Things have changed a lot in the past few decades when it comes to manufacturing watches. Nowadays, most operations are made using machines which are, more often than not, fully automated. Now, it's rather common to see behind-the-scenes videos at popular brands’ facilities where large machines do everything while a person sits behind a screen monitoring the numerous processes. The times when everything was done by hand are long gone (with a few exceptions) as technology and machines have become more complex and more precise. In this article we’re going to discuss how watch dials are printed today, contributing to the boom of micro and independent brands in the past decade or so.
When Things Used to Be Made By Hand
A long time ago, I read an article about the history of a watch brand and the manufacturing techniques that its watchmakers and engineers employed. I don’t remember where I read this article or which brand was highlighted. What I do remember is the fact that, for a very long time, all parts of a watch were made by hand and that specialty machines were invented to aid in the process. For example, the machine to make a guilloché pattern was invented in order to adorn dials with this pattern, just like special tools had to be made to polish cases in a certain way, or to blue hands to prevent tarnishing. Not only were machines and tools created, but new materials had to be tested and researched to do so. Artisans had to be trained to use these machines: a craft that has faded with time.
Modern Pad Printing Technology
When you look at a very old watch, you may notice tiny inconsistencies in the way the hour markers and chapter rings appear. No two numerals have the exact same height or width, some might be slightly crooked. Wherever there is lume applied, you'll notice that some lume plots are thicker than others. This is due to the fact everything was hand painted by skilled artisans which is extremely rare nowadays. Advances in technology and the creation of mass production machinery makes for more watches, less time, and for less money. This is true of any industry of course, and but horology in particular has been deeply impacted over the past few decades.
In 99% of cases today, dials are pad printed. In a nutshell: a silicone ball resembling a peach or tennis ball applies paint onto the dial. First, a cliché (or “image plate”) is created using a laser. The machine incises the pattern onto the plate and the tiny incisions are then filled with a special ink that is highly viscous in order to stick to the pad. The silicone pad is pressed against the cliché, therefore transferring the ink from the plate to the pad, then to the dial with great precision. The process can be repeated multiple times in order to make the print sharper or thicker to add dimensionality or durability.
This technique only applies to whatever is printed on a dial. Applied markers are, as their name indicates, applied by hand onto the dial. However, minute tracks, hour markers, brand names, and logos are all pad printed. From what I could tell, pad printing was invented by the horological industry and can now be found everywhere. Think of the cheap soup bowl with blue flowers around the perimeter or the shampoo bottle you just bought. These things were likely printed using the technique described above.
Impacts on the Watch Industry
When Ford created the modern production line to reduce the cost and time of manufacturing cars, this meant more people could own a car. Goods that can be made en masse become cheaper: microwaves, cars, pens, phones, watches -- everything. Pad printing dials means more watches can be made faster, therefore reducing costs, just like CNC-machined cases also reduce costs. Although there are human processes that machines will never replace, they do take care of the majority of the steps that go into making watches today, lowering costs and increasing accessibility. In other words, modern technology, including pad printing dials, most likely explains the boom of micro and independent brands in the past few years.
While I would be the first one to advocate for handmade stuff, it is true that technology has made affordable and quality horology attainable to many of us. Imagine if your favorite $500 watch was entirely handmade by highly-trained and skilled artisans. How much would it cost? Could you afford to buy it? Probably not. The good thing about being a watch enthusiast today is that we have many options to choose from. We can choose a good watch made with solid parts and assembled by machines for not too much money. Conversely, we can choose a handmade luxury watch made by rare and skilled artisans using century-old techniques. It may cost more, but you know what you're paying for.Featured image: www.quillandpad.com