Guilloché, also referred to as engine turning, is work produced on a rose engine or straight-line engine and refers to a method of mechanical engraving often used on metal, glass, clay, bone, or wood. The rose engine was developed in the 16th century, but found wide-scale popularity in the early 19th century when Abraham-Louis Breguet applied the craft to augment his watch dials, cases, and movements; many believe it reached its apex with the work of Russian goldsmith to the Tzar Peter Carl Fabergé.
The rose engine is best recognized for its role in the decoration of metal objects of art such as watches, clocks, and snuff boxes, but was also used widely in other popular media, ranging from decorative ivories to pottery, wooden artifacts, glass molds, the printing of stamps and stock certificates, and plastic injection moldings. The patterns produced can be applied directly to the surface of an object or through transfer by use of a mold or other method.
Our earliest printed record of engine turning appeared in a book from 1678 entitled Fe’libien’s Des Principes de l’Architecture. It later reappeared in 1683 in Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-Works.
A Box in the form of a rose, with a miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves, ca. 1539, can be seen in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as seen in figure 1, which dates engine turning a century prior to these publications.
By the late 16th century, turners Georg Friedel and Jakob Zeller, both from Dresden, were employing the rose engine lathe to turn highly complex compositions. One of the largest collections of this type resides at Pitti Palace in Florence; this group of 27 turnings was taken from Coburg, Germany, as spoils during the Thirty Years’ War and has remained intact to this day.
By the middle of the 17th century, the use of the rose engine lathe had spread across western Europe and Bergeron would publish his treatise on turning, Manuel du Tourneur, in 1792; the world would not see another such instruction manual for almost 200 years.
During the 18th century, the rose engine became the tool of the tradesman, and guilloché work on metal became the primary application. Despite this, the rose engine’s use broadened; decorated objects made from such materials as agate, ceramic, pewter, and even buttons can be seen. Josiah Wedgwood introduced engine turned decoration to his ceramics in 1763.
By the middle of the 18th century, guilloché patterns had become rather elaborate and were often overlain with enamel.
It can be seen that the engine turned cuts do not include more complex designs as seen on later work, where the cuts “cross” each other to create composite patterns. To accomplish this would require a “crossing plate,” which lathes such as those shown by Moxon lacked. However, by ca. 1760‒70, crossing plates are seen on rose engines, such as those owned by Louis XVI. Additionally, the straight-line engine and a straight-line chuck (an attachment for the rose engine) appear around this time. The introduction of elliptical and eccentric chucks also added to the variety of possible patterns.
Guilloché continued gaining popularity with craftsmen, and examples of engine decorated snuffboxes, musical boxes, singing bird boxes, and many other objects appeared.
From about 1790, engine turned objects found their way into popular circulation, likely owing to Abraham-Louis Breguet’s influence, which led to a wide use of basse-taille. According to George Daniels, Breguet’s watches “set a standard of thinness, elegance, simplicity, robustness and good timekeeping that make them sought all over Europe, including Russia”. His prominent style is depicted in the example shown in figures below.
Contemporary watchmakers still use Breguet’s work as a standard of excellence. Breguet’s trademark silver dials were often bleached, producing a whitish, matte surface that accentuates the engine turning. However, this finish is susceptible to degradation, and recovery is difficult, if not impossible. Craftsmen contemporary to Breguet manufactured objects with both guilloché and enamel; however, Breguet’s work into the 19th century set the bar for watches of this era and the guilloché on them.
With Thanks To
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England to learn more V&A
Musée international d'horlogerie de La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. to learn more MIH
To learn more about Brittany Nicole Cox mechanicalcurios.com
This article is based on an article for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works by Brittany Nicole Cox and David Lindow