You may not have heard the name of Kees Engelbarts but you’ve probably seen his work without even knowing it. He’s engraved watches for the best in the game, including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Van Cleef & Arpels, Vacheron Constantin, and grand independent master Philippe Dufour—and this is only a partial list.
In the watch world, most companies place emphasis on technical advancement and non-traditional expressions of time. For example, there are double, triple and quadruple tourbillons going through all sorts of funky gyrations; there are also upside down watches, exploding analog time displays and rotating cubes, among a host of time representations. All of this technical masterminding holds no interest for Engelbarts. He approaches watches from another perspective, getting turned on by the aesthetics instead.
From the time he can remember, Engelbarts, who was born in Holland and lives in Geneva, had an artistic bent. After finishing university, he considered going to an art academy but his father nixed that idea, convincing the young lad that he would be living the life of a starving artist. If he wanted to express himself, learning a craft was a much better option. By chance Engelbarts happened into the workshop of engraver Piet Klaasing, and in Engelbarts words, he “fell in love”. Klaasing was turning a piece of metal into a backdrop for cupids with bows and arrows. Engelbarts had no idea you could engrave metal like that. He thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do!”
After several years of dedicated schooling, a few years at independent workshops and a turn at Frank Muller, Engelbarts went independent himself and earned a reputation as one of the go-to guys for skeletonizing and engraving watches. Engelbarts calls his method a synthesis of different disciplines, from skeletonizing and engraving to gem setting and the use of the ancient art of mokume gane.
What sets Engelbarts apart from others in his trade is his restlessness. He’s like a runner who wants to hit the wall so he can push through to the other side. Once Engelbarts finishes a piece, he never wants to revisit it again so he can move on to the next challenge. Every creation is a bespoke piece.
Squinting through a microscope that magnifies from five to 10 times, Engelbarts decorates with painstaking care. But the extremely close view isn’t the only one he has to consider. “This doesn’t mean that you can be sloppy on the details,” Engelbarts says. “A good engraving has to look good from a distance but certainly also when inspected closely! A bit like a nice girl, when you look from a distance you’re intrigued and curious and when you get closer you see how beautiful she is.”
For his latest work, Engelbarts just finished this oceanic piece, which looks like an underwater forest. The composition came alive without a plan or an image or a drawing. It was just Engelbarts wrestling with the material for a month until it came into being, a way of working that gives him total freedom. “When I make a watch for myself, time is not the most important factor, my satisfaction is.” says Engelbarts. “Therefore I can spend hours, sometimes days on a tiny little detail that I want to be perfect!”
How the watch works is a bit of a mystery, as the wheels don’t seem to connect. Engelbarts assures the movement, which is a Technotime 718.00 double barrel movement with 5 days power reserve, works just fine. In a 42mm platinum case, the watch features a dial made from Damascus steel, oxidized to give it the rich color. Damascening was originally a method to make swords extremely sharp yet also beautifully patterned like flowing water.
This unique piece is for sale because as Engelbarts says he can’t “”Vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche”, which translates to: live from love and fresh water. Price upon request through his website www.kees.ch.