Many would agree that watchmaking is best expressed by the beauty of a mechanical movement, a complicated piece of micro-engineering that measures time. But as the time is actually read on the dial, I would argue that dials are in fact the most obvious depiction of watchmaking artistry, and can even become a conversation piece. In medieval Europe, time used to be read on church clock towers, and with the invention of pocket watches, dials became an equally important element providing information about time and much more. Let’s take a look at some beautiful, iconic pieces that demonstrate the importance of this watch component.
The enamelling technique can be traced to ancient Egypt, where glass was crushed into powder, which was then heated on metal surfaces to produce colours. Enamelling found its way into Geneva’s jewellery-making industry during the mid-15th century, and was eventually applied to watchmaking. However, due its costly and time-consuming characteristics, enamelling has been used only to a limited degree over the years. ‘Grand Feu’ is a specific technique named after the extremely high temperature required for the firings. To produce a perfectly uniform colour – ivory, for example, the most popular enamelling colour for its legibility – is no easy task.
Ivory-coloured Grand Feu dials by Jaquet Droz
The term 'Grand Feu' comes from the extremely high temperature at which the enamel is fired, as seen inside Jaquet Droz's workshop
Jaquet Droz uses traditional methods to create its iconic Grand Feu dials, so glossy with great depth of colour. In recent years, Jaquet Droz has also crafted pure black Grand Feu dials which are even more interesting, while incorporating contemporary elements for a daring new style. www.jaquet-droz.com
Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Relief Horse with a black Grand Feu dial
Engine-turned guilloché dials
Abraham-Louis Breguet began making guilloché dials in 1786, applying the jewellery-decorating technique to watches. The artisan uses a machine to create patterns on the dial, which is then silver-plated to improve the contrast with the blued steel hands for better legibility. While most brands have replaced the painstaking engine-turned method with stamping, Breguet carries on its time-honoured technique into the 21st century. www.breguet.com
Engine-turning by hand © Montres Breguet SA
Breguet craftsman creating an engine-turned guilloché pattern
Many different guilloché patterns by Breguet
Today, many independent watch brands are also showcasing their creativity by producing unique dials. First appearing in the 1950s, fumé dial-making techniques have been revived by H. Moser & Cie, in an effort to preserve this part of watchmaking tradition while also offering something special in today’s market. www.h-moser.com
H. Moser & Cie's Endeavour Perpetual Calendar watches with fumé dials
Vacheron Constantin’s Métier d’Art Mécaniques Gravées is another great example. The collection, featuring platinum case and movement, uses the same precious metal for the dial, engraved with intricate Arabesque and acanthus leaf motifs to stunning effect. It is a demonstration of beautiful artistry and expert engraving techniques on a very hard, precious metal that is notoriously difficult to craft using hand techniques. www.vacheron-constantin.com
Engraving the platinum Calibre 2260 inside Vacheron Constantin's workshop
Vacheron Constantin Métier d’Art Mécaniques Gravées with an engraved platinum dial and movement
Expressing history and watchmaking craftsmanship, a dial reflects a brand’s image and its position in the industry. Next time you wonder why a gemless watch can fetch such high prices at an auction, just take a closer look at its dial. The answer may be right there.