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
The American watch case factories were geared for a much more
mass-produced, with stamping machines, engine turning machines, and
case (Figure 1. Niello silver, and rose gold case
Figure 2A, above and below. Floral Signed Huegenin)
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 Huegenin 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
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.
Figure 2B, right and below. Signed Huegenin
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
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.
Niello silver, and
rose gold case
Floral Signed Huegenin
above and below.
Figure 3. below.
Figure 4. below.
Art Nouveau floral motif
Figure 5. below.
Art Nouveau Lady Liberty motif
Figure 6. below.
Eagle with ribbon swirl motif
Art Deco dot pattern
Art Deco wavy line style