Let’s assume you are new to mechanical – or luxury – watches. You’ve probably heard or read about the term ‘finishing’ when doing research about your (favorite) watches. But what does it mean? Does it influence the functioning of your watch? What’s the difference between hand-finished movements and finishing done by machines?
What is it about?
To answer those questions, let’s first explain what ‘finishing’ is all about. In the world of watches, finishing means decoration of a movement. It ranges from simple, machine-performed engraving on rotors, for example, to hand-engraved balance bridges.
Most mechanical movements have some form of decoration, or finishing. Some only have an engraved rotor, others have beautiful decorations solely on visible parts, and others still are completely hand-finished, even parts you can’t see through the display back.
Did you know that hand-beveling of bridges can take up to two hours? And that is per (small) bridge. This already gives away a huge factor in the cost of a watch, especially if the entire, or majority of the movement has been hand-finished. Only a few brands go this far, and master watchmaker Philippe Dufour is seen as the undisputed king of hand-finishing movements.
Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Philippe Dufour – all different
But does your watch with an ETA or Sellita (or similar) movement have a bit of finishing as well? That depends on the brand that uses them, of course. A lot of brands do indeed decorate these movements. The same goes for the in-house calibers from Rolex, Omega, Breitling, IWC, etc.; they also have their share of finishing. Though, this is mainly for those parts you are able to see through the display back. Côte de Genève, a bit of perlage (stippling), blued screws, and perhaps a skeletonized or engraved rotor are common types of finishing.
Does your sub-1,000 euros watch have a finished movement? It is very unlikely, although a customized rotor might be in there. A bit more expensive watches often have the bare minimum of finishing done by the supplier of the movements using modern (CNC) machines. ETA movements, for example, can be ordered into different ‘categories,’ or levels of finish.
Now, you might understand what sets apart the movements of Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe compared to those of Rolex, Omega, Breitling or Panerai, for example. These movements have a high grade of finish, partly done by hand. It effects the prices of these watches and it is up to you whether you appreciate the craftsmanship enough to pay premium prices for these brands.
High-end brands, often referred to as haute horlogerie, like the aforementioned Philippe Dufour, Grönefeld, Credor (Seiko), Kari Voutilainen, Laurent Ferrier, but also more common brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and A. Lange & Söhne have movements that are (partly) hand finished. It doesn’t necessarily make these watches better in terms of functionality or complications, but it shows the effort and time spent on manufacturing these movements (by hand).
The longer you are occupied with mechanical or luxury watches, the more appreciation you will get for craftsmanship done by hand. It takes a bit of understanding before you are able to fully grasp the skills required in order to perform these meticulous tasks.
So, now that you know why some brands have higher price tags than others, based solely on the level of (hand)finishing, let’s have a look at some of these techniques.
(Hand-)Engraving: It may sound simple, but it isn’t. Engraving is decoration done either by hand or machine that is created in relief, or by hollowing. It requires patience and a steady hand, as well as in-depth knowledge of drawing techniques and materials.
Côtes de Genève: One of the most famous decorative techniques for watches, besides engraving, is probably Côtes de Genève or Genève stripes. These regular parallel wave-like lines are mostly used on the visible surface of bridges and bars and should be impeccable. Although it is claimed that they serve a function (to collect dust), a lot of watchmakers claim this is nonsense for today’s wristwatches.
Perlage (or stippling): Perlage is a decoration featuring the overlapping of small circles on a movement plate. Perlage, or stippling, is quite expensive to perform, since the circular-graining machines are still very rare and expensive and thus, need to be operated by skilled craftsmen.
Bevelling: This is one of the most difficult and complex methods when it comes to finishing a movement. As written above, Philippe Dufour is considered the undisputed king of this technique. It consumes a lot of time and requires a lot of experience. Bevelling is the removal of edges of bridges (in most cases). It results in a 45-degree angle between the surface and flank. There are a couple of variants of hand-bevelling out there, but all require manual tools used with the right amount of pressure followed by polishing for a shiny result.
Blued Screws: Not only does it look nice, but the process of blueing screws will also harden the material and prevent it from being damaged by a screw-driver, for example. This requires the screw to be in a flame at a certain temperature for a specific period of time.
It is often important for a brand, but is it important for you?
The techniques above are just a couple examples of finishing. Keep in mind that the way a movement is designed and constructed will also influence its appearance, including the use of certain materials (think German silver, for example, and the ¾ plates used by Glashütte watch manufacturers). When a watch manufacturer decides to use chatons for their rubies, it also indicates a certain mindset when it comes to the importance of movement decoration.
Does finishing matter to you? It is something you can think about when purchasing your next watch. Watch manufacturers often mention finishing and decoration on their websites if they put forth some effort. It is certainly something to be proud of, as the above indicates.