearly every shade imaginable and techniques such as plique-a-jour,
niello, and champleve' were perfected by the artists' of the period.
The Art Nouveau movement also used symbolism as a main part of the
design (Figures 4, 5 and 6.) By using certain figures from the natural
or spiritual world, the art and jewel objects took on an expressive
quality that represented a certain emotion or mood. Flowers were
thought to have a language of their own. The rose, for example,
represented youth and beauty, while the lily-of-the-valley was
recognized as a symbol of happiness. Animal figures were also
associated with certain emotions. A popular motif was the salamander,
which was thought to be able to live in fire and therefore became a
symbol of passionate love.
Niello watch cases are unique in that they exhibit influences of
both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco schools. The Art Deco period dated
from 1925 to the 1940s and the designs emphasized geometric shapes,
chromatic contrast, and linear styling (Figures 7 and 8.) With the
discovery of Tutankhamen in 1922, designers began using scarabs,
obelisks, and other motifs drawn from the ancient Egyptian arts. The
Deco period was also a time when man became more and more fascinated
with the new modern machines and inventions such as the automobile,
plane, air balloons, trains, etc. (Figure 9.) These became focal
points for many designs on niello watch cases. Sporting scenes and
equestrian motifs were also very popular.
The value levels for niello enamel cased watches are based on both
the design or subject matter and on the condition of the watch. In
general, scenes and portraits will bring higher prices than cases with
simple patterns, and hunter cases will be valued higher than open face
cases. Like any enameled object, scratches, chips, and flakes will
diminish value, while examples in mint condition will command a strong
premium. Pocket watches were often carried on a daily basis and put in
a pocket along with coins and other small objects, leading to damage
and wear. A niello, in pristine condition, is a rarity and this
condition is generally indicative of an "old stock" piece or
one that was never carried.
The wonderful period of art design which lead to the development of
the niello period quickly passed. By 1929, the world economy was
effected by the Wall Street crash, and the pocket watch market was
declining quickly. Much of the decline was due to the increasing
popularity of the bracelet watch or wrist watch. Hunter case watches
were the first to disappear and open face cases were not far behind.
All of this leads to the fact that niellos, a representative form of
an outstanding period in design, were produced in very limited
numbers. We will never again see such a magnificent "niche"
in the art of watch case design and decoration.
About the Author
James H. Wolf has been a member of the NAWCC since 1982 and an
active watch dealer with Ashland Investments since 1979. He is an
author of the Complete Price Guide to Antique Jewelry and a consultant
for the Complete Price Guide to Watches.
Niello silver, and
rose gold case.
above and below. Signed Huguenin
above and below.