If you read part one of our watch dials article, then you probably recall that we started by looking at some of the more classic dial techniques that are still used today. We discussed how the classic techniques are implemented and what their results look like. In part two, we’re going to look at some of the somewhat newer and downright crazy techniques used in today’s era of watchmaking. In my opinion, the dial is the window to the watch’s soul. Therefore, every little detail on the dial has to be well thought out. The dial finish also has a large impact on the overall feel of the watch, which is what we will once again explore in this article.
Frosting, is not a new technique, in fact it is centuries old. Breguet has been credited with pioneering watchmaking inventions from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the “frosted” finish is one of them (“finition grenée” in French). At the time, frosting protected dials and movements from oxidation – more common in Breguet’s day – which added subdued vivacity to movement plates. Traditional frosting methods involved dangerous acids; these have largely been replaced by the environmentally (and medically) safer method of carefully compressing the surface with a wire brush.
However, this is a much more difficult process to master and makes it challenging to obtain a uniform, non-polished surface. Very few artisans today create true frosted finishes: The majority of surfaces that look frosted have in fact been bead blasted, which does not quite have the same visual impact. That said, some time ago MB&F used this old-fashioned art form to create a beautifully stunning dial with tons of depth.
As you may already know, watch dials are most commonly made from brass plates, but of course, they can be finished in a variety of ways. Some of the most common finishes are brushed or matte, which can then be coated in lacquer. However, over the years watch brands have started to use lacquer on plain black or white dials, which affords a very intense, but equally attractive and striking tone, in terms of appearance. Using the lacquer in this way almost gives the dial an enamel effect. Of course, this is a less intensive process and doesn’t require as many layers, but it does offer a very smooth and even-toned look; making white lacquered dials look like porcelain and black akin to a dark sea of ink.
However, a Japanese lacquer technique is now being applied to watch dials too. This technique is a rather complex one that is known natively as maki-e, which translates to “sprinkled picture.” Maki-e is a traditional multi-tiered lacquering method, where fine colored or precious metal dust, such as gold or silver, is applied to form a design or picture on a lacquer surface while it’s still wet. A rare varnish, which comes directly from a lacquer tree, acts as a protective clear glue between each successive layer, allowing the artist to give the finished scene depth and perspective.
Tremblage is an engraving technique most often seen on the high-end timepieces from A. Lange & Söhne. When Lange uses this engraving technique on any of their timepieces, they include the word “Handwerkskunst,” (the art of craftsmanship). The trembalage engraving technique is achieved by the use of a burin, which is a very fine-tipped chisel (a custom-made tool, unique to every engraver). The burin is used to make a series of pinprick marks on a metal surface. This engraving is not only painstakingly time consuming, but also requires tremendous patience and skill. However, the resulting effect is nothing short of breathtaking and when seen in person, the illusion of depth is amazing.
Last, but by no means least, are openworked dials. But what exactly are these? Openworked is a term now used to describe a skeletonized watch, which is in essence the absence of a dial altogether. Skeletonizing is a technique that requires a deft hand, but above all, patience. It requires removing metal from the movement, or inner mechanism of a watch. The goal in this method of decorating is to create as much transparency as possible without compromising the durability or accuracy of the timepiece. It requires the artist to drill tiny holes in different movement components, and then use a piercing file and saw to cut out all but a thin rim of metal.
This exposes the movement and reveals the heart of the timepiece. Openworked dials also allow for some other new features: ornaments. Openworked dials allow brands to insert decorated or jewel encrusted ornaments into watch dials, taking them to a whole new level and nearly bringing them to life.
As mentioned before, the dial is a window into a watch’s soul, and in some cases, directly into the heart of a timepiece. That said, watch dial techniques continue to evolve and old techniques are reborn. We hope you’ve gotten a sense of the role of the dial in the overall appeal of a watch through this two-part article.