It’s time for another round of education, folks! Watch finishing techniques are an interesting talking point. While many know at least some of the terminology, knowing how they are executed and the time involved is a different matter altogether. Things get all the more complicated when it comes to what finishes can be done using CNC equipment rather than hand-guided tools. Now, when we say “hand guided”, there's some qualification to be had. In a lot of cases, these hand guided tools are still quite “automated” in terms of position guides, and the drives powering these finishing machines are electric, for obvious reasons.
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What makes finishing such an interesting debate is how it gets prioritized in the purchasing process. For some, movement finishing takes rank above all else, and they will only collect watches with the absolute best hand-finishing on the market. Meanwhile others—myself included, for what it’s worth—treat it as more of a bonus. If everything else about the watch is fantastically executed (dial, case, hands, complications), then the level of finishing can be overlooked, to a degree.

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The reason that this outlook is so mixed is that for the most part, finishing has zero impact on how a watch runs, or how accurate it can be. One can argue that a high level of finishing is representative of the overall skill level of the watchmakers at brands X and Y, but in the same breath I’ve heard just as many horror stories about watches from brands at the top level as I have from the entry level. Some will argue the case for “why are we still doing things by hand when we have high tech equipment that can do the same thing”, and others will have a retort centered around the idea that these rare crafts—much like some of the dial techniques we spoke about previously—are the type of thing we want to be able to preserve for the sake of history, if nothing else.

Is there a right or wrong answer? Obviously not. With that in mind, let’s move on to the actual techniques.

Geneva Stripes/Côtes de Genève
If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Geneva stripes are the linear decoration most commonly seen on mainplates, bridges, and winding rotors, and they’ve been around for ages. The application method is relatively simple. Once the plates are nearly complete, after being galvanized or plated, the plate goes on a jig similar to a drill press where a wood, sandpaper, or otherwise soft abrasive head replaces the drill bit. The plate is then slid across in a linear pattern (using a guide), to create a relatively uniform series of scuffs. Obviously originating from Geneva, hence the name, but the technique also got picked up by the watchmakers of Glashütte and thus will be seen as Glashütte stripes from watchmakers in the region.

This finishing technique is one that was relatively straightforward to automate with CNC, and it takes a fairly keen eye to spot the differences. Effectively it comes down to the consistency of the application, where perfectly uniform stripes are the byproduct of a CNC machine, where slight variances in the wavy patterns are the signs of a human hand being involved in the process.
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One thing that’s worth noting is that there’s a genuine functional benefit to this kind of finishing. You see, textured or rough finishes like this are far better at trapping dust than smooth ones, and thus especially in the pre-gasket era, Geneva stripes were beneficial in keeping the inner workings of a watch clean. I don’t know that we can make the same argument with modern watches that are sealed for even 50m or 100m of water resistance, but at the very least the technique wasn’t cooked up out of thin air for the sake of looking pretty.

Anglage/Beveling
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Yet another age-old technique from the early days of watchmaking, Anglage—also known as beveling or chamfering depending on who you ask—is the process of removing sharp 90-degree edges from the various components of a movement. In the early days, this was done to keep the watchmakers from cutting themselves on sharp components, but over time it grew to be more and more of a decorative art. Cutting the bevels themselves is only half the battle, and depending on the brand some bevels are broader than others, but where the real beauty comes in is the ability to mirror polish said bevels to provide a stark visual accent to the caliber.


Once again, this is a practice that can be done by CNC just as much as through traditional methods, and some brands opt to split the difference by cutting the bevels through CNC and hand polishing the finished product. There are some tells that help in distinguishing between the two, though it’s not always immediately clear. Aside from the bevels being broad and polished to perfection, one thing to look for is the sharpness of interior and exterior angles. This is one area where machines just can’t achieve the same level of perfection, and thus movement plates are designed in a way that avoids sharp corners.

Perlage
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Perlage is yet another quite common type of finishing, and one most commonly found throughout a movement’s mainplate, as well as occasionally on the inside of a solid caseback. It is also known as circular graining, and its application is basically the outcome of what would happen if you went to apply Geneva stripes but kept the piece being finished static rather than drawing lines. It’s an interesting one to watch in application, as the trained staff who apply perlage are disturbingly quick given the precision required. Both the pressure of the application and the spacing between circular marks are controlled manually, and yet these workers manage to execute the pattern with absolute precision.


The story once again remains the same in the CNC vs manual debate here. The most obvious giveaway is the perfection of the pattern, but typically with perlage it isn’t a primary finish that is prevalent in key visual locations in the first place.


Frosting/Media Blasting, and Tremblage
This is an interesting one, as one half of this technique is much newer than the other. Frosted movement finishing—as seen from a range of indie makers including Kari Voutilainen, Grönefeld, and plenty of others—is by no means a hand finish, as it’s basically the same technique frequently seen on cases more than anything. Media blasting, similar to sandblasting, can be finely tuned by changing the hardness and coarseness of the material used in the blast chamber, and it’s something that in contrast to the other finishes above is much easier and quicker to execute. On the right caliber it can look fantastic, mind you.
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Tremblage (also known as hand hammering) is a different beast altogether, in that it's incredibly meticulous work that’s pretty much entirely all done by hand. Imagine a tiny chisel tapping away at a piece of soft metal, hammering over and over again to create a microscopic pattern like the one seen above. That’s effectively how tremblage works, And it’s precisely why it’s so scarce in the industry. Offhand I can only think of examples from A. Lange & Söhne when it comes to movement finishing, as well as a few special dials made by Akrivia.


Black Polishing
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If I think back to any conversations I’ve had with watchmakers about finishing techniques that are the bane of their existence, it’s black polishing. You know that lovely polished finish on screws, gears, and bridges? It’s effectively pure hell. Using a variety of compounds, this process can take hours—and I do mean several hours—to achieve that perfect polish on the tiniest of movement components. It’s a simple one. A prepared surface, a part holder, and a variety of polishing compounds. Back and forth it goes. Some watchmakers can tell that peak polish has been achieved by the sound it makes; others can do the same by feel. On the scale of fun facts, temperature and humidity can sometimes play a role in the speed of the process, furthering the case for perfectly temperature stable watchmaking workshops.

Bluing (Flame vs Chem.)
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Rounding out the list—and yes we know there are things we’re missing—bluing is a technique that goes all the way back to the pocket watch days (and beyond). It all started as means of tempering or hardening screws, in days where precise temperature control wasn’t readily available, the color of the screw was a testament to its heat treatment. These days, higher end makers will still use heat treatment for bluing, but typically in ovens and in larger batches. At the extreme end of “handcraft”, watchmakers will resort to the old oil lamp and basket method for bluing screws, hands, or other components. To get that perfect vibrant blue over flame, first the components in question are black polished to ensure uniformity.

Of course with the industrialization of processes in the mass market and entry level space, any blued screws you’re seeing are colored chemically—typically through galvanization or some sort of coating. The easiest tell is an inspection of uniformity between screws (under a loupe). Whether the screw slot is blue or not is also not a tell at all, be warned. If the movement screws are plated, and only the screw heads are polished, the heat treatment won’t change the color of the slot. If the screws are unplated then the slots will pick up the bluing from heat.

Once again, let's close things out with a couple of questions for the community. How important is watch movement finishing to you? How does it impact your purchasing decisions? Do you have a preferred technique/type of finishing that you find more interesting? Did we miss something?

Let's hear what you have to say...