Watch dials, how complicated can they be, right? Well, even the process of pad printing dials isn’t all that simple, and once you get into things like cloissoné enameling, engraving, and engine turning, nothing is as simple as it seems from the outside. Thanks to a little financial bump from the folks at eBay, we’re taking a proper dive into this topic today in our first installment of the Watchuseek Bench Sessions series.

While everything we produce for the Watchuseek audience is designed to be informational and educational in nature, today we’re at the beginnings of something a bit different. Yes, the start of this series is sponsored by eBay, however the sponsorship is in name only. The e-commerce giant offered to support content creation for our audience without editorial input or any sort of creative control. This series will run biweekly, tackling a series of topics in watchmaking from dial creation, to movement finishing, to complications and other technical elements of watchmaking that aren’t often clearly defined or elaborated upon elsewhere. Though eBay has been kind enough to support us to make the first 5 pieces of this series happen, we intend to carry it forward so long as we can cook up interesting topics to dissect.

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For now, it’s time to get into round one—the various methods of dial production.



Pad Printing and Applied Indices
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Starting with what many view as the simplest dial execution, or at the very least the most common, the starting process for both pad printed dials and dials with applied indices are quite similar. Take a brass dial plate, finish its edges, stamp out any cut-outs necessary (date window, etc) and then either galvanize it or paint it to achieve the desired effect. Sunburst/sunray dials will receive their radial brushing here, and then be galvanized to achieve the color of choice without disrupting the brushing pattern.
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Getting to the indices, the pad printing approach is an interesting one. The pattern is etched into a metal plate, which is then applied with the requisite printing ink. In cases where multiple colors are used, there are multiple plates set up in the production line. A rubber pad (or tampon, as it’s often called) is pressed into the plate to pick up the ink, and in turn it is pressed onto the dial. The movement between plate and dial is typically locked to ensure precision, but oftentimes the pressure of the pad application is controlled manually. You can see more details of this in the story we wrote up last year on the dial making practices of Glashütte Original. The challenges with pad printing are simple ones. Too much or not enough ink, and the printing will fail. The same goes for the amount of applied pressure. In some cases it’s possible to clean the dial and try again, but generally speaking a botched printing lands a dial in the bin.
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Applied indices are also affixed after the base color of a dial has been sorted. They can be applied to an assortment of different dial types with varying degrees of difficulty. When the indices are produced (whether machined, stamped, or hand cut), small feet are installed similarly to dial feet, though smaller. Corresponding holes are drilled in the dial to allow for the mounting of said indices, which are then soldered in place on the back of the dial plate. With galvanized, painted, lacquered, or guilloché dials this is a simple process, however once we get into enamel, stone, and other materials, greater precaution is required. It takes very little to chip or damage these more sensitive materials, and thus drilling out mounting holes isn’t without its risks.


Guilloché/Engine Turning


Guilloché dials hold a special place in watchmaking, as they are one of those ancient crafts that has become a lost art of sorts. Not to be confused with CNC patternwork that can be created to loosely replicate the real thing, guilloché or engine turning requires fussy old machinery as well as the ever-dwindling knowledge of how to operate and maintain said machines correctly. The practice (on metal) is dated to roughly the mid 1700s, though its practice dwindled to near non-existence in the middle of the 20th century. In the higher end space, larger luxury brands like Vacheron Constantin and Breguet, alongside smaller makers like Czapek and Urban Jurgensen have continued to use the technique in their collections. More recently though, we’re starting to see the practice trickle down into less expensive makers as well. The Schwarz Etienne Roma Synergy can be had with a guilloché dial produced by Kari Voutilainen’s dial workshop (Comblemine), as can several offerings from Laine Watches, Chronoswiss, and others.


Engine turning is completed on a rig known as a rose engine, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the comprehensive video from RGM Watches that dives into the function of the machine more precisely than I can ever put into words without boring several of you to tears. In the simplest of terms, a rose engine is a manual lathe with a peculiar trick up its sleeve. The “rosettes” affixed to the machine, which are selectable individually, move the chuck that’s holding the piece that’s being engraved in a precise pattern as the cutting takes place. This movement can happen on the X, Y, and Z axis, and though there are guides involved, the engraving is also affected by the manual pressure being applied to the cutting slide. As you can see, this is by no means a quick and simple process. While it’s interesting what CNC machining can do to replicate the process in an automated form, there’s something really interesting about the preservation of ancient crafts like this.




Laser Etching and CNC
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From the antique art of guilloché we move to the modern computer-guided world of CNC milling and laser etching—processes that have led to quite the boom in dial textures and styles recently. On the premium end of the spectrum, the Omega Speedmaster Apollo 8’s partially openworked dial uses a technique that Omega likes to call “laser ablation”. A term also used in the medical field, as this is also the process used to remove tumors via laser, laser ablation occurs when a laser beam removes material from a localized area. Used in various industrial applications, this process can remove contaminants and coatings from surfaces (laser cleaning), modify a part’s roughness (laser texturing), or cut through a surface (laser cutting), among other things. In the case of Omega the execution is all about creating a unique texture, meant to replicate the surface of the moon. Meanwhile plenty of the patterned dials you’ll see online from brands big and small—especially in the sub-$2k space—will either be executed via either laser etching or CNC. Off the top of my head, the Lorier Falcon, Seiko Cocktail Time, Zelos Horizons 39mm, and the Victorinox Inox Carbon Mechanical all have dials manufactured in this manner.


Fumé / Dégradé Dials
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These dial types, whose names are effectively interchangeable as far as we’re concerned, have largely seen their popularity boost due to the ongoing fine work of H. Moser & Cie. The Schafhausen based brand, known for being a bit of an industry brat for constantly questioning and challenging the traditional practices of Swiss “legacy brands”, started producing watches with fumé dials nearly a decade ago now. Yes, these types of dials were around in the 60s and 70s, but Moser hit the category hard. Their popularity indeed flourished accordingly.
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The technique behind this type of dial will vary by brand, to some degree, but in essence it all boils down to a metered application of black over a base color. This can be done with paint, lacquer, and even enamel if you want to get extra fancy. The Scottish upstart Anordain has been tackling the latter quite well of late, using a translucent enamel application over a textured dial plate on their latest editions of the self-winding Model 1. The fade-to-black look is more prominent with darker dial colors than it is with lighter ones, but the effect is there nonetheless.



Enamel — In Many Forms
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Enamel dial making will always be a personal favorite of mine, for a variety of reasons. Similar to the rare craft of guilloché, enameling is something that’s mastered by very few, and has a painfully high failure rate even in the hands of seasoned professionals. I still recall touring the Donzé Cadrans manufacture (an enamel dial producer for Ulysse Nardin, Chopard, and many others), and hearing that even their standard white dials have a failure rate of over 40% when firing.

At a basic level, enamel powder (comprised of glass and pigment, primarily) are dusted onto a dial disk that is then heated to between roughly 750 and 850 degrees Celsius. The process is repeated several times until the desired dial thickness and uniformity is achieved. The risks involved include air bubbles and cracking, first and foremost, which can happen at any stage throughout the enameling process. The applied enamel can either be a solid color or translucent. In examples using the latter, we often see the enamel applied over guillochage or other various textures. Typically a translucent enamel over a guilloché pattern is referred to as a flinqué enamel dial.
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Where things get really interesting in the enameling space, though visually not to everyone’s taste, is when we start looking at the bizarre “paint by numbers” world of cloissoné and champlevé enameling. In the case of the former, small wires (often gold) are used to create a pattern on the dial—anything from a landscape, to an animal’s head, and everything in between. Various colors of enamel powders are then placed within each of these “gates”, and the completed image is built. Where this gets especially tricky is maintaining the same volume of application in each area. An imbalance in volume of enamel from one side of the wire to the next can cause the wire to shift, and thus the dial heads for the scrap bin. Some of these dials can take weeks to complete, and even the final heating can lead to a failure.
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Though slightly less finicky, champlevé enamel is just as complex in its own right. Rather than creating the pattern through wire, an engraver uses a thicker dial plate, carving out the various sections of the dial in which the enamel will be applied. Some of these works can be extremely detailed, and once again we’re talking days upon weeks of hand work to get the job done.

Sandwich—Two Interpretations

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Back to an older and simpler dial design to finish things out, the Sandwich dial goes back ages, and is first attributed to early Panerai models. The idea here was a simple one—how to get more luminous material on a dial in an age where solid block luminous material didn’t exist. The sandwich dial accomplished this by using two parts. The top layer included cut-outs for its indices, which was then “sandwiched” onto the bottom layer which was loaded with a healthy coating of luminous material (Radium, in the day). This added depth allowed the dial to hold more luminous material without losing the crisp shape of its indices.
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In modern applications these dials come in two forms. The traditional variant still exists here and there, but more often than not we’re dealing with a single thick dial plate with deep recesses cut out and filled with Superluminova or other similar luminous compounds. This is easier and quite quick to execute using modern CNC equipment, and saves the hassle of having to bond the two dial halves together. That said, it’s not really a sandwich dial if it's made of a single part even if it flies under the same name on most brand websites. Far as we can tell, Oak & Oscar, Zelos, and Nodus are still using the two-piece technique.


Marquetry Dials
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Ever see a dial that looks like a set of puzzle pieces? Enter marquetry—another age-old technique that can be applied to a wide range of materials. More often than not we’ll see stone used for marquetry dials, coming from every end of the watch spectrum. Piaget showed off a beautiful malachite stone marquetry dial Altiplano tourbillon several years back. Meanwhile (for much less money) you can also get a really slick Deep Blue Diver 1000 with a diamond marquetry Mother of Pearl dial for about $250. There’s a pretty serious level of precision required to get these patterns just right, and while not as labor intensive as some of the enameling processes out there, there’s a reason we don’t see these designs crop up all that often. Once the materials are chosen and the patterns are cut, the individual pieces are glued to a brass dial plate. Where this often gets tricky is when dealing with very delicate materials in order to achieve the desired effect.
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Most often stone is the chosen material for marquetry, and the execution relies on the ability to work the stone with absolute precision. We were going to also get into the specifics of stone dials themselves, but really there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said here. A stone dial requires a very thin slice of material, once again bonded to a backing plate. Where things get interesting from there is the manner in which indices are printed or applied, which goes back to the methods of either pad printing or affixing applied indices.


And there we have it. There are certainly a few additional dial types that we failed to include, but we hope we’ve helped shed some light on the more interesting dial manufacturing processes currently found in the market.