A radiantly smiling Vanessa Lecci welcomes us to her studio in Peseux, in the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Sunlight pours in through the windows. Born in Salve in the province of Lecce, in the Apulia region of south-east Italy, she tells us that natural light is as important for her personal well-being as it is for her profession – a profession she compares to that of a stylist, “dressing” a timepiece not with cloth but with the enamel she applies to it. One of the world’s rare ‘Grand Feu’ enamellers, her artist’s palette consists of 400 colours of transparent and opaque pieces of glass, some of which are a hundred years old, in order to have “the right enamel for the right metal”, depending on whether the base material is copper, silver or gold. And if her precious stock of colours is not enough, she places a request with the international enamellers’ association to help her find the one she needs.
Enamel is coloured glass, which Lecci grinds manually into powder using a mortar and pestle – a process that can take up to two days depending on the size and the hardness of the glass – to obtain a fine powder. Experience has taught her that, in addition to the visual aspect of the powder, sound is equally important, “to know how well it is crushed”. When completed, she adds a small amount of water to bind the powder, and also to clean any impurities that may have been in the enamel, before applying it to a metal base, usually a dial, colour by colour. Each colour is fired in a kiln at an extremely high temperature, at which point the enamel liquifies then fuses, altering the colour in the process. This delicate procedure can be repeated, “three, four or five times, but preferably not more, “otherwise the metal starts to suffer”. Between each firing looms the possibility that cracks, air bubbles or an undesired colour may develop, with only one solution: discard the piece and start all over again.
Bringing dials to life
“I try to give a soul to a mechanical object with a technique that is 100% artisanal,” she says, bringing her dials to life with rich colours and intricate details. Lecci masters different enamelling styles, although she specialises in the ‘cloisonné’ technique that consists of fixing a metal (gold, in Lecci’s case) wire no thicker than a human hair to create tiny partitions on a metal surface to form a pre-determined image or pattern. “I like working with the infinitely small,” she asserts. Once in place, the partitioned spaces are filled in with enamel colours and fired at 780°C to 810°C for “not quite a minute, it depends”. She carefully monitors developments inside the kiln in order to remove the enamel at the precise moment it liquifies.
Repeating the operation successfully provides gorgeous hues and illusions of depth. It is important that the dial be not too thin – “a minimum of 0.8 mm, and the thicker the better” for resistance. First she discusses with her client as to which watch is suitable, or not; if a particular model requires the dial to be exceedingly thin, they choose another together. Sometimes a new style is created ‘just’ to show off the dial. Recent examples of memorable collaborations include the Classic Fusion Enamel Britto with Hublot, for which she reproduced the work of Brazilian artist Romero Britto on 85 dials for two limited editions, and the Parmigiani Toric Tecnica Les Carpes de Sandoz, a unique piece for which both the dial and the hinged double case-back are enamelled with a special ‘cloisonné à gouttes’ technique for a raised ‘3D’ effect.
Yet another technique – ‘invisible cloisonné’ that consists of removing the partitioning wires just before each firing – was adapted for the first time to watchmaking for the Ciel de Corée (Korean Sky) for Vacheron Constantin. The dials feature a gently swirling sky background with 1,500 gold powder stars individually positioned in their exact location following a precise celestial chart. It took two and a half months to complete the limited series of one grey and two blue pieces. All techniques, whether cloisonné, champlevé, plique-à-jour, à l’ancienne, miniature painting or grisaille, are mastered at L’Officina de l’émail, where Lecci has been joined by Jiyoun Han Parrat from Seoul, South Korea, who brings with her, among other specialities, Japanese enamelling techniques. Between them, they propose jewellery and timepiece enamelling for private clients and watchmaking brands.
A second passion for sport
So what about the volleyball champion? Raised in an artistic environment with a mother who paints and also sculpts marble “that she chisels by hand”, Lecci first studied “the classics” before withdrawing to study Fine Arts, “probably in my DNA”. She wanted to work with “materials” and learn all the techniques relating to their transformation, from wrought iron to chiselling, from stone-setting to engraving, and especially enamelling – “the only technique that gives colour to metal. Also, it was the most difficult, and I love difficulties”.
But Lecci has a second passion, sport, and played volleyball while studying Fine Arts. Her team became League A champion in Italy! Joining a friend in Neuchâtel for a friendly match while on vacation, she was spotted by the Swiss national ladies’ coach and offered a contract to play professionally in Switzerland. One year later, having completed her studies, she left Italy to join the Neuchâtel team where she played and eventually coached, winning four championships during the next five to six years.
Not forgetting her love of fine arts, Lecci studied stone-setting while pursuing her volleyball career, and eventually left the sport when she was hired by Cartier in La Chaux-de-Fonds to set unique pieces for their Collection Privée Cartier Paris. Shortly after, she was sent to Cartier Geneva to learn how to apply her talents of enamelling to watchmaking. She then returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds to develop the company’s in-house enamelling studio there. Cartier was followed by Girard-Perregaux. Several years later, she was recruited by Patek Philippe to work as the in-house enameller for exclusive and unique “cloisonné” pieces. She stayed with Patek until establishing herself independently to work and experiment with all techniques.
Does she ever propose dial designs to the client? “These are limited series or unique pieces that cost a great deal of money and every brand has its style,” she says. “It is my role to interpret that style with my work and not impose a particular style on them. It is up to me to go towards them and not the contrary.” Lecci does, nonetheless, conclude that given the intimate contact she has with “her pieces”, each dial, even when part of a series, is “unique, with its own personality”. Exactly like herself.
The writer would like to thank the Seddiqi watch company in Dubai for their invitation to attend the Dubai Watch Week Tour in Switzerland as part of their continuing programme to promote the values of high watchmaking.