A Dial by Any Other Name: A Guide to Different Dial Types
If you've ever gotten confused between a guilloche or gilt dial, or you think cloisonne enamel sounds like a French pastry rather than a watch dial, then this article is for you. Below you'll find clear examples and simple explanations of as many different dial types as I can think of as I write this. If I've left any of your favorite dial types out, then please let me know in the comments below and I'll add them in!
This one is nice and simple. A co-signed dial is a watch that has both the name of the brand that made it and the retailer that sold it written on the dial. As you might expect, the co-signed dials that command the highest prices are from luxury brands and luxury retailers, with the most desirable being a Patek Philippe with Tiffany & Co. (Sometimes these watches are simply refered to as having a 'Tiffany dial')
The crosshair dial is a prominent design motif from mid-century dress watches, particularly Omega Seamasters, DeVilles and Geneves. A crosshair is simply a pair of horizontal and vertical lines that meet in the middle of the case, starting from 12 to 6 and 3 to 9. The exact length and breadth of the lines will vary from watch to watch; some crosshairs reach all the way to the edge of the dial and others are much shorter.
A Primer on Enamel Dials
Enamel dials are incredibly desirable because of their rarity and skill required to make. The word Enamel comes from the High German word Smelzan which later became esmail in Old French and now it is known to us in Modern English as enamel. In French it's known as email which is why you'll occasionally see email written on the bottom of enamel dials, much to the confusion of non-French speakers.
The first examples of enamelling objected can be dated back to Cyprus in 13th Century BC. Whilst techniques have become more refined, there is very little that has changed about the way that enamel is made and applied to objects. Enamel is a soft glass made up of silica, red lead and soda which when heated to between 800 and 1200 degrees Celsius will liquify and bond to metals. The enameller will mix in different elements to achieve different colors: iron for gray, chromium for green and iodine for red.
This process of repeatedly firing (Placing in a kiln) enamel dials is incredibly risky as at any stage the dial could crack or an air bubble might emerge between layers and ruin hours of work. Donze Cadrans is currently the only enamel dial manufacturer in Switzerland and makes them for Patek Philippe, A.Lange & Sohne, Ulysse Nardin and others.
This is one of the most recognisable forms of enamelling. An outline of a design is drawn directly onto the dial in pencil and then ultra-thin wires of gold (Think thinner than a human hair thin) are carefully bent and arranged along this outline. Then the enameller will paint up to five layer of enamel between these wires with a firing taking place after each layer has been finished.
Cloisonne enamel watch dials first started appearing in the 1940s and remained popular among luxury brands until the 1960s and nearly all of the cloisonne watches produced during these years will have been made by either Carlo Poluzzi, Marguerite Koch and Nelly Richard. Some of the most iconic cloisonne enamel watches are the world timers from Patek Philippe (If you'd like to learn more about these wonderful complications, then click here).
Enamel (Grande Feu)
The Grande Feu, which translates rather epically into 'Great Fire', is the most difficult enamelling technique as it offers the highest durability. Rather than the elaborate and vivid colors of cloisonne enamel, Grande Feu dials are uniform in color with the norm being white/cream with a few exceptionally rare models in black.
Donze Cadran describes the process of enamel dials like this: " The Master Artisan does not paint the motif directly on the watch but applies more oxides on the dial in gold. Then the enameller moves the dial into the fire several times to allow motif and colors appear gradually". The challenge in Grande Feu enamelling is to create a several coats of enamel that are uniform in color, consistency and application. This can prove difficult even for master enamellers when trying to recreate dials from the past. This article on Hodinkee about attempts to recreate the enamel dials from the Patek Philippe Ref. 2526 is a wonderful read that you should check out.
This is the oldest form of enamelling and is in practise the opposite of the cloisonne technique. Rather than have wires provide a raised wall for the enamel to sit in, the champleve technique has enamellers carve down into the metal dial plate to create channels. These channels create a sunken outline which is then filled in with enamel, fired in the kiln and then polished.
Flinque enamelling is the technique of applying an enamel coating to a metal dial that has already seen some form of engraving, typically guilloche. The subtle difference in height and texture of the engraved dial allow the light to reflect beautifully.
This technique was first developed by watchmaking artists Van Cleef & Arpels for their Poetic Complications line. First the dial is covered with a layer of black enamel and then fired in a kiln multiple times. Then white paint, known as 'Blanc de Limoges' is applied and the thickness of the paint is changed to give the desired effect. The thicker the layer of white paint, the less black is visible underneath which allows dynamic clouds, stars, the Moon and night skies to be created. This white paint is first applied with a brush and then drawn on by a needle.
The definition of the word gilt is 'covered thinly with gold leaf or gold paint' and a gilt dial is a dial which has certain elements printed in gold paint. In the case of this Rolex Submariner, the Rolex coronet, brand name, depth rating, watch name and minute markers are printed in gold paint. Gilt dials can be seen in brands of all prices.
Guilloche dials, also known as engine-turned or guillochage dials, are simply a dial that has a repeating pattern engraved on it. Traditional methods involve using a hand cranked rose engine (Which despite its delicate name is an absolute beast of a machine), straight line engine or brocading machine to engrave each wave. This was traditionally done by hand but this is a dying art that only a few brands (Like Pennsylvania based RGM) are capable of. The majority of guilloche dials are now engraved by a machine.
Linen dials are one of my favorite dial types and this Rolex Ref. 1603 with gray linen 'Sigma' dial is now definitely on my grail list. A linen dial is a type of textured dial which has dozens of small vertical and horizontal 'hatch marks' that look similar to a linen like material. Lighter colors like white and cream are more common with darker colors like gray and black being much rarer. I've looked and looked and have been unable to find out exactly how the linen like texture is created so if you know, then leave a comment down below.
Meteorite dials are, as the name suggests, made of thin polished slices of meteorite. As these slices are individually cut and polished from different meteorites found around the world there will never be two alike. Commonly seen on triple calendar dials, watches with meteorite dials have been made by Jaquet Droz, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Rolex. If you'd like to learn more about the history of meteorite dials, click here.
A Porcelain dial is, as you might expect, a dial made out of porcelain. There are very few watches out there with this type of dial because, like enamel, its very difficult to make. The difference between porcelain and enamel is that porcelain contains clay and is typically white. This Seiko Credor Eichi II has a porcelain dial with hand painted hour markers and brand name on it.
A sector dial (Sometimes known as a scientific dial) is traditionally a dial that has a contrasting concentric circle towards the center with thick lines separating a particular length of time into sectors. There can be either an hour section dial, like the Laurent Ferrier above, or the less common minute sector dial.
Perhaps the most simple watch dial, the skeleton dial is simply a dial made up of a transparent materials that allows the movement beneath to be seen. Older watches would have used mineral glass but modern watches use sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating.
The above watch, a modern replica of Marie Antoinette's Breguet pocket watch, is one of the most famous skeleton dials. The skeleton dial is less about having a legible dial and more about showcasing the watchmakers ability.
A Tapisserie dial is a type of guilloche pattern that leaves lots of small squares on the surface of the dial, separated by thin channels. The most iconic tapisserie dial is of course the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, designed by Mr Gerald Genta. Audemars Piguet have always gotten their Royal Oak dials from Stern Creations, a dial manufacturer founded by the legendary Stern family.
A machine called a pantograph 'traces' the tapisserie pattern from a larger mock-up design and engraves an exact copy onto the smaller watch dial. Each dial can take between 20 and 50 minutes to engrave depending on the size and type of finishing.
A teaked dial, like this Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra, is simply a dial with engraved vertical stripes. The thickness of each individual stripe will vary from brand to brand, as will the color and finish of the dial itself.