Watch dials come in a dizzying array of colours, materials, and decorative flourishes. Though they are a few micrometres thin (roughly between 0.4mm to 0.8mm), dials are essentially the face of the watch (that is why the layman often regards them as watch faces) and invariably, brands.
Since dials are one of the most looked-at components of a timepiece, some manufactures go the extra mile to decorate them — this is not always an obvious thing to do because some types of craftsmanship carry a hefty price tag. On the other hand, some brands strip away the dial entirely, often paradoxically increasing the price, but that is another story.
Having already covered dress watches, chronographs, calendars and dual-time complications in this fitfully recurring buying guide, we are taking a look at decorated dials in this instalment. From techniques to materials, hand- versus machine-made and everything in between, decorated dials are plentiful but not always obvious, so buying one can be quite challenging if you do not know where to start. Hopefully, this buying guide will help streamline your thought and decision-making process for your next purchase.
Narrowing down decorated dials based on their material is perhaps one of the easiest ways to filter a purchase according to your preferences. While most watches use plated brass for dials, there is an extremely wide range of dial materials available in the market as watch brands and manufactures ramp up their creativity to stand out from the competition. Technological advancements, creative innovations and traditional artistry come together to result in some unexpected and interesting creations.
An enduring classic, enamel will always have a special place in the hearts of discerning connoisseurs because centuries-old gatekeepers of enamelling such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet continue to produce stellar pieces while new-school brands such as Glasgow-based anOrdain are beginning to interest collectors with their radical approach to enamelling.
While the aesthetics of precious metal such as gold or platinum and gem-set dials differ completely, such dials continue to dazzle and remain firmly perched at the upper echelons of watch offerings. Those who appreciate the intricacies and exquisiteness of métiers d’art will be thrilled to discover a world never thought to exist as exotic materials such as wood, paper, feathers and more find their way to the watchmaker’s bench and in exclusive releases (usually accompanied with eye-watering price tags). Unconventional materials such as bronze, silver and even scrap metal stand out for being unorthodox while futuristic options such as ceramic, carbon and sapphire have been on the rise in recent years, adding contemporary flavour.
- READ MORE: The WOW Conversation: Green Dials
There are instances where certain dials are only offered in limited quantities or certain configurations as watch manufactures try to ensure a level of exclusivity for these types watches. Whether it is for scarcity reasons (precious metals or minerals), painstaking techniques (enamelling or métiers d’art) or special editions, do expect extra outlay when considering such watches, as previously mentioned.
The ultra-exclusive A. Lange & Söhne Handwerkskunst models are examples of extreme scarcity, where the level of craftsmanship required limited production to 15, 20, or 30 pieces, depending on the model, since the launch of the collection in 2011. The Glashutte manufacture does not produce many watches even at the most basic level, and it has a reputation for going to great lengths to perfect every individual component (whether visible or not) of all its watches. The Handwerkskunst models are on an entirely different level.
The seven pieces listed on the brand’s website feature solid goal dials with several forms of decoration used in combination, including enamelling and various engraving techniques (tremblage, relief) that magnify the level of craftsmanship A. Lange & Söhne is renowned for. Combine that with the low production numbers and the very best calibres the Saxon manufacture has to offer, and you can expect an additional premium on top of the regular production models. Highly decorated dials often accompany the very best in mechanical or proprietary movements.
An example of reserving special dials for certain configurations is Rolex. As you play with their online configuration function, you will notice certain dial options are accessible when the appropriate requisite case material is selected. Want a streaky Widmanstätten pattern meteorite dial with a coronet? They are available only in precious metal variants of the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona and GMT-Master II. Selecting the Rolesor Date-Just grants you access to dials with diamond indices or mother-of-pearl dials accompanied by diamond indices, which are unavailable in Oystersteel. Diamond-set dials, as you would expect, are reserved for the heavyweights such as the Day-Date, Yacht-Master, gold Lady-Datejust and Pearlmaster.
The special editions of Zenith’s recently released 10-piece Zenith Defy Zero-G Sapphire and Nomos’s Tangente 38 For Doctors Without Borders are two examples of dial decorations on the extreme end of both spectrums. Getting your hands on the former will not only earn you an unforgettable parabolic zero-gravity flight with Novespace but also a chance to marvel at the meteorite, aventurine glass and Grand Feu enamel dial while the latter is instantly recognisable thanks to the simple red 12 numeral and “50 Ans De Médecins Sans Frontières” text printed at the bottom of the dial.
The hand vs machine debate
Another point of contention when buying decorated dials is deciding between handmade and machine-made dials. The distinction is obvious: one relies on the skill, dexterity and steadiness of the watchmaker’s hands while the other requires precision, uniformity and superb engineering.
Hermès artisans bring life to the lion in the 24-piece Arceau Wild Singapore with miniature painting and gold threads. Taking a week to complete a single dial, multiple layers of micro-painting are first applied on a gold dial and dried in a hot kiln. Hundreds of divots are then created on the dial before threads three times finer than a single human hair are embroidered and have their ends fused with gold after. Production volumes are much lower especially with highly complex dial and tedious techniques. Do expect a price tag to match such expertise as well.
Machine-made dials on the other hand undergo production in controlled environments. With automation and the support of state-of-the-art machines, production volumes can be adjusted accordingly to meet quotas. From stamping patterns and cutting the base plate, to punching index holes and shaving and polishing, each step uses specialised machinery programmed according to the needs of the manufacture. Stringent quality checks are employed along the way to ensure the dials meet certain standards. The printed tapisserie dial of the Tissot PRX Powermatic 80 is an example of a machine-made dial.
And finally, we would like to draw your attention to a third category that straddles handmade and machine-made dials — machine-assisted dials. These dials require the skill and experience of a watchmaker and are made with specialised machines. Guilloché or engine turning is one of the most traditional methods of dial decoration. With the help of a rose machine, mesmerising patterns such as Clou de Paris, flinqué or basketweaves are created.
The Grand Seiko SLGH005 “White Birch” dial is meticulously created by manually stamping a metal mould against the dial plate. Under normal circumstances, a single stamp is adequate. However, to create the intricate patterns of the white birch bark through relief patterning, at least seven stampings are required, each done with great care so as not to crack the dial plate.
We would like to add an extra note when considering these three categories, and that is your tolerance towards imperfections. In the instance of handmade dials, irregularities are celebrated while that cannot be said of machine-made dials.
If one were to compare all 24 finished dials of the Arceau Wild Singapore, no two dials will turn out the same — irregularities are what make each piece unique and are termed as the soul of the watchmaker. On the other hand, machine-made dials are expected to turn out uniform. Burrs, discoloration, or botches are frowned upon as one would expect crisp edges and defined textures from machine-made dials.
We consolidate our final thoughts with a note on durability and deal-breakers. One of the more important (though boring) considerations for decorated dials is durability. As mentioned in the opening, watch dials are thin, coming in at an average of 0.4mm thick depending on movement thickness and clearance between the hands, dials, indices and watch crystal. Dial damages, while relatively uncommon, do happen to more fragile or brittle materials such as enamel or porcelain especially in the event of drops.
Dials are usually reinforced with additional backing but extra research on your part as the buyer and eventual wearer is worth the effort for peace of mind. Finally, we talk about two potential deal-breakers when considering dial decorations — fauxtina (faux patina) and dial texts. Both are equally controversial and have been on the receiving end of backlash in forums or comments sections, with some justified. This is unsurprising because fauxtina even sounds like a slur!
Aged dials that develop a patina through natural discolouration are highly desirable in vintage watches as this adds more value to the watch. With the advent of neo-vintage watches, fauxtina or purposeful ageing sees artificial patina added to various components of a watch to mimic various defects. The effects can be either a hit or miss and will be down to your personal preference. Dial texts too can be a real annoyance when unimportant inscriptions are made on the dial, especially beautifully crafted ones. Less is more and we will leave it at that.
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