GENEVA (Reuters) - Anita Porchet has a skill that Swiss watchmakers can't afford to do without. As an enamel painter, she decorates watches for the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin which can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the industry is facing a severe shortage of craftsmen and women who have mastered the techniques of enamel painting, marquetry and engine-turning - at a time when there is growing demand for high-end handmade watches.
One of Porchet's masterpieces is a miniature painting on a watch dial of Marc Chagall's ceiling of the Opera Garnier in Paris which took her three months to create.
Having been taught by her godfather as a teenager and worked tirelessly to refine her art over the years, the 53-year-old is determined to stay independent and has resisted recent overtures from big brands that wanted to recruit her.
"I said no. I want to keep my freedom to be able to explore my creative possibilities," she said. "Many old women have taught me their enamel secrets in their kitchen."
The clamoring for her skills reflects the industry's wider problem.
"I have seen some crafts disappear during the last 30 years," said Juan-Carlos Torres, head of Vacheron Constantin, which is owned by Richemont. "Engine-turning almost disappeared, enameling as well, (at one point) there were only two or three decent enamellers left in the world."
Faced with this dearth of talent, the likes of Richemont and Breguet owner Swatch Group - hungry for the high margins offered by the handmade watch segment - are trying to recruit artisans and investing in training programmes so they can secure these skills by bringing them in-house.
Richemont, which also owns Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Piaget and is the biggest player in high-end watches, is currently building a fine watchmaking campus in Geneva where it will train enamel painters and engravers for its own needs from 2016 - part of a 60 million Swiss franc ($67 million) investment in training and research over 10 years.
Decorative crafts have a long tradition in Geneva, tracing their roots back to the 17th century and the arrival of the Huguenots from France who turned to decorating watches because other luxury objects were banned at the time.
Enamel painting is one of the oldest techniques, Patek Philippe, whose most sophisticated timepieces can cost $1 million, says on its website. The painters apply a vitreous substance based on silica sand and colored with metal oxides that is later fired at over 800 degrees Celsius.
"At the last firing, a piece can be damaged, it can crack. A lot of patience is needed for this difficult work," said Sandrine Stern, head of creation at Patek Philippe. "Miniature painting on enamel is even more rare, it's a true gift."
In engine-turning or "guillochage", an expert creates kaleidoscopic patterns on metal with a hand-operated machine, while marquetry involves assembling up to hundreds of tiny pieces of wood, straw or even dried flowers to create an image.
After their heyday in the 19th century, artistic watches and the know-how needed to make them entered a period of slow decline, coming close to extinction in the 1970s when the market for mechanical, hand-decorated watches collapsed due to the arrival of cheaper, battery-powered quartz watches.
Because of the consequent lack of demand for watch decoration, training programmes were scrapped, such as the renowned enamel painting course offered by Geneva's art school.
But growing appetite for luxury goods from the 1990s led to renewed interest in Swiss mechanical watches, with sales growth in the high-end segment outperforming growth in entry and mid-priced watches over the last decade.
The number of Swiss mechanical watches exported more than doubled from 2.7 million in 2000 to 6.8 million in the first 11 months of 2013, while the number of quartz watches dropped from 28.7 million to 19.1 million, according to the Swiss Watch Federation. Over the same period, the average price of a Swiss watch rose to 728 francs from 323 francs.
High margins - Richemont's operating margin exceeds 31 percent versus around 23 percent for midprice-focused Swatch - are also attracting new players to the high-end segment, such as Hermes' watch unit.
"ANYBODY CAN HAVE LACQUER"
If complex technical achievements are the bread of high-end watchmakers, sophisticated handmade decorations are the butter, allowing them to justify sky-high price tags to consumers in search of exclusivity and lasting value.
"If I used lacquer instead of enamel, I could sell a watch for 80,000 euros ($109,000) instead of 110,000 euros. I could sell more but what is the value in the eyes of customers? None. Anybody can have lacquer," said Vacheron's Torres, adding an enameled dial now cost 15-20 times more than 15 years ago.
Despite the rising demand for those rare watch decoration skills in the last decade, in Switzerland only jewelers, engravers and polishers can sign up for official training programmes, the Fine Watchmaking Foundation said.
Enamel painting and engine-turning are only passed on from artisan to artisan in the country. The watch industry employers' association, Convention Patronale, offered training sessions with an engine-turner in recent years, but had to stop because the artisan passed away.
Enamel painting and marquetry courses exist abroad, notably in France, but they are not specifically for watches.
Yann von Kaenel, an independent engine-turner who employs about 10 people in his workshop, says he does not have the time and means to train apprentices and would not want to see them absorb his knowledge and then join a big group.
However now, as well as companies investing in training, the Convention Patronale said it had been asked by a group of watch brands to reopen a course for enamel painters. "We're looking into it," said training head Severine Favre.
Despite the push by brands such as Richemont to pull such skills in-house, family-owned Patek Philippe insists it is just as important to support independent artisans, who it says are often more creative and innovative.
"It has never been our goal to make everything internally. There are many independent artisans, they are artists and don't necessarily like working office hours," said Patek's Stern.
Porchet said she was happy the boom of enamel painting kept her busy, but she also sounded a note of caution about big companies investing in training to increase production.
"It's not good if the market is flooded with pieces - there's a risk enamel becomes banal and people lose interest."
($1 = 0.7319 euros); ($1 = 0.8987 Swiss francs)
(Editing by Pravin Char)