If there is one type of dial that can be considered as old as watches themselves, it has to be enamel. The very first time I heard of enamel dials was when I read about the Seiko Laurel, the ancestor of the Alpinist collection, released in 1959. I was surprised that an adventure-oriented timepiece had this kind of dial as it looked intricate and fragile. After reading further, I realized that enamel dials are indeed extremely durable and were quite common in the good old days. Indeed many, if not most pocket watches had enamel dials. However, today the technique is rare as few artisans have the know-how to make such dials. Unfortunately, it’s a dying art that a few brands are trying to preserve. So what is enamel and how is it made?
Brief History of Enamel Dials
The technique dates back to 1,500 BC where the practice of firing decorated pottery was present in many ancient cultures. (we will discuss the technique below). If you’ve seen Ancient Greek vases, pots, or dishes, you saw an early, and perhaps simpler, application of the technique*. In watches, enamel dials appeared in the 17th century and became widespread with the popularization of pocket watches. There was a need to make dials last a long time in order to remain functional and, to be honest, pretty to look at. A well executed enamel dial can indeed last, however, because of the complexity of the technique, enamel was replaced by metal and other materials that could be made in large batches for cheaper and faster.
*Don’t you love how I simplify things sometimes?
What Is Enamel?
Enamel is a powder derived from silica: a natural occurring mineral found in sand and natural quartz crystals. I talked about silica in this article in which I discussed the different types of watch crystals and what they are made of. Cheap mineral crystals, for example found on Seiko’s, are made of silica powder. To make enamel, silica is mixed with other materials and melted at high temperatures to create a clear liquid compound. To give color to enamel, other materials can be added, for example iron, to give enamel a gray hue. The mixture is heated again and becomes a fine powder that is then applied on a dial. Simple, right?
How Are Enamel Dials Made?
The powdered compound is then either sifted or deposited on a dial blank made of metal. After each layer applied of enamel powder, the dial is heated at very high temperatures, between 800 to 1,200℃. Typically, enamel dials are made of six to nine layers to make them durable and lustrous looking, which means the process takes a very long time. Each layer has to be sanded smooth in order to guarantee an even application and thickness across the dial. Then, another layer of enamel powder is applied, fired again, sanded, and the process is repeated multiple times. The results of each layer are not guaranteed however, as bubbles could form or a foreign agent from the kiln could find its way onto the dial. For these reasons, enamel dials have a high failure rate.
Then, the dials are printed. In the old days, they would be painted by hand. Today, only ultra limited pieces are done in this way. There are just a few artisans who can hand paint enamel dials and they often create entire and complex scenes as you can see below. Enamelers are true artists who have incredible patience and a knack for science. Nowadays, enamel dials are pad printed (which is also how any commercially-available pot, dish, or plate is printed) using a machine. This process is not always perfect as the right quantity of ink has to be deposited in the exact right spot.
Modern Enamel Watch Dials
We don’t often see enamel dials anymore because of the complexity of the process to make them. Unlike many aspects of modern watchmaking, enamel dials can only be made by hand given the precision at which the enamel powder has to be applied, polished, re-applied, and checked. This is why enamel dials tend to be expensive and rare. As such, enamel dials tend to be found on high-end watches, and less commonly affordable ones like certain Seiko Presage models, and more recently, watches from the microbrand anOrdain. More often than not, the branding and markers are pad printed, as indicated above.
Enamel dials hearken back to a time when pocket watches and wristwatches were considered art in addition to being mechanically-advanced machines. Before, the entire process was made by skillful hands often found in Switzerland, England, France, and a few countries in Asia. Nowadays, there are just a few great masters of enamel dial work left, and they are so rare that they are known by name. We will never stop seeing enamel watch dials for what they are, in other words, extremely durable and beautiful objects.Featured image: www.timeandtidewatches.com