Decoration of watch movements: Displaying extreme skill and beauty

Apr 21, 2013
Decoration of watch movements: Displaying extreme skill and beauty
Decoration of watch movements: Displaying extreme skill and beauty

A movement is the completed, finished individual mechanism contained inside the case of the watch, not including the case or dial itself. It consists of the watch’s principal elements and mechanisms: the winding and setting mechanism, the mainspring, the train, the escapement and the regulating elements. Some watch movements come highly decorated. Whilst decoration may not improve function, it often indicates a degree of hand assembly/finishing and an attention to detail in the construction of a watch. Some watches show off the decorated movement through the use of a display back.

Watch movements come in various shapes to fit different case styles and are measured in lignes or in millimetres. Each specific watch movement is called a caliber. The movement parts are separated into two main categories: those belonging to the ébauches and those belonging to the assortments. An ébauche is typically understood to mean a ‘raw’ or unassembled, unfinished movement, including the major structural components (plates, bridges) and sometimes parts of the wheel train and other moving parts.

Many watch companies purchase complete movements from a major supplier such as ETA or Lemania.  Some watch companies purchase an ébauche from a major supplier, polish and decorate the parts (i.e. finish the parts), and assemble it with standard parts to create a higher quality-controlled movement than the stock ready-made movement. Other companies purchase ébauches, finish them to a high standard, modify parts of the movement, and add custom components like an upgraded escapement assembly - to create what might be called a custom version of that movement. However, several top brands only use movements that are developed and manufactured within their own company. These are called in-house movements.

True watchmaking starts with the development of a movement. A mechanical movement comprises hundreds of sometimes microscopic parts all of which must fit perfectly together and effectively contribute to the correct functioning of the whole. In a modern-day Manufacture, the coordinated production of these parts is shared among numerous specialists in dozens of highly-skilled fields.

Most movements remain hidden from view, protected inside their case. Some, though, can be admired through a sapphire crystal case back that reveals this complex geometry of wheels, bridges and mechanisms. These tiny, tiered parts are decorated and finished with no less of an attention to detail than that devoted to the watch's exterior. Even when the movement will not be visible through the case back, a Fine Watch movement will always be richly decorated and finished to the highest degree of beauty and perfection.

In a Fine Watch movement, the least trace of machining is erased from the surface of each part. Every last wheel, the smallest pinion is smoothed, polished, circular-grained or countersunk. Many different techniques are employed, beginning with polishing each surface and edge.

The different polishing and brushing techniques are a means of varying each part's appearance and how it reflects the light through patterns and textures:a mirror polish brings out the full brightness of the metal; a satin-finish gives a softer sheen; brushing striates the metal; and a stippled or a sunray finish catches the light in a unique way. The edges of each part are polished and chamfered, an art in itself.

Often the surfaces of larger parts, such as bridges, are decorated with evenly-spaced, parallel lines, either straight or circular, achieved using a boxwood pad and a lathe. Some parts are chased or engraved by hand. Some of the popular techniques used to polish, finish and decorate watch movements are:

Côtes or vagues de Genève: A decoration of undulating lines, like waves, frequently used to embellish superior quality movements.

Stippling: A decorative finish of overlapping circles in a close-set concentric pattern that gives a distinctive textured effect.

Engraving: The art of forming patterns either by hand, using a graver, or by machine such as a rose engine.

Geneva Stripes: A form of decoration in higher grade watch movements which look like stripes on the movement plates.

Blued Screws: Traditionally, high quality movements were fitted with screws which were artificially blued, more for decoration than function.

Vrac: This is the electroplating of the movement to provide some form of protection rather as a finish or decoration.

Flat matte finish: As the name implies, this finish is matte and looks unfinished. This is the most basic of finish available.

Flat brush finish: It is achieved by brushing the finish in a single direction.

Adoucie: This is a form of polishing that is either linear or circular and is achieved with the use of abrasive paper.

Colimaçonnéealso known as Colimaçon (snalling or spiralling): Snalling is a decorative finish which takes the form of curved lines originating from a common centre.

Colimaçonnée diamant: This is the same as Colimaçonnée and is achieved with the use of a rotating diamond cutting tool which imparts brilliance on the cut surface.

Colimaçonnée papier: Another form of snalling but with the use of abrasive paper. Also known as Soleil (sun) or Soleillées (sun beams), this is achieved by rotating the abrasive paper on the rotating parts to be polished. The strokes can originate from a common centre or be at a tangent to the edge.

Perlée: Also known as Perlage (machine turned), this is the most common form of decoration. It looks like swirls of overlapping circles. The circular grains are achieved by applying overlapping circular patterns by rubbing a pegwood with emery paste.

Jewels: Higher grade watches have traditionally used a jewelled movement. These jewels (originally natural ruby, now synthetic ruby) are functional - they are used as the bearings for the wheel trains and in high wear parts such as the escape lever and impulse jewel.

Skeleton watch: It is a timepiece in which all of the moving parts are visible through either the front of the watch or the back. True skeletonisation also includes the trimming away of any non-essential metal on the bridge, plate, wheel train or any other mechanical part of the watch, leaving only a minimalist 'bare' skeleton of the movement required for functionality. Often, the remaining thinned movement is decorated with engraving.