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A Time for Cloisonné

Cloisonné is a French word that refers to an ancient and meticulously detailed technique for designing metalwork. This technique, which requires thin silver or gold wire strips to separate the object into compartments, has been used for clothing, weapons, and jewelry, among other things. From its place of origin — the Ancient Near East — this style traveled eastward, reaching China in the 14th century. The “compartments” (called cloisons) made by wire edges were filled with brightly colored gemstones and glass inlays or, in more recent eras, enamel. These inlays are made into intricate and ornate patterns that inevitably attract the eye. It’s not surprising, therefore, that pieces of jewelry with this design would fetch a heavy sum. Especially one that is also a timepiece, where this tricky design technique is made even more complex by the presence of the inner gears and outer hands that move along the watch’s face. A wristwatch made with a cloisonné dial is fairly rare. Even rarer — given this method’s frailty — is a cloisonné dial that is still in perfect, never-been-repaired, condition.

For these reasons, the 18-karat gold Rolex in Christie’s December auction of Important Watches attracted an impressive sum. The dial of this automatic wristwatch depicts an exquisitely colorful map of the Western Hemisphere, replete with fish and seagull shapes and daggers as well as a polychrome cloisonné compass in the bottom left quarter of the face. After an estimate of $200,000-$400,000 value, the piece sold in New York for $425,000. A great catch, according to Jeffrey Hess, who co-wrote a book about Rolex watches. Hess generally avoids offering advice to collectors about what to buy, but when it comes to cloisonné dial watches, he is more than willing to break his own rule. They are, as he explains, “the crowning glory of any collection.”

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