As strange as it may sound nowadays, there are still people out there gazing at mechanical timepieces to actually tell the time. Though they may be archaic, they’re one of the easiest and most efficient ways of telling the time. Unique among all of the high-tech gadgets out there today, a mechanical wristwatch will continue to display the time as long as you keep giving it life. For those of us who still have mechanical timepieces, have you ever noticed the look of your dial and wondered about the many techniques used and the overall effect they have on the watch’s appearance.
In my opinion, the dial makes the watch. Regardless of the case, the strap, and whatever else may be going on with the watch, the dial is ultimately the part of the timepiece that not only garners the most attention, but also draws it, too. The dial is the window to a watch’s soul, which is why every little detail of the dial has to be well thought out. There are many dial finishes to choose from, so we thought we’d highlight a few.
Guilloché is a technique often used in watchmaking to not only increase depth within the dial, but also showcase the fine art of dial finishing. Technically, it is an art form used to engrave markings onto a dial in repeated patterns or morié surfaces where sets of lines are superimposed onto one another. The most traditional guilloché is done using a lathe, which is a manually-operated machine that rotates the dial on its own axis (though it’s not only used for dials) while a sharp tool deploys light pressure and repeatedly chisels lines thinner than a strand of hair, creating what it known as tapestry.
There are a couple of ways to make guilloché dials: by machine or by hand. Let’s take the Audemars Piguet famous Royal Oak Grand Tapisserie motif, often called “clou de Paris” because it reminds people of the cobbled roads in Paris. This pattern is created by hand guillochage using an engine lathe and a straight-line machine. The lathe moves in a circular motion and the machine moves in straight lines, together creating this beautifully-patterned dial. Machine guillochage is a more automated process performed under the guidance of the guillochéur.
Both methods require great levels of dexterity, artistry, patience, concentration, and of course, technical knowledge. We shouldn’t fail to mention the many different types of guilloché patterns such as Hobnail guilloché, Barleycorn guilloché, Vieux Panier guilloché, Sunburst guilloché, and Grenadier guilloché, to name but a few.
Enamel, like guilloché, is a technique that is used in watchmaking to create some of the most beautiful watch dials the world has ever seen. Similar to guilloché, it is an art form that requires high levels of technical ability. But what exactly does this term mean, and what kind of techniques exist? I think it’s important to remember that each enamel dial is unique in its own way; no two enamel dials are the same. So if you have one, it’s completely unique.
The word enamel comes from the Old German word “smelzan,” which was later known as “esmail” in Old French. Today, you’ll see the term “email” (French for enamel) written on dials featuring the material and technique. Similarly, the term “emaillage” is a French reference to enameling. According to Vacheron Constantin, “the art of enameling was invented by oriental craftsmen nearly 4,000 years ago. With the development of watchmaking in the 17th century, Geneva became the centre of Grand Feu miniature enameling for watch decoration.”
Enamel is a soft glass composed of silica, red lead, and soda. When mixed with other elements, enamel is capable of creating intense hues with subtle, magical depths. Elements used to add hue to enamel include iron, chromium, and iodine, which produces grey, green, and red colors respectively. When enamel is heated to temperatures of 800-1200 degrees Celsius, it liquefies and bonds to metal. Enamel is applied to watch dials using a goose quill. It must be slowly built up to create the appropriate depth so that its color attains the correct hue.
There is no single formula for enamel, which is where the art comes in. The enamel artist can create an infinite variety of colors by using different combinations of silica and metal oxides. In fact, the process of creating enamel is a decorative art that requires a tremendous amount of skill and patience from start to finish. The problem with enamel is that it’s incredibly hard to control and at any stage during the production of an enamel dial, it may crack, air or gas bubbles might emerge and leave tiny holes, or the resulting color might simply be less than optimal.
Each enameling technique requires its own specific skill and precision. The most commonly-seen styles of enameling in the world of haute horlogerie are Grand Feu, closonné, and champlevé. The term “Grand Feu” typically refers to a distinct technique where the artisan applies layers of oxides to the dial and then puts it in a fire several times, allowing the motifs and colors to appear gradually. Once complete, the decorations cannot be changed, giving these dials a sense of longevity.
Cloisonné is an enameling technique in which the outline of the dial design is formed by first adding gold wire or thin cloisons (French for partitions) to the dial that will eventually become a pattern. These remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often several colors. Cloisonné-enameled objects utilize enamel powder turned into a paste, which then needs to be fired in a kiln.
Champlevé is an enameling technique in which metal is carved away with a tool, usually a burin, and the resulting cells are filled with enamel. The piece is then fired until the enamel melts and when cooled, the surface of the object is polished.
As you can see, each enameling technique has a different outcome on the dial and the overall watch effect. While Grand Feu is probably a purer kind of enameling, I think the champlevé and cloissoné techniques are opposites of one another. Where champlevé is more of a reducing process (i.e. hollowing out, or taking away parts of the dial), cloisonné adds compartments to the dial.
Today we’ve only touched on a couple of dial techniques that create some of the most wonderful, interesting, and beautiful dials seen on the watch market today. But there are more out there. In the coming weeks we will be exploring more dial techniques, so stay tuned.