Looking at these extraordinary handcrafted pieces by indie Dutch master engraver Kees Engelbarts, the first person you can imagine wearing one of these artworks is Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones as she rides astride her fire-wielding dragons. And I’m sure Engelbarts would enjoy our choice given his lively fantasy, his passion for mythical creatures and his dexterity in Vulcan’s forge to perform the millenary Japanese metalworking craft of Mokume Gane. The latest fantasy to emerge from his workshop is a trilogy of watches inspired by the legend of the Chinese Dragon Gate. Each unique piece represents a different stage in the legend and is represented by different artistic techniques, all crafted exclusively by hand. What is interesting here is that Engelbarts has invited other artists to collaborate in the creation of this unique trilogy that records the journey of the golden carp in its quest to conquer the Dragon Gate.
Kees Engelbarts is one of those secrets that once you discover, you almost want to keep to yourself! A master engraver who turned his hand to watchmaking in the late 1990s, Engelbarts could best be described as a performance artist in the watch cosmos. Capable of creating miniature scenes of breathtaking beauty and engaging in daring feats of skeletonisation, Engelbarts is an artist through and through. Trained as an engraver in Schoonhoven (known as the ‘Silver Town’) in Holland, Kees settled in Geneva in the 1990s. Turning his hand to the Lilliputian dimensions of watch dials, Engelbarts attracted plenty of commissions from high-end Swiss brands. In 1997, he decided to make his own watches, and, like any self-respecting painter or sculptor, his pieces are signed. With a hyper-limited production of only six to eight watches a year and a penchant for dragons, Mokume Gane and skeletonisation, Engelbarts’ handmade works of art are as unique as they are fascinating.
All three watches of the Chinese Dragon Gate Legend are cased in 925 Argentium (silver alloy with germanium) with a grainy matte finishing; they measure 39.5mm in diameter and are 10mm thick. The crown is 18k yellow gold, and the sapphire caseback displays the Peseux 330 new old stock movement from the 1960s. The dials, as you will see, are radically different and rely on different artistic techniques to illustrate the three main phases of the Chinese Dragon Gate legend, culminating in the conversion of the carp into a dragon. Even the Dauphine hands, made of white gold and silver, are given the Mokume Gane treatment to recreate the texture of wood.
The Chinese Dragon Gate Legend
This particular Chinese legend tells the tale of how thousands of Koi fish (golden carp) swum upstream against the strong current of the Yellow River but were confronted by an imposing waterfall that impeded their progress. The waterfall, built to control floods, was known as the Dragon Gate. Most of the carp were disheartened by the thundering waterfall and abandoned their journey. However, a few determined carp finally manage to leap over the Dragon Gate. In return for their perseverance and valour, the golden carp were transformed into mighty dragons. The image of a carp jumping over the Dragon’s Gate is an enduring Chinese cultural symbol for courage and perseverance: those who work and aim high will be rewarded.
The first watch of the trilogy depicts the carp struggling against the strong current. Hand-engraved by Dutch master engraver Kees Engelbarts in bas-relief, the dynamic 3D portrayal of the carp fighting the swirling currents is enthralling. Crafted in silver and white gold, Engelbarts employs the Japanese Mokume Gane technique to animate the scenery and expose the different layers of metal, producing an almost wood-like pattern in the metal. The meticulous attention to detail can be appreciated on the carp’s rainbow-coloured scales (etched and then chemically coloured) with its open fins and tail battling with the current. The wood grain effect achieved with Mokume Gane is evident in the golden coloured waters.
The second watch, which is half engraved and half enamelled, represents the gradual transformation of the carp into a dragon. While it retains some elements of the carp, such as the fins and tail, other dragon-like features start to materialise. You can see how claws are beginning to replace the fins and how the head has taken on ferocious dragon features, complete with bared teeth and spiky whiskers. The sinuous body of the carp/dragon is entirely hand-engraved by Engelbarts in solid silver. Representing the metamorphosis from fish to dragon, Engelbarts invited expert enameller Gael Colon to decorate the background scenery. A French artist who has worked at Lalique and Roger Dubuis, Colon has perfected his enamelling and miniature glass painting skills. The colourful enamel background, with frothy green and blue waters and a more menacing ochre sky, symbolises the transformation of the harmless carp into a fearsome dragon.
Tenacity has its rewards, and the transformation of the carp into an immortal dragon is complete. For this third and final watch in the trilogy, Engelbarts has given free rein to Colon’s skills to represent the dragon. Like the famous blue and white porcelain from China, Colon has chosen an intense blue ceramic base for the background, and the dragon is hand-painted in white. The effect creates an almost ghostly-like dragon suspended for time immemorial against the cosmic blue dial.
Engelbarts’ unique trilogy is presented, as you might have guessed, in a unique box made by Carré d’Ébène, a French company specialising in luxury display cases and jewellery boxes. The box was then lacquered with scenery inspired by the Dragon Gate Legend by Catherine Nicolas. Renowned for her outstanding lacquer work, lacquering the box took her more than 140 hours to complete.
As mentioned, all three watches are powered by a Peseux 330 new old stock movement from the 1960s, beating at 18,000vph and with a power reserve of 43 hours. In true Engelbarts style, the movement of each watch is also hand-engraved to complement the design of the dial with chemically coloured motifs in a psychedelic palette. The first watch features an Asian wave pattern, the second displays dynamic waves and clouds, and the third is decorated with clouds.
Completing the dynamic dials, each watch is paired with a hand-stitched strap. The Carp model comes with a mottled Nile perch strap, the Transformation watch with a green shark strap, and the Dragon with a blue crocodile strap, all fitted with a 925 Argentium pin buckle.
For more information, please visit Kees Engelbarts’ website. Studio photos by Guy Lucas de Peslouan.