“The dial gives the watch its face and an identity of its own.” - Rolex.com
A dial displays hours, minutes, seconds, date and other time-related elements. The dial, or face of the watch, must present all the information in a very tight canvas while still staying legible. This challenge makes dial creation a work of art. Rolex remains true to its timeless designs in bracelet and case (which we discuss more here), but the dial is where they can be a bit more creative and experiment with modern design elements and materials. We’re going to take a look at the materials and techniques Rolex uses and has used in dial creation.
A dial requires both artistic experience (from years of watch-making) and advanced technology. Rolex keeps all dial creation - from design to production - in house. This is a remarkable and rare feat. But what else can we expect from only the best? Let’s first take a look at the way Rolex dials are made.
Most Rolex dials begin as a blank dial made of brass. The circular pieces are cut out with any necessary holes - for hands, etc. After this, the blank dials follow different processes to create the final color.
Decorative dials, like for the Rolex President, are made by a diamond-tipped tool that automatically and meticulously carves the pattern into the surface. This is where we see Rolex’s past experience blend with modern technology. Rolex actually uses five vintage-turning machines updated with technologically advanced computers that create the intricate dial decoration based on the desired design.
Next, three different techniques add color to the brass - lacquering, electroplating and PVD or physical vapor deposition. Lacquering is used for black, white, blue, green and opaque colored dials. Lacquering is basically when you apply a coating, leaving the surface texture visible. For the metallic shades like silver, gold and rhodium, are made by using electroplating. Electroplating is a process that uses an electric current to dissolve metal, so they form a metal coating on an electrode, or a conductor. In the dial case, brass is the electrode and silver, gold and rhodium adhere to it through electricity. Finally, some dials are colored by the PVD process. PVD is where a thing coating of solid material is vaporized in a vacuum chamber and deposited onto the targeted dial.
After the brass dials have been coated and colored, the text is pad printed (known as tampography). Tampography is a printing process that transfers the 2D design onto a 3D object - the dial. The hour markers and crown, known as the appliques, are made from gold and filled with a luminescent material, which are then hand applied to the dial. The luminescent material used on Rolex dials has progressed throughout the decades.
You can tell what luminescent material was used on the dial based on both the production year and the label beneath the six-o’clock. Rolex used radium up until the 1960s. We discuss the physical damaging affects about using Radium here. To know if a dial was made using radium, simple look to see if the label right at the 6 o’clock includes the word “SWISS.”
After radium, tritium (also a radioactive material but less dangerous) was used until the mid-1990s. These dials are marked with “T SWISS T,” “T Swiss Made T” or “Swiss-T <25” beneath the six-o’clock. Its interesting to note that radium and tritium lose their glow over time, so many vintage Rolexes no longer emit a glow under the correct circumstances.
Image from hoodinkee.com
Next, Rolex used Luminova, which glows green, for a few years in the 1990s. These models sport the label “SWISS” under the 6 o’clock like the radium dials. In the 2000s, Rolex moved on to use SuperLuminova. These dials have “SWISS-MADE” under the 6 o’clock. The patented luminescent material Chromalight that fills the hands and hour markers to emit a long-lasting, bright blue light today was introduced in 2008. In order to be able to read the time no matter what the time, Rolex patented this material that is safe to use and perfect for watches. Chroma-light display is lightyears ahead of radium. Rolex dials with Chromalight are also inscribed with “SWISS-MADE” under the 6 o’clock. Chroma-light display is lightyears ahead of radium.
Creating all dials in-house is a remarkable feat. Rolex uses vintage tools yet advances in luminescent technology. The fact that Rolex still applies appliques by hand is one of the reasons Rolex watches are so expensive. Rolex’s timeless designs with modern elements and technology continue to pay tribute to past models and methodology while still offering unique style to the modern culture.
Next week, we will take a closer look at the major differences between Rolex dress dials and Rolex sports dials.