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.
Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Carps with champlevé enamel and carps in bas-relief under enamel
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.
Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Relief Horse with black Grand Feu dial
Jaquet Droz uses traditional methods to create its iconic Grand Feu dials. The special technique is what makes the dial 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.
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 is bringing its time-honoured technique into the 21st century.
Breguet engine turning by hand
Today, many independent watch brands showcase 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 on today’s market.
H. Moser & Cie, Endeavour Tourbillon Titanium Fume 1802-0500 Soldat
Vacheron Constantin’s Métier d’Art Mécanique Gravées is another great example. The collection, featuring platinum case and movement, uses the same precious metal for the dial, which is 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.
Vacheron Constantin’s Métier d’Art Mécanique Gravées
Expressing history, watchmaking craftsmanship and much more, a dial goes beyond mere gemsetting to reflect 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.