By Calina Shevlin
Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from “Guilloché: From Watch Dials to Fantastic Creations,” a paper by Calina Shevlin that was published in the proceedings of the 2018 Santa Fe Symposium on Jewelry Manufacturing Technology.
Guilloché, the decorative art of mechanically engraving patterns using rose engines or straight-line machines, has been around for hundreds of years, and in that time, surprisingly, very little has changed. The technique was born around the turn of the 18th century in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Watch companies were early embracers of the technique, and they remain the primary practitioners even today. In fact, some of the big-name watch companies are still using the same decorations they started with in the 1700s. Because guilloché offers limitless possibilities, it’s hard to understand why more patterns are not being employed.
However, that may be changing. A few watch companies are just now becoming innovative with their guilloché. This means doing things beyond making just one single pattern and putting a transparent enamel over it. For example, ChronoSwiss has begun to use guilloché to decorate its watch movements.
While there is no denying that guilloché is absolutely mesmerizing to look at, adds sparkle, and leads the eye over an entire piece, one has to wonder why no one has thought to change the patterns, the work guilloché is applied to, or the forms over the years. To get to the bottom of this, I conducted research both in Europe and the U.S. that has revealed some startling evolutions happening in tandem that indicate where the future of guilloché may be headed.
In the nine years that I’ve been practicing guilloché, I have been exposed to two camps: the traditionalists, where only eight classic patterns are used and there is no room for experimentation, and the innovators, where anything goes. Most of the people I know who practice guilloché are innovators. There is nothing wrong with being strictly a traditionalist; it has its perks: A traditionalist who spends years perfecting a few patterns is likely to be highly sought out by watch companies that only want traditional objects.
Traditionalists also far outnumber the innovators currently. In Switzerland, the craft is taught to be perfect and nothing else, and the workers are taught to do only the classic eight patterns. There is no time for experimentation, and many of the people in these situations don’t have any interest in experimenting. The generation of guillochéurs who are now be-tween 65 and 75 years old was taught to be rigorous and strict and, by the time they were finished with daily work, were too tired to even think about different types of applications. Many were not passionate about guilloché as we might think of someone today, but were highly skilled workers, paid to be perfectionists.
But things seem to be changing, and its partially due to the way most artists are being introduced to and trained in the art. These days, there are two main ways to learn guilloché. The first is to find someone who has a machine and is willing to let you try your hand at it, and then ask for some guidance and knowledge. The other option is to find a machine and teach yourself through trial and error.
To create the pieces in her Fractals jewelry series, Shevlin will guilloché a large metal plate. After taping over the guilloché, she turns over the plate and maps and cuts out forms for earrings, bracelets, and pendants.
About half of the people who learned guilloché by way of mentor, professor, or apprenticeship training were told that guilloché had to be the absolute last step in decorating with the exception of enameling. The other half heard no such thing. This leads to the two distinct “personalities” in guillochage (the act of applying guilloché). The first group believes wholeheartedly that guilloché is so fragile and precious that it must be the last step. These people seem to hold themselves above any other practitioners because they are forced to create almost perfect work, and they consider guilloché to be one of the highest arts. The second group throws caution to the wind and does whatever the heck they want. This group likes to play, experiment, and, if they have some throwaway pieces, so be it.
I believe that the future of guilloché lies with those people in the innovative camp. For example, I have met a gentleman in Germany who creates round sheets of guilloché. He uses a male and female die to press the top and bottom halves with no obvious stretching or distortion of the pattern. In fact, unless the pattern is super tiny and super tight, there won’t be any obvious distortion. Why not use entire patterned sheets of guilloché to create Fabergé-style eggs? Perhaps you could even use a sheet patterned on both sides to create a little surprise for the owner of the piece.
As artists get more creative with the art form, we’ve seen a number of innovations to make the life of guillochage easier. Guillochéurs are now using binoculars to aid with sight, LED lights to allow longer working hours, and compressed air nozzles attached to get rid of swarf (the bits of cut metal).
The methods of holding a workpiece have varied over the years. Many of the rose engines and straight-line machines still in use are old, with their original parts lost or broken over the years. What do you do if you have no way of making a chuck for it? Many people have been using cyanoacrylates (such as Super Glue) to hold work securely and flat and yet easy to remove with a razorblade and a bit of acetone. I often employ this method, as well as using JettSett, when I don’t have a chuck handy. These aren’t much different from the shellac, wax, or pitch methods that have been used since the 1700s.
We’ve also seen the rise of new materials in rose engines and straight-line machines. I use rubbers/touches made from Delrin and steel, as opposed to the more commonly used all-steel rubbers. The rubbers function by being secured in place, usually on the left-hand side of the rosettes, and then the headstock with selected rosette rests on the rubber, much like how a pantograph transfers the design. The rubber rides along the rosette, which is turning, and in turn creates a rocking action in the form of the rosette, which is shown on the workpiece. The steel is the holder, and I have interchangeable tips, which I prefer to a whole host of rubbers. For me, space is an issue so to have interchangeable tips, as opposed to many different steel rubbers to store, is optimal.
For the last three to four years, I’ve noticed different types of materials being experimented with. From wood, acrylic, and exotic metals to bone, enamel, and Corian, guilloché is not only changing by way of process but also by the acceptable materials. Before this century, guilloché was applied to precious metals, brass, steel, sometimes horn, and not much else. I’ve experimented with acrylic and it cuts fantastically, although it needs a polish at the end. African blackwood would also make an excellent candidate for guilloché as a surface embellishment due to its ability to be work-polished.
There are contemporary artists such as Peter W. Gilroy and G. Phil Poirier who are extending their knowledge to new metals such as niobium and titanium, an interesting selection of metals that can be spot anodized. This is a great alternative to enameling and plating and can be used to emphasize only portions of guilloché. Gilroy uses anodizing on titanium much like a painter uses a brush to selectively add color. His guilloché is not background or prominent but rather in harmony and seems natural with all of the elements.
Peter W. Gilroy has started experimenting with applying guilloché to different materials, such as titanium. He anodizes areas of the titanium to selectively add color to his pieces.
Not only are new forming techniques and materials being used, but we must not discount the types of finishing as well. Guilloché is not only being covered with enamel or left bare, but it is also being gold-plated, anodized, and dyed. There is guilloché that is highly polished or completely matte. There are also combinations of all of the above methods being used in harmony. A highly polished piece is then decorated, select parts becoming matte with the use of abrasives or etching compounds, and some areas have selective color applied, all together in one piece.
With so many different combinations, the possibilities are expanding on how guilloché may look for the future. Guilloché does not need to be showcased, per se, but may be used as an accent, or it may be covered with other materials.
I happened to meet German jewelry artist Frieda Dörfer at an art gallery opening a few years ago. Dörfer sculpts her work after creating a large sheet of guilloché. She measures and lays out a pattern to cut and fold into various forms and then solders from behind.
What is most interesting about these pieces is the planning for the final shape, the alignment of the pattern beforehand, and the cuts made because everything lines up well. Dörfer makes extremely precise geometric shapes that showcase not only guilloché but also the form. Now she has moved on to making egg-form brooches, which are light and easy to wear. These eggs tend to keep the eye moving, not only because of the guilloché but also because of the form.
Frieda Dörfer silver brooch
What does the future hold for guilloché? I don’t know where the art form will go, but I believe that guilloché will only be as popular as the public wants it to be. Currently, the market remains limited, and guilloché is still pretty rare other than watch dials and some pens. But thanks to the advent and now almost obsessive use of social media, I think that guilloché will gain in popularity. I believe that there is now a platform to get our work out there to not only garner appreciation for the process but also to inform people of what exactly guilloché is and how time-intensive it is to create.
After people responded well to a few guilloché images I posted on my personal Instagram, I created an account for my studio. Not only is it a great way to disseminate information about the technique but also to get feedback on how well some of the creations are liked and which ones are bombing. It is like a weekly critique, which everyone needs.
And, most important, the more people who like an Instagram post, the more it is shared. This means that the future of guilloché may lie in social media and self-promotion. With a little effort and thought by the art’s practitioners, guilloché can now be presented in beautiful formats to entice the audience to interact, be curious, and learn about the modern applications this old technique offers.