Watchmakers’ tools are known for being practical. Colorful? No.
But for the Swiss designer Nathalie Jean-Louis, a specialist in decorating watch movements, necessity should meet beauty. “In order to feel good,” she said, “I like to be surrounded by objects that I like, whether it’s at home or in my workshop.”
That feeling was the inspiration for her retail business, Watchmaking Tools Art, founded in 2020. With the help of local artisans, the 43-year-old adorns watchmaking tools and swivel office chairs with vivid colors and motifs such as a blue camouflage pattern or a splash of tie-dye. At the moment the line primarily features loupes, the small magnifying glasses that some watchmakers are rarely seen without.
She also plans to include in her lineup jewelry made from vintage watches’ parts and movements, set with precious stones and decorated with different watch decoration techniques such as anglage (the French term for chamfering, a hand-finishing technique to make sharp right angles more visually attractive).
The business began because “I had these wooden loupes, but I found that they aged rather quickly,” she said during a recent video call from the wooden-beamed atelier she shares with a jewelry designer in Bienne, Switzerland, at the foot of the Jura mountain range. “Wood is alive, so it becomes dull.
“I always had this idea of making beautiful loupes,” she added. “It took me a while to find the artisans to make them, to find the technique to use.”
In 2020, she said, she finally met the right people — a small Swiss company of artisans that she won’t identify for competitive reasons — and together they adapted a water printing technique (also known as hydro dipping) to apply decorations to loupes. The process is commonly used to decorate items ranging from car dashboards to bike helmets: Patterns are printed on hydrographic film, a plastic that dissolves in water, allowing the released inks to then attach themselves to objects immersed in the water.
The artisans who work with Ms. Jean-Louis are color specialists who use the same process to decorate watch parts such as cases, bridges and mainplates. “That’s why I approached them, because they have this spirit of precision and technicality that I needed to achieve this,” she said.
While they had never used the technique for larger objects, she said they did not hesitate to try. “They managed to do it, even though it was complex to do it on a cylindrical part,” she said. “It’s quite an art to plunge this part more or less quickly, with delicacy, tilted in a certain way. You have to have a special touch.”
Once a piece is decorated, varnish is applied and then allowed to dry; the complete process takes a few hours, depending on the complexity of the design.
The loupes are made of aluminum, with a choice of three magnifying levels, and she buys them from a supplier in Switzerland. “With plastic loupes, the problem is condensation; you have to make holes to let the air through to avoid fogging,” Ms. Jean-Louis said. “With aluminum, after two or three minutes worn to the eye, the material will warm up and we won’t have this problem of condensation.”
Currently Ms. Jean-Louis buys the decorative patterns, but she said she is considering creating her own custom designs. One of the company’s best-selling styles is Dragon Ball Z (115 Swiss francs, or $125), a colorful piece depicting characters from the Japanese manga and anime series. Ms. Jean-Louis also embellishes some loupes with craft techniques such as gold leaf and feather inlay.
The company sells primarily through its website, but Ms. Jean-Louis also displays the loupes in her atelier window (during the interview, a man walked in to inquire about one).
Other than Watchmaking Tools Art, very few companies make decorative tools for watchmakers. One of them is Horotec, founded in 1946 in the Swiss watchmaking town La Chaux-de-Fonds, which now makes more than 14,000 specialized watch assembly and repair tools. In September it began to sell watchmaking presses, used for work such as attaching bezels to cases, that have been decorated with the same water printing method employed by Ms. Jean-Louis’s company.
“Up until now,” said Eric Zuccatti, managing director at Horotec, “the colors of tools were military style, very gray-green.”
Horotec’s signature red and black tools were considered innovative when they were introduced about 30 years ago, he said — but now the company is applying motifs such as wood and graffiti to a limited-edition series of its presses. “It’s still very new, in the sense that there is still a great respect for traditions in the industry,” he said. “People tend to think, ‘This is a watchmaking tool; it’s a watchmaking job; and it’s better not to be colorful.’”
The basic design of some watchmaking tools has not changed a great deal over the years, Mr. Zuccatti said: “Some designs date from 50 or even 100 years and still perfectly match the operation. There’s no point in making it more or less different if it works very well.”
But things have changed a lot when it comes to availability. “There are a lot of Chinese who have entered the market on Alibaba, for example. You can find low-end watchmaking tools, about the tenth of the price of what we sell,” he said. “But those are pure imitation products and disposable tools that you use once and throw away afterwards.”
Durability is an important aspect for watchmaking tools, especially for young watchmakers who are getting started. “New tools cost a fortune but can be found for a few hundred euros at watch exchanges or on secondhand websites,” Matthieu Lopez of the Horlogerie du Passage repair shop in Paris wrote in an email. “We can also buy material from workshops that are closing.”
For Ms. Jean-Louis, watchmaker tools and their decoration have deep meaning beyond just the price. “I’m always keen to bring this creative side, this beautiful side, in the watchmaking world, which is still very masculine,” she said. “There are so many women who work in these workshops, in the shadows.”
When it comes to younger generations of female watch enthusiasts, Amandine, a 12-year-old social media influencer in Geneva, became a fan after she received two loupes last year as gifts from Ms. Jean-Louis. “These loupes are so cooooool,” Amandine wrote in an email. “I love the colors, the style, and they’re top quality to look at watches.” (She is identified by her first name in public and online, an arrangement her parents said was for her safety.)
Ms. Jean-Louis’s family has a history in watchmaking — her maternal grandparents worked in the industry — but she initially studied fine arts at Académie de Meuron in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, only entering the field in 2004, after the birth of her son.
“I started as a decorator on watch movements at Piaget, in La Côte-aux-Fées, the historical birthplace of Piaget,” she said. She did semi-manual decoration, meaning she sometimes used small motorized hand tools. “I saw this side of the watchmaking world that I didn’t know at all,” she said. “I also discovered that it was possible to work in the same way, but completely handmade with a file.”
In 2007, she joined the well-known independent brand Greubel Forsey. “We had the chance to really take our time to produce the most beautiful pieces we could,” she said. “We didn’t work in a productive spirit, but in the spirit of perfection.”
And then, in 2011, she became an independent artisan. “I really had this impulse to launch myself, to believe in myself, in my abilities,” she said. “And also to challenge myself, because, I am very shy, very reserved. I did a lot of work on myself to reach my dream.”
In addition to her watchmaking work, Ms. Jean-Louis also offers online training courses for decoration and anglage. “I’m working on a project to create an official structure,” she said, to create a training program that would be recognized by the state educational system and the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, an industry organization.
And with her watchmaking tools, she wants to put a little joy on workbenches. “With the period we went through with Covid, we were all separated by plexiglass windows, which created barriers, even psychological ones, that have always remained.”