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Artisans Spend Hundreds of Hours Working on These $100,000 Watch Dials

Decorative arts at its most painstaking.
Ulysse Nardin’s Jade Jellyfish.

Ulysse Nardin’s Jade Jellyfish.

Photographer: Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh for Bloomberg Businessweek

Get watch collectors riled up, and you’ll be flooded with a litany of reasons why elaborate complications, movement finishing, and the other mechanical intricacies of haute horology matter. But most watch­makers have something else they like to brag about: rare, sumptuous dials handcrafted by elite studios of artisans.

These métiers d’art workshops produce one-of-a-kind, highly ornamental faces, using ­centuries-old techniques to celebrate a company’s history. Elaborate enamel work—which first gained prominence in the 16th century, the early days of the pocket watch—is employed most frequently. Enamel is essentially glass melted together with a pigment, but its application can be quite complex. In the champlevé method, pools and channels are carved in the dial plate to hold the mixture; in cloisonné, visible wires “fence in” the enamel for a stained-glass-window effect; in pailloné, craftsmen insert foil sheets between the glass layers to add sparkle.