Technical Article: “Art, History, and Processes of Guilloché Engraving, part 1” by G. Phil Poirier

April 15, 2016

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As SNAG’s new Director of Technical Education, I am pleased to introduce part one of an article on Guilloché by G. Phil Poirier of Bonny Doon Engineering. Guilloché, also known as engine turning, is an exquisitely beautiful, highly technical, historical process that has unlimited applications in contemporary metalwork. If you’ve ever been intrigued by steam punk technology, you will be fascinated to see a rose engine in action and may be tempted to learn more.

A special thanks to Phil Poirier and The Santa Fe Symposium for sharing this in-depth excerpt from a past Symposium paper. SNAG has a strong commitment to preserving and sharing technical information through its new Technical Program with articles such as this, upcoming collaborative process articles, and wisdom from the field.  –Victoria Lansford

“Art, History, and Processes of Guilloché Engraving, part 1” by G. Phil Poirier, Poirier Studio and Bonny Doon Engineering

Taos, NM
Published with permission of the Santa Fe Symposium where it was first presented in 2015.

Many modern day designers benefit by understanding historical processes which have long been forgotten. The Guilloché style of pattern engraving is one such process.

There has been a recent re-discovery of the Guilloché process by a few jewelry designers and watch makers. This presentation will connect the historical knowledge with the present desire to learn and understand this process. It will show how these rare machines work and how they are used to create the optical effects seen on the surfaces of masterful works of art such as those made by Faberge, Breguet and others.

Part I: Definition and History
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica defines the term “Guilloché” as an architectural element, a French word for an ornament 1, either painted or carved, which was one of the principal decorative bands employed by the Greeks in their temples or on their vases. The definition continues “Guillochés are single, double or triple; they consist of a series of circles equidistant one from the other and enclosed in a band which winds round them and interlaces.” Figure 1 shows a triple Guilloché band on the column base at the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

The term Guilloché within the jewelry and watchmaking industries is used to identify the engraving made by the trade Rose Engine, Straight Line Engine, and Brocading Machines.

“Guilloché” is synonymous with the term “Engine Turning”, and often abbreviated as “ET”. For the sake of this paper we will use ET and Guilloché synonymously and interchangeably.

“OT” is the abbreviation of the Ornamental Lathe, the precursor to the Rose Engine or ET lathe. The OT lathe is used primarily for wood and other soft materials including the historic use on ivory in the previous centuries.

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Figure 1 Triple Guilloché band on the column base at the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

Early history and lineage of the Ornamental Lathe.
Evidence exists of the earliest lathe in use by the first millennium BC 2. These lathes were used for turning wood or similar soft materials. Early lathes were primarily used for simple ornamental work, spindles as legs for chairs and tables, bowls, and small objects such as cups and boxes.

The simple lathe evolved with the addition of the axial movement of the spindle which allowed for screw cutting on the lathe. The Ornamental Turning (OT) lathe as we know it today evolved slowly during the lathe’s early history from 600 B.C. through to 1500 A.D. The OT lathe then evolved dramatically during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The earliest evidence of the metal cutting lathe is in the first half of the 15th century where we also find a crosslide holding a fixed point tool 2. By 1569 examples of chucks which allowed for eccentric and elliptical turning were developed and put to use.2

One of the earliest published illustrations of an ornamental lathe is in Besson’s “Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum” 3. Shown in Figure 2 are several of the ornamental additions to a lathe. A tracing guide is shown above the bed of the lathe which was used for repeating a shape or pattern. A “Swash” plate, which is the slanted cam at either end of the lathe, is set to a prescribed angle and imparts all radial movement with an axial motion and is shown at both ends of the spindle.

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Figure 2 One of the earliest known illustrations of an ornamental lathe.

The first great Treatise on Turning was written during the last half of the 17th century by Plumier “Art Du Tourneur4, published in 1701, although the work was produced between 1653 and 1675. It contains numerous illustrations of ornamental lathes and their accessories such as the elliptical chuck for turning elliptical pieces (Figure 3, lower half), rosettes for rocking radially and/or pumping axially which produce ornamental objets d’ art (Figure 3, upper half), along with cams for “swash” turning. (Figure 4, F and P).

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Figure 3 Illustration of Rose Engine parts from Plumier “L’Art de Tourner en Perfection”, 1701.

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Figure 4 Early OT Lathe spindles and examples from Plumier “L’Art de Tourner en Perfection”, 1701.

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Figure 5 Rose Engine from Diderot’s “Art du Tourneur”, 1772.

The Encyclopedia of Diderot & D’Alembert 5, included a volume titled “Art du Tourneur”, 1772. In it are many early examples of rose engines and their accessories, including details showing both axial and radial rosettes used to pump the spindle axially (along the long axis of the spindle) and rock the spindle radially (perpendicular to the long axis of the spindle) (Figure 5, B and C). There was a great proliferation of these machines during The Age of Enlightenment due to rapid spread of knowledge brought about by the new philosophy of shared information and a growing publishing industry. This was the first time a book was published in great numbers which allowed for anyone to create the machines shown and described. Up to this time all of this information was held and kept secret by the guild system.

Ornamental turning became a popular pastime in the homes of European royalty. All of the European courts had a room dedicated for turning mainly for educational and entertainment purposes. At this time the art of turning had its foundation based in philosophy. The philosophy being that all things mechanical and all natural things were the same. Descartes wrote in 1644 “I know no difference between machines that the craftsman make and the various bodies that nature make on its own”.6 Therefore, the wisdom of the day was, to understand a machine, such as an ornamental lathe, was to understand Natures’ inner workings. This philosophy spread rapidly through the aristocracy and the courts and saw the rapid adoption of the ornamental lathe as an educational device and a mechanical marvel.

The earliest Royalty believed to own and use an ornamental lathe was Emperor Maximilian I of Austria in 1500. Tsar Peter I the Great of Russia; the Prussian Kings Frederick III and IV; Louis XV and XVI of France, the kings of Denmark, and King George III and King James I of England all owned and used finely made ornamental turning lathes for their education, their entertainment, and their philosophical studies. 6

It is speculated that guilloché on metal was first used between 1700 and 1750. Several examples of guilloché on silver and gold are located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dating from 1743. The majority of guilloché work at this time was performed on snuff boxes.

The French book, “Boites”, states that the earliest guilloché on metal was in the 18th century. “Franco-Swiss (guilloché) initially did appear at the XVIII century, and its use has developed heavy around 1750. But it was not until the years 1770-1780 and the invention of a colorless fondant called “enamel of Geneve” was manufactured for the first boxes with (enamel on) guilloché background.” 7

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Figure 6 Earliest illustrations of Guilloché from Bergeron’s “Manual du Turneur”, 1816.

The first published examples of Straight-line and Rose engine for Guilloché on metal are included in Bergeron’s “Manual du Turneur” in 1816 8, (Figure 6 & 7). It was in the printing of these illustrations that the printing plates themselves had guilloché applied to them, then they were inked and pressed.

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Figure 7. From Manual d’ Tourner, Bergeron, 1816, showing an early example of a straight line engine and work created from it.

Guilloché’s use in watches and watch cases began around 1780. The Swiss based Abraham-Louis Breguet began to apply guilloché to his watches around 1785. It soon became known as their signature style and today is utilized in the majority of their watches.

As recent as 1902 there was an official guilloché class under the school of engraving within the “university” of industrial and applied arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds Switzerland, the same place that produced many of the engine turning machines such as Lienhard, Güdel, and Lang.

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Figure 8 One of 16 known Holtzapffel Rose Engine OT lathes.

No discussion of guilloché and ornamental turning would be complete without the mention of the work done by the Holtzapffel Company. The London firm Holtzapffel is most famous for its ornamental lathes made between 1794 and 1914. Founded by John Jacob Holtzapffel I (1768-1835), and later run by his son, Charles Holtzapffel (1806–1847), and then grandson, John Jacob Holtzapffel II (1836-1897). Producing over 2000 lathes, of which it is believed that 16 were Rose Engines Figure 8.

Charles and John Jacob also produced 5 volumes titled “Turning and Mechanical Manipulation on the Lathe9 which to this day is still referenced by modern day engineers and designers. The recent publication (2012) “Holtzapffel Volume VI” has been produced by John Edwards10. It is a compendium of rare and previously unpublished material related to OT, and includes handwritten notebooks that Holtzapffel wrote for his customers to be used as manuals for their tools.

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Figure 9 Holtzapffel Geometric Chuck, used to create Figures 10-13.

One notable item shown in the books by Plumier, Diderot, Bergeron and Holtzapffel is the Geometric chuck (Figure 9). The Geometric chuck creates cycloidal patterns (Figures 10-13) not unlike a rose engine but of a truly different type of line creation. The line drawn by a Geometric chuck is a single continuous line whereas rose engine work is a collection of many concentric lines. The Geometric chuck was soon put to use in security printing of bank notes, stamps, and legal documents. It produces curves similar to the modern day Spirograph. These curves are known as roulettes or cycloids. When the geometric chuck is combined with multiple geometric chucks the number of possible patterns quickly becomes astronomical which lends itself to creating engravings that are impossible to counterfeit, the analog form of encryption.

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Figure 10 Cycloidal pattern – Figure 11 Cycloidal pattern

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Figure 12 Cycloidal pattern – Figure 13 Cycloidal pattern


Images of early Guilloché examples:
Earliest examples from mid-18th century, snuffboxes.

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Figure 14 Unknown artist, Date: 1743–44 Culture: French (Paris) Medium: Gold Metropolitan Museum of Art Accession Number:48.187.478
This item is a candidate for having been made on an OT lathe due to the higher amplitudes of the cut design.

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Figure 15 Charles Le Bastier (apprenticed 1738, master 1754, active 1783)
Date: 1773/74 Medium: Gold, enamel
Metropolitan Museum of Art Accession Number: 17.190.1163

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Figure 16 Louis Michelin (apprenticed 1736, master 1751, active 1781) Date: 1752–53 Medium: Gold Metropolitan Museum of Art Accession Number:48.187.457

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Figure 17 Unknown artist, 1791, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md. #58.74

From Ornamental Turning to Guilloché:
No evidence is found which clearly shows the evolution from the OT lathe to the guilloché rose engine or ET lathe. The earliest forms of guilloché were likely made on ornamental lathes (Figure 14). Although very similar to the ornamental lathe, the guilloché rose engine evolved with several distinctions that differentiate it from the OT lathe.  The guilloché rose engine needed to be much more rigid to be able to engrave metal and leave a bright cut without marks made by vibration. The amplitude of the rosettes (difference between the peaks and valleys of the rosette) are also much lower on the guilloché rose engine due to the smaller size of the work pieces and the effects of amplitude on designs. Rose engines produced for the watch trade were made with numerous lobes on each rosette, sometimes upward of 360 lobes with very low amplitudes. The sliderests on guilloché lathes are considerably different. They include the ability to move the slide in repeatable increments and also include a radial movement which is utilized to keep the cutter always tangent to the surface of domed workpieces like watch cases and Fabergé Eggs.

Guilloché on gold and silver became very popular during the mid to late 19th century and reached its peak during the years 1880 through 1930. Fabergé (1846-1920) used Guilloché extensively as the background of his transparent enamels. This gave the workpieces a gem-like glow, or optical play-of-light. This optical effect is most notable in Figures 15 and 16.

Guilloché and engine turning machinery in America began with the Rhode Island firm of Chas. H. Field which started manufacturing Rose Engines around 1857. Charles was the son of a watchmaker and had several patents pertaining to watchcase making and engraving machines. The popularity of cuff buttons (cuff links), lockets, pens, and pen knives grew exponentially during the late 19th century and early 20th century. It is believed that the Chas. H. Field company produced more than 150 rose engines for the jewelry trade in Rhode Island at that time.

Peter DiCristofaro, director of the Providence Jewelry Museum writes: “American Engine Turning exploded in the middle of the 19th century. John Gorham’s English silversmiths brought ET knowledge and the vision of building ET machines to Providence, RI. His Gorham Mfg plant in 1862 had a significant ET department on Canal St. The size (of the work room) matched the burnishing room which corrected the defects in the very difficult manufacture of sterling silver/coin silver sheet. It is hypothesized that ET was a relief to the burnishing department as it covered the surface with the optical designs thereby removing the need to burnish.”

“The Gorham machinery records suggest that their machines were locally built “one offs” using local foundries and the skills of Charles Field.”

Shops proliferated around Providence and most of the ET machinery built centered on Charles Field who applied and received many patents for his Engine Turning inventions. The last of his patents and machines were built to engrave pen barrels for A.T. CROSS. After his death in 1893 his son Charles Field Jr continued until his death in 1922.

One interesting item to note is that during this time guilloché had become very popular which created high demand for product. A few new methods were employed to shorten the time needed to produce each piece. One method was to use a diamond point to burnish the lines rather than using a cutter to cut the lines. This saved time by not requiring the use of the Guide. The depth was controlled by the force required to scratch the surface which was minimal. This also allowed workers with less training to produce items for market.

Another method to speed the process was to guilloché directly into tool steel to create a die which would be used to then stamp the lines into the metal.

Both of these methods did work to reduce the time needed for each part but the quality of pattern was severely compromised. Present day attempts using CNC mills to create the same bright cut have been less than successful. This is due to the way a single point engraving tool is capable of leaving a very bright cut, rotational tools are not capable of the same.

Many pieces were produced with an almost complete covering of the item with guilloché believed to assist in hiding imperfections in the silver sheet. Figure 18 is a Gorham card case covered with guilloché.

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Figure 18 Example of silver work that is completely covered with guilloche.

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Figure 19 Rose engine built by the Swiss company Lang, 1880, Geneva, for the watch industry. It is clearly more compact and shows very low amplitude rosettes when compared with Ornamental lathes.

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Figure 20 G. Plant & Sons Trade rose engine.

Published with permission of the Santa Fe Symposium where it was first presented in 2015.


1. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911
2. Robert S. Woodbury, History of the Lathe, (Society for the History of Technology, 1961)
3. Jacques Besson, Theatrum Machinarium, (Lyon 1578)
4. L’Abbe Plumier, L’Art de Tourner en Perfection, 1701
5. Diderot & D’Alembert, Art du Tourneur, 1772
6. Dr. Klaus Maurice, Sovereigns as Turners, (Verlag Ineichen, Zurich,1985)
7. Jean-Yves Godechoux & Sophie de Bernis, Boites, 1880-1930, (Les editions de l’Amateur, 2001, Paris)
8. H. Bergeron, Manuel du Tourneur, 1816
9. Holtzapffel, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation on the Lathe, (Dover 1973 reprint of the original Volume 5 of 1894)
10. John Edwards, Holtzapffel Volume VI, (John Edwards Publisher, Kent, 2012) available directly from the author at, and his website:

For more reading:

George Daniels, Watchmaking, (Philip Wilson Publishers, London)
John Traina, The Faberge Case, (Harry N. Abrams, New York)
Clare le Corbeiller, European and American Snuff Boxes, 1730-1830 (Chancelor Press, London)
T.D. Walshaw, Ornamental Turning, (Dorset, Argus Books, 1990)
David Lindow’s Rose Engines can be found at
RGM Watches can be seen at
Rich Littlestone’s work can be seen at
Frieda Doerfer’s work can be seen at

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“Timeless Locket Watch,” 18K, by G. Phil Poirier & Guilloché and enamel box by G. Phil Poirier

PDF of this article

Part two of this article can be found here.

SNAG would like to take this opportunity to recognize our Corporate Members for their support: Aaron Faber Gallery, Halstead, NextFab, and Pocosin Arts.

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