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09/21/2023
 7 minutes

The Watch Dial: What You Need to Know

By Sebastian Swart
Rolex-Day-Date-2-1
Rolex-Day-Date-1-1

While the majority of the population take out their smartphone to check the time, we watch enthusiasts will always prefer to look at the mechanical watch on our wrists. With that, there are moments when we forget to actually check the time, having been distracted by the magic of the construction yet again. But it’s not only the interaction of the different mechanical elements that hypnotizes us, the watch’s visuals are also a feast for the eyes. Have you ever wondered about your watch’s dial, and thought about the processes and techniques that were used to achieve the finished product?

What is the dial of a watch?

Putting aside the bells and whistles for a moment, the dial of a watch is the visible element that tells the time. A lot of models will also use this real estate to show more information, like the day or date. If we get a bit more philosophical, the dial is the face of a watch and the part that expresses its personality. Luxury watch manufacturers devote particular attention to even the smallest of details on the dials of their timepieces. The end result is protected from the elements by a sapphire crystal, in most cases.

The Parts of the Dial

Indices: The indices or hour markers have a decisive influence on a watch’s appearance. Popular types include the dot indices seen on the Rolex Submariner, line indices such as those found on the Omega Planet Ocean, and Roman numerals as featured on the Cartier Santos. Pilot’s watches tend to use Arabic numerals. Indices can either be applied to the dial or printed directly on it.

Minute markers: Many watches feature what is known as a minute track. This is located beyond or between the hour indices and is quite often expressed as simple lines. The minute marker is printed on the dial in the vast majority of cases.

Subdials: Chronographs and watches with other complications have subdials or other windows or apertures to display the extra information they offer. This information can be a stopwatch function, moon phase, date, or day of the week, etc.

Read more about complications in this article by Thomas Hendricks.

Chronograph mit Mondphasenanzeige – Omega Speedmaster Moonphase Ref. 3575.20
A chronograph with a moon phase indicator: the Omega Speedmaster Moonphase ref. 3575.20

Brand name and logo: Most watches feature the manufacturer’s name and logo on their dials. This is for obvious reasons when it comes to luxury brands: wearing a watch with the Rolex or Patek Philippe name holds a special allure.

Material and finishes: Dials of the artistic persuasion are enhanced with various embellishments such as guilloché patterns, refined engravings, mother-of-pearl, or gemstones. Some dials are even made of meteorite.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 116509 mit Meteorit-Zifferblatt
This Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 116509 has a meteorite dial.

Hands: The hands are another telltale characteristic of a watch’s “personality.” Sports watches tend to have baton, obelisk, or Mercedes hands, while dressier watches generally flaunt Breguet, leaf, or cathedral hands.

Why do some watches have more than one dial?

Watches with numerous dials – also known as subdials and complications – display information that goes beyond the standard time display. When viewed as a design element, we can appreciate the effect they have on the watch’s style. There are a number of reasons why a watch might have multiple dials:

  • Additional functions: Chronographs are especially popular in the watch community. There are two possible configurations: a bicompax design which has two subdials, or a tricompax design which has three. Chronographs with panda dials, named after their resemblance to the markings on a panda’s face, are highly sought after. However, the date and day of the week can also be displayed on subdials, as is the case with retrograde displays, where every function is shown on a separate dial. Another celebrated complication is the moon phase indicator, usually shown via a window on the main dial close to the small seconds or date.
  • Complicated movements: There are also watches with two or more main dials, one example being the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Duoface. This watch has a reversible case, meaning the wearer can flip it around to reveal one of two dials, both of which display the hours, minutes, and seconds.
  • Tradition and craftsmanship: Many traditional watchmakers use subdials to demonstrate their intricate craftsmanship and technical prowess. The ability to display complex mechanical functions in a confined space is a challenge that ambitious watchmakers clamor to take on. Our example again comes from Jaeger-LeCoultre, namely their Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185, which boasts four dials and 11 complications.
Eine Uhr, zwei Zifferblätter: Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Duoface Ref. Q3848420
One watch, two dials: the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Duoface ref. Q3848420.

    What are the different types of dials and finishes?

    Guilloché

    “Guilloché is a finishing technique that is often used in watchmaking to give a dial more depth and underscore the intricacy of the art. In simple terms, it’s a type of decoration in which a repetitive or moiré pattern of interwoven and overlapping lines is engraved onto the dial. The most traditional guilloché is done using a lathe. This is a manually-operated machine that rotates the dial on its own axis, while a sharp tool applies light pressure and repeatedly chisels lines thinner than a strand of hair, creating what it is known as tapestry.

    Guilloché dials can be made by hand or by machines. Looking now at the famous tapisserie pattern on the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, also known as a “Clous de Paris,” as the texture resembles Paris cobblestones, this pattern is hand-guilloched with the help of a lathe and a straight-line engine. The interplay of the circular and straight movements creates this beautifully patterned dial. Machine guilloching is a more automated process that takes place under the supervision of the guillocheur.

    Die legendäre Clous de Paris-Guilloche der Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
    The legendary Clous de Paris guilloché on the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.

    Both methods require a great deal of skill, artistry, patience, concentration, and of course expertise. We shouldn’t fail to mention some different types of guilloché patterns such as hobnail, barleycorn, Vieux Panier, sunburst, and Grenadier, to name but a few.

    Enamel Dials

    Enamel, like guilloché, is a technique used in watchmaking to create some of the most beautiful watch dials the world has ever seen. Similar to guilloché, it is an art form that requires high levels of technical ability. But what exactly does this term mean, and what kind of techniques exist?

    Enamel is a soft glass composed of silica, red lead, and soda. Mixed with other substances, enamel can take on luminous hues with a subtle, mysterious depth. Elements used to add hue to enamel include iron, chromium, and iodine, which produces gray, green, and red, respectively. When enamel is heated to temperatures of 800–1,200 °C (1,500–2,200 °F), it liquefies and bonds to metal. Enamel is applied to watch dials using a goose quill. It must be applied gradually to create the right depth and thus achieve the desired shade of color.

    There is no single formula for enamel, which is where the artistry comes in. The enamel artist can create an infinite variety of colors by using different concentrations of silica and metal oxides. The enameling process is a decorative art form that requires a high level of skill and patience throughout. One particular challenge that enamel poses is that it is difficult to control: Cracks or air or gas bubbles may appear at any time during the production of an enamel dial, which can leave behind tiny holes or alter its color.

    Kunstvolles Emaille-Zifferblatt der Vacheron Constantin master of the Arts 250th Anniversary Apollo Chriot
    The beautiful enamel dial of the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art 250th Anniversary Apollo Chariot.

    Enameling requires skill and the utmost precision. The most commonly-seen styles of enameling in the world of haute horlogerie are Grand Feu, cloisonné, and champlevé. The term “Grand Feu” typically refers to a distinct technique where the artisan applies layers of oxides to the dial and then puts it in a fire several times, allowing the motifs and colors to appear gradually. Once complete, the decorations cannot be changed, giving these dials a sense of longevity.

    Cloisonné is an enameling technique in which the outline of the dial design is formed by first adding gold wire or thin cloisons (French for partitions) to the dial that will eventually become a pattern. These are still visible on the finished piece, separating the different partitions of the enamel or inlays, which are usually different colors. The cloisonné method uses an enamel powder turned into a paste, which is then fired in a kiln.

    The champlevé enameling technique involves metal being carved away with a tool, usually a burin, and the resulting indentations being filled with enamel. The piece is then fired until the enamel melts. When cooled, the surface is polished.

    Skeleton Dials

    Watch manufacturers will decide on a skeleton dial if they want the wearer to be able to see the movement at work while on their wrist. It involves scaling back the dial to open it up or create cutouts.

    Skeleton dials tend to also feature further embellishments and engravings to elevate the movement. The manufacturing process unfolds as follows: First, a designer sits down and determines the aesthetics of the dial, while also deciding which parts of the dial should have apertures to reveal the movement below. Next, the dial is processed by cutting out or drilling through the areas that the designer had previously specified. Whether this is done by machine or by hand depends on the respective manufacturer and model.

    Once the right parts of the movement have been exposed, the dial is decorated with artistic finishes, either by hand or using precision tools. Next comes surface finishing: Depending on the desired finish, the dial may be polished or brushed to achieve the right texture and smoothness. The watchmaker then mounts the movement in the case, and the skeleton dial on the movement. After setting the hands and applying the indices, the watch is ready.

    Aufwendig skelettiert: die Hublot Spirit of Big Bang King Gold Ref. 641.OX.7180.LR
    An example of elaborate skeletonization: Hublot Spirit of Big Bang King Gold ref. 641.OX.7180.LR

    Now you’ve learned about some of what happens behind the scenes at watchmaking facilities. If you’re interested in reading more about different watch parts, check out the following articles:

    The Oscillator: The Heart of Every Watch

    The Watch Bezel and What You Need to Know

    Power Reserve Indicator


    About the Author

    Sebastian Swart

    I've been using Chrono24 for years to buy and sell watches, as well as for research purposes. I've had an infatuation with watches for as long as I can remember. As a …

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