Faces & Hands

Posted by Michael Friedberg on May 01, 1998 at 05:18:27:

Appreciation of fine watches can be increased when one understands how a fine watch is made. Great skill in executing a design is required. Beyond the movement, which frequently is unseen, that skill manifests itself especially in a watch’s face
and its dial and hands. Yet there has been little written about what “makes” a beautiful dial or hands.

Dials are made in various ways. Time, hand-crafting and skill is required to make a fine dial. Dials have varying degrees of decoration and material, and 500 years ago were mostly made of brass or copper. Subsequently, dials were enameled, which involves a baking of a metallic-based powder on an underlying metal base. This created a richness and even a luminosity to the dial, although many very old enamel dials develop minute cracks, or crazing. A special form of enamel dials, called cloisonne, involves “painting” between small gold wires, before the dial is baked. Very few watchmakers today produce enamel dials, and even fewer use cloisonne, with one notable exception being Ulysse Nardin.

Some dials are decorated with fine-engraving, called guilloche. This involves the cutting of an intricate pattern (or series of patterns) in the dial’s surface by a lathe-like machine called a “rose-engine”. Sometimes, the patterns produce a matte surface, like barleycorns, and in other instances intricate swirls are employed. Breguet dials are well-known for their intricate, and finely executed, guillochage. In other watches, guillochage is used sparingly, such as fine-circled lines only in sub-dials. To some extent, a guilloche dial is a matter of styling, although it generally represents a high example of artisanship. Some less expensive watches use non-handmade engraved dials, and there even are paper dials printed (and sometimes raised) which are intended to simulate a rose-engine effect.

Guillochage also subtly increases contrast (separating, for example, sub-dials) and reduces reflections. Certain patterns of guillochage have specific names; for example, the “hobnail” pattern is called “Clous de Paris”. Guilloche also can be used on bezels and other parts of the watch case. Whether on dials or cases, “less” can be “more”
and it reflects the metalworker’s skill but often is most effective when used sparingly or at least simply.

Dials today are made of many different metals, although the underlying material usually is brass. Many finer watches, however, have dials of precious metal. Lange, for example, uses silver dials, apparently out of respect for historical tradition. Breguet uses solid gold and
silver plates the gold base. Occasionally, special materials, such as mother of pearl or coral used for dials.

Some of the finer dials used today are “silvered”, with a silver plating applied. This technique, which frequently is used in combination with guillochage, has historical origins. There are many forms of polishing the silver, creating very different effects and ones that seldom reproduce well in photographs. Many silvered dials look white or gray without close personal inspection. Breguet sometimes polishes portions of their silvered dials to a high sheen, contrasting with the guillochage. Jaeger LeCoultre sometimes uses two different silvered treatments in its Reversos: for example, its Date model has an opaline treatment in the center portion of the dial and a slightly more reflective treatment elsewhere. Polishing the dial surfaces itself is an art, to produce consistency in appearance and to avoid minute polishing scratches.

A silvered dial can reflect light and some silvered surfaces are matted. While this treatment does not allow great contrast between the dial surface relative to the hands and numerals, it can make the watch face more luminescent and easier to read in some low light situations. In all events, tradition plays a role in the decision to use a silvered dial, especially today when many styles are re-creations, or new interpretations, of watches from prior decades.

Not all dials are flat. The Zenith Chronomaster 410, in its steel version, uses a silvered dial that is slightly convex or, perhaps more correctly, pie-panned shaped. There is an indented rim around the edge of the dial where the
tachymeter scale is printed. The Jaeger LeCoultre Master series uses “pie pan” dials, and both Omega and IWC regular used such dials in the 1950s and 60s. The utilization of such shapes may be a matter of style (or historical antecedents), although the effect does create some visual contrast.

Some dials are colored by an electro-depositing process and others are silk-screened. Even on a dial that has been colored, printed markers or numerals usually are silk-screened on the dial. Under examination with a loupe, the printing of many dials can be slightly “off”. There can be imperfectly formed letters or numbers, or the centering can be inexact. Intense attention to detail can make a difference here, although visually the final product might appear identical.

Frequently, dials that have been refinished have the printing slightly “off”. This usually is how a refinished dial can be detected. Refinishing usually reduces a watch’s value unless the original dial is in terrible shape.

Hour indicators on dials, when they are not printed on the dial surface, are applied (or “applique”). The markers or numerals are separately manufactured and then carefully placed on the dial surface. This creates a height to the indicators, slightly increasing contrast. Sometimes, the applied indicators are plated rather than the same metal as the watch’s case (a gold watch might have gold-plated indicators). Again, perfect attention to detail is required to create a perfect face. And, again, this level of detail frequently does not photograph well. From a photograph, a silvered dial and applied numerals might well look like a white dial with printed numerals. This is regrettable, in the sense that this workmanship takes time and reflects a high degree of artistry. Such work can increase significantly the cost of a watch, although not its functionality. Some less expensive, but well-made, watches (like Oris) have stamped dials that look –and
function almost as good as a finely made dial using applied markers and guilloche.

Numerals and markers on a watch come in many styles, most of which have historical origins. Roman numerals have been used for centuries, and Arabic numerals, especially in sports watches, are popular today. A special style of Arabic numerals, Breguet, is frequently seen and appears to be like fine Italicized numbers. Numbers and markers are frequently tritium filled to increase visibility. None of this significantly adds to the cost or workmanship behind the watch, although sometimes numbers and markers are either plated or surrounded by a small metallic ring (such as in the the Audemar’s Royal Oak Offshore model). However, some numerals are hand-engraved on the dial, which again requires time and skill, and can add to production costs.

A watch’s dial can be contrasted to the watch’s hands. Fine hands can be silver or gold, or plated with those metals. Many fine watches use solid gold hands, although gold is actually less durable and more prone to deformation or
damage during servicing than plated or blued steel. For that reason, some companies, like Jaeger LeCoultre, use steel hands.

Inexpensive hands cost the manufacturer very little (perhaps 5 cents each) and are of stamped steel. More expensive hands are more handmade and, when gold is not used, often are made of tempered steel, with a polished head. Frequently, steel hands are blued 
and the steel is carefully heated, often by hand, to create a blue color. The degree of “blueness” depends upon the heat: 290 degrees centigrade is used for dark blue, and slightly higher temperature produce a lighter color. To some extent, blued hands represent a tradition, although some claim that they resist corrosion better. Stylistically, a blued hand can contrast well to a silvered, guilloche dial, although some styles use a “silver on silver” or “gold on silver” look.

Hands come in many shapes and the styles have specific names. Baton hands look like sticks, with rectangular shapes. Dauphine hands are pointed; Breguet hands (with the circle or
‘pommel’ towards the end) are well known. Skeleton hands, with open middles that often are filled with tritium, are popular (and usually are in an “Alpha Pleine” shape).

Several marques are now using “Swallow” styled hands, and there are dozens of other shapes, all of which have traditional names. Other than how the hand is made and finished, none of these styles, by themselves, adds value.

Some manufacturers are well-known for the quality of their dials. Patek
Philippe and Breguet dials are extremely well-made, as is Parmigiani in my opinion. Jaeger LeCoultre and Blancpain dials also can be quite well executed. In many instances, all that is required is a very thorough inspection of the dial with a 10x loupe.

This is not to say that watches with guillochage, silvered dials and applied numerals are superior. They probably are not functionally better, nor are they aesthetically finer. While they require more time and skill to produce, this does not mean that watchmakers who use these techniques make a “better” watch. Even a well-crafted dial cannot come close to compensating for a mediocre movement.

However, it seems to me that there tends to be some general correlation between those makers who produce superb watches and who also produce fine
dial work. The same painstaking attention to detail seems to be applied with some consistency. All this may not produce a better watch, functionally, but does reflect the watchmaker’s craft and is consistent with a long tradition of fine watchmaking.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Walt Odets, who reviewed an early draft of this post and made several helpful suggestions. The errors, however, are all mine.

Michael Friedberg