Inside the studio of an unlikely Scottish start-up giving new life to a rare watchmaking tradition
Read on the Telegraph’s website here
From its Kelvingrove atelier, start-up watchmaker anOrdain is offering a modern take on enamel dial watches. “In many ways I probably wasn’t the right person to get involved in this,” admits Lewis Heath, a 35-year-old architecture graduate, whose Glaswegian watchmaking project, anOrdain, is as unlikely as it is cheering.
“I didn’t know much about watches, but I was looking for something that would be distinct, and for ways to get artisans here to adapt what they were already doing to watchmaking.”
Heath’s idea was to set up a workshop, and a start-up watch brand, to master one of horology’s most elevated creative forms: the making of enamel dials in the “grand feu” – or vitreous enamel – tradition.
Such dials have an airy translucence and depth that’s unique to the art form, and can only be realised through hours of delicate handwork that in Switzerland is a long-cherished tradition. In Scotland, no such tradition exists.
Nevertheless, anOrdain, named after a Highland loch where Heath spent his childhood summers, began taking its first orders for watches this autumn, after almost three years of painstaking experimental work.
The timepieces, all with automatic Swiss movements and a clean, graphic style, are a world away from the grand classicism associated with traditional Swiss enamel dials, and also a world away in terms of price, at just £1,050. The dials of the Model 1 series are in jewel-like red, blue or pink enamel tones, as well as milky white or black. A hand-wound Model 2, meanwhile, is already in development.
“I wanted to fuse modern design with something artisanal,” explains Heath. “When you see the colours and richness you can use with enamel, and think how you could mix that with interesting typography and design, I thought you could have something quite special.”
In an old Kelvingrove sandstone building that otherwise houses the Scottish Trades Union Congress, anOrdain occupies a workshop that is both craft atelier and creative studio. Heath co-founded his original business, the audiophile head-phone maker RHA, when architecture was failing to satisfy his creative itch. He has funded anOrdain’s developmental years entirely on savings that he built up while he ran RHA.
Working amid piles of warped and cracked experimental dials and shelves stacked with little vials of coloured enamelling powders, the team includes a full-time watchmaker who assembles each watch, a typographer hired straight out of Glasgow School of Art, a graphic designer and two enamellers, with Heath overseeing.
The enamelling process involves sifting coloured glass powder onto a blank copper dial, firing it in an oven at 800C, then carefully sanding it to perfect flatness. Each dial contains up to eight such layers, and takes a couple of days to make.
“Our lead enameller, Adam [Henderson], was a silversmith and jewellery designer, so he had some knowledge, but it’s the tolerances you need to make this sit in a watch case that are challenging,” says Heath, noting that the 1.2mm dials cannot be even half a millimetre thicker, while the surface must be perfectly flat.
“It can’t be a 10th of a millimetre higher on one side,” he continues. “The challenge is getting to those kinds of tolerances by hand, and that has taken two-and-a-half years to work out.”
The dial markings are also printed on to the enamel in-house, and anOrdain has been able to add in a little more Scottish inspiration here: when the team found that the traditional dial inks were not achieving the desired relief effect, they tracked down and sourced an ink used in the whisky industry for printing on glass.
“We have learned so much, and had to find our own solutions through a process of trial and error, to develop our own techniques,” adds Heath. “This isn’t a Swiss dial made in Britain, it’s its own proposition.”