Dials: Mirroring the inner beauty of a watch

Jul 06, 2013
Dials: Mirroring the inner beauty of a watch
Dials: Mirroring the inner beauty of a watch

No mechanical creation can do without worthy design. Making a fine watch is not limited to a complicated and unique movement. Today creating the dial sometimes takes almost as much time as the movement itself. The dials can be very simple with no markers at all or extremely complex as in the case of pilots’ chronographs. Dials can also be decorated with intricate patterns or in some cases with precious stones.

The dial is the ‘face’ of a watch and has figures, marks and other symbols which denote hours and minutes. A dial should be easy to read, convey all the design codes of the brand and create something unique and beautiful.

The word ‘dial’ derives from Latin ‘dialis’, meaning daily or concerning the day, because of its use in telling the time of day. Dials differ by their shape, design, materials and decoration.The dial is the most visible expression of the watch movement. The layout of the mechanisms, wheels and complications that form the movement dictate the dial’s appearance, in particular the position of the hands, sub-dials, apertures and other indications that compose it.

Dial-making is an art and a craft in its own right that demands considerable expertise. Visually, the dial must satisfy a dual requirement: it must be pleasing to the eye and legible at a glance. A host of information must be harmoniously conveyed by means of hands or tiny apertures on its surface.The construction of a watch dial involves a multitude of crafts, from printing to guilloché, from stone setting to applying Super Luminova. These skills are extremely specialised and demand the greatest expertise and the steadiest of hands.

The base of the dial is a sheet, sometimes gently cambered, of gold, silver or copper to which the dial-maker rivets tiny pins. He then traces the inner and outer contours of the hour-circle and other indicators. The dial is now ready to be decorated. Usually the dials can be differed from each other by several features: engraving; surface treatment (guilloché, enamelling, sandblasting); hour indexes (Arabic numerals, Roman numerals, Stick indication); various indicators (date indicator, power reserve indicator, chronograph counters, etc.);and adornment (many watchmakers create whole reproductions of famous pictures on dials). Thus each dial has its own, unique face.

The art of dial making

There are a variety oftechniques in the art of dial making, some of which haven’t changed for centuries while others that have just been invented. Here are some of the main techniques that are being used in today’s haute horlogerie timepieces.


Enamel is transparent glass coloured with metal oxides which, when applied to metal and heated to between 800°C and 1,200°C, melts and is bonded by fusion to the metal. Three thin layers of this enamel, when polished, give the uniquely pure and luminous white of a fine watch dial. Patterns can then be acid-engraved or manually engraved, and numerals and other markings transferred. On a flinqué dial or an engine-turned dial, translucent enamel covers the metal base which has first been engraved with concentric lines or circles. Superb coloured enamels are obtained by adding different metal oxides to transparent enamel. Through centuries enamelling has developed, changed and improved. Today the cloisonné and painted enamels are methods used in watchmaking. The technique ‘grand feu’, one of the most popular in watchmaking, helps watchmakers in creating colourful inserts.


A guillochéd dial looks like rhythmic poem, consisting of straight strokes, curved lines and concentric circles. According to history, guillochéwas invented by Louis Breguet, who created a completely new method of golden and silver dials finishing. The word ‘guilloché’ derives from the French word ‘guillochis’ that means ‘crossing lines pattern’. The guilloché pattern is applied on a dial by a special engraving machine. Of course, hand guilloché is valued much higherbut this is a privilege of few watchmakers as there are not too many craftsmen specialised in guilloché by hand. Guilloching is a long and slow process. Theoretically any pattern can be made but the most popular patterns are: zigzag, notch, moire play, tamping nails, pile, barley ears and pannier.


Achieving the perfect colour for a dial is also an art in itself. The two main techniques are metal plating and a version of four-colour printing. Many different colours can be achieved by plating, whether it’s yellow, rose or coloured golds, rhodium or silver to name a few. Four-colour printing is similar to the process used for printing newspapers and magazines. It is often used when different colours or varying tones of colour are required on the same dial.

New techniques

Dials undergo trends as do cases and straps. The recent years have seen many changes in the world of dials, including even the lack of a dial altogether in skeleton watches. One of the recent advances has been the introduction of the sapphire dial that lets the movement be seen below, but still keeps essential indications for the reading of time and other information. Another recent trend has been the three-dimensional dial that has taken away the need for a traditional dial by putting the indications on different levels.

Mother-of-pearl dials

The mother-of-pearl is obtained from shells of sea cephalopods and consists of lime carbonate, exuding from a shellfish. The mother-of-pearl shines with various tones from white and rosy to practically black, thanks to the optic effect. The processing of mother-of-pearl is a complicated process, as the shells it is obtained from are fragile and require a skilful treatment. It requires several masters to work at the same time: cutter, grinder, polisher, moulder and engraver. The mother-of-pearl dials aremainly used for ladies watches.