Watch Dials Today Encompass Everything From Minimalist to Masterpiece to the Conjuring of A Dial Where None Exists

A Watch Dial’s primary purpose is to mark time. At its most basic, the watch dial—or face—is a slim disk that holds numerals or indexes or both, allowing the watch’s hands to sweep around their familiar time-telling course.

Simply elegant dials are as popular these days as they were years ago, when first conceived on pocket watches. The minimalist design, with contrasting numerals on a creamy white background interrupted only by the maker’s signature, was revered for its classic good looks.

But many early watchmakers soon took the opportunity to be as creative with their dials as they were with their movements and intricately engraved cases. And the result was a beautiful array of decorative dials that added a new dimension to timekeeping.

Today, manufacturers are seizing the opportunity to showcase their respective talents in ways that early watchmakers could barely conceive. While simple apertures and subdials, tourbillons and moon phases add imaginative interest to a dial, a variety of art forms, such as engraving, stone setting, enameling, miniature painting and more are becoming more evident. These techniques, at the hand of highly trained artisans, transform dials from often-outsourced components to canvases for creativity.

In House

Manufacturers frequently employ their own craftsmen to execute the necessary techniques needed to produce a great design. At Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, enamel miniaturists have mastered traditional techniques—grand feu, champlevé, translucent and cloisonné—to turn “ordinary” watch dials on the Reverso and round Rendez-Vous into very personal works of art.

At Vacheron Constantin, its Métier d’Art collection is devoted to demonstrating “the talent and outstanding expertise of the company’s master craftsmen over the generations,” according to the company. These include enamel-dial limited edition watches and high jewelry pieces fit for royalty.

One recent enamel example is Vacheron Constantin’s Hommage à l’Art de la Danse, created on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the French Ballet School. These three unique pieces are inspired by the work of Edgar Degas and feature grand feu grisaille enameling rendered in smoky shades of brown. The amazingly detailed display makes even the tiniest folds in the ballerinas’ costumes visible to the appreciative eye.

As a side note—and speaking of dials—Les Cadraniers de Genève SA, a Switzerland-based manufacturer of watch dials founded by F. P. Journe in 2000, began operating as a subsidiary of Vacheron Constantin as of September 2012. Obviously this move is in keeping with many of the major brands’ movement toward greater verticalization.

Not so traditional

But it seems that manufacturers haven’t even begun to mine the multitude of ideas for interesting watch dials. Jade, lapis lazuli and even opal dials have joined traditional mother-of-pearl, while new renditions of old decorative techniques are at every turn, such as makie and marquetry.

At Hermès, for example, the Arceau H Cube features straw—yes, the vegetal stuff—displayed in happy-colored miniature marquetry on the dial. Parts of rye plants are selected from those grown and hand scythed on a single farm specifically cultivated for this purpose.

Then the pieces, which are successively dyed and dried to create vivid colors, are cut and assembled one by one to make the characteristic H Cube motif. The result is an amazing geometry that gets gold stars for originality.

It goes without saying that skeleton watches are making tracks among watch aficionados these days, and virtually every major brand has some version of one.

A highly skeletonized watch, in which the skeletonized movement is entirely visible through the front and the back of the case, precludes a dial as we know it since it would only obstruct the marvelous view. Rather, the wearer has the rare opportunity to effect a phantom dial fashioned from his own recall and bedazzlement. And maybe that’s the best kind of all.

Hermes Jaeger-LeCoultre Vacheron Constantin