The movement may be the heart of a watch but the dial is its face and sometimes, first impressions count.
When it comes to watchmaking, more often than not, it will be the movement that people talk about. The complexity and innovation of its engineering and the savoire faire required to finish each component within the calibre. In reality, however, the part of a watch that we most often look at is the dial. One may be forgiven for thinking dials are, all things considered, one of the simplest components to make. Therefore, we are going to take a closer look at a few types of dials and the technical mastery needed to achieve what can arguably be what gives each watch its unique character.
At its core, enamel dials seem like a simple concept. Ground-up silica is applied onto a metal disc and heated in an oven until it melts and forms a smooth layer. What most people don’t see is that although the end result may look simple, this process requires extremely high temperatures ranging from 800 to 1200 degrees Celsius and precise control of the conditions in order to achieve perfection. This task then needs to be repeated any number of times to achieve the desired thickness and finish. Wrong temperatures can cause the enamel to crack, there could be bubbles forming on the surface, and even sometimes specks from the kiln can fall onto the melting enamel causing imperfections. If any one of these mistakes occurs and the process must be started again from the beginning. The result however is a smooth and beautiful dial that will never lose its colour.
Breguet Classique Ref. 7637
You will find numerous clean and pristine enamel dials in Breguet’s Classique collection which use the Grand Feu enamelling technique. The word grand feu translates to great fire and points to the high temperatures needed to achieve this type of dial. This watch is a complex minute repeater but its beauty is further enhanced by the simplicity of the dial.
There are many ways manufacturers can use enamel. Moser for example uses clear enamel for this watch. A clear enamel is used to reveal the stunning pattern hammered onto the base of the dial. Then four different colour pigments are washed, crushed, applied and fired successively in order to create their signature ombré effect.
Guilloché dials are achieved by engraving intricate and repetitive patterns onto a dial. To create these, manufactures will often turn to devices like the rose engine lathe to repeatedly engrave patterns onto the dial ensuring uniformity throughout. As you can imagine the smaller the pattern the harder it will be to engrave onto the metal without making any mistakes. There are several types of guilloche patterns used, namely the Clous de Paris or Grand Tappiserie. Then, there are the more unique patterns like these:
Parmigiani on the other hand covers their entire dial with an interesting Grain d’Orge guilloché pattern. From far, the watch looks like it has a matte texture but upon closer inspection, this fantastic dial really offers the watch a unique character. If you are worried about not having enough of this dial in a 36mm case, there are versions that come with 40 or 42mm cases and with complications like a GMT, chronograph and perpetual calendar.
This reference from Breguet makes use of Guilloché engraving not just to add texture to the dial but to cleverly create a contrasting effect to make the watch more legible. For example, a very fine Clous de Paris hobnail guilloché pattern is used on the central part of the dial where the time indication is. For the outer part of the dial, a circular barleycorn motif is used. This cleverly allows Breguet to create a form of contrast without any use of colour.
Quite like guilloché dials, textured dials are used to give more character to the watches but in a more cost-effective way. Unlike guilloche which takes a long time to create, textured dials can be achieved in a variety of ways which includes hand engraving, stamping and etching on the dial. As this process is not as limiting as guilloché you will see brands experiment with a wide variety of patterns and techniques.
Chopard Alpine Eagle
The textured dial on the Alpine Eagle was created to offer a radiating pattern evoking the eye of an eagle. This unique pattern is not as uniform as the regular sunburst design. And this along with the unique case shape has now become one of the signature elements within Chopard’s Alpine Eagle collection.
The textured dial on the latest TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 200 Solargraph serves two purposes. The first is to create its unique look, one that has now become a signature of the Aquaracer, and the other, is that it is partially transparent to allow the solar panel beneath the dial to receive light and charge up its battery. The dial pattern also adds a level of dynamism to the watch, a perfect fit with its ultralight and durable titanium case.
Where most of the dials we have talked about are created with bases in some sort of metal material, there are times when brands decide to experiment with a wider range of options to create a unique look for their timepieces. These come with their own set of challenges like figuring out how to work with a particularly hard material or adversely one that is quite brittle but beautiful to look at. The payoff however comes when dials made from different types of material look like nothing else out there in the market.
Omega Seamaster Diver 300M
If you look closely at the dial of the Omega Seamaster Diver 300M you are bound to notice the ZrO2 etched onto its surface. For those who are unfamiliar Zirconium Dioxide is a type of ceramic material and is used to make the dials of these Seamasters not only due to its glossy surface but also its resistance to corrosion. Ceramic is famed as an incredibly hard material therefore to get the wave pattern on this dial, Omega had to utilise a high-powered laser to etch them on the surface.
Fume, Ombre or Gradient
Although it goes by many names, the basic premise of this dial is the same. The colours of the watch will gradually go from a bright to a darker shade as it extends outwards. If you ask brands how exactly they achieve this effect you will get highly varying answers as there are quite a number of ways to achieve this. Suffice it to say, this effect has to be applied in multiple stages utilising multiple layers or coatings to get just the right gradient of darkening on the dial.
Zenith DEFY Revival A3691
Fume dials are not exactly a recent trend. This fantastic reissue from Zenith recreates the original reference A3691 from 1971 and by then, these gradient dials have already existed. Here, Zenith pairs the interesting gradient of the dial with even more unique hour markers and encapsulates the entire thing in a coffre-fort, which is French for Bank Vault, case.
Longines Legend Diver
On this Longines, the use of the gradient effect really adds to the whole vintage vibe of the watch. The effect makes it seem like the watch has seen its fair share of use and over the years the dial has discoloured in a natural way due to constant exposure to sunlight. There are collectors around the world that look exclusively for these types of worn-out dials nicknamed tropical dials as it adds heaps of character to any watch.