It may come as a surprise to learn that, whenever watch editors converge to discover the latest models unveiled by prestigious maisons, how well each watch can convey the time is barely touched upon. It is simply a given that these highly prized pieces of horological engineering are the pinnacle of precision – and besides, there is just so much more to talk about. One of the richest areas of debate – especially for women’s timepieces – is the intricate and often mind-blowing craftsmanship of a watch’s dial, a seemingly limitless canvas where audacious design and artistic feats can run wild.
While métier d’art dials (the watch-world equivalent of haute couture) are usually the most daring and technically challenging, much like ready-to-wear fashion, the timepieces better suited to everyday wear also showcase astute design, artisanal flair and precious materials. These (albeit, only slightly) more humble designs still require craftsmanship that draws on centuries of expertise and exquisite haute-joaillerie techniques, resulting in miniature masterpieces for the wrist that can be worn each and every day.
Sometimes, even within the plainest of dials, lies a wealth of watchmaking history. The face of IWC Schaffhausen’s ‘Portofino’ is celebrated for its understated and uncluttered elegance, as its minimalist aesthetic was in fact inspired by Lépine pocket watches – refined, slender timepieces that paved the way for the development of the first wrist watches. First launched in 1984, the ‘Portofino’ dial design also referenced classic round-dial styles popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and it remains a timeless choice for both men and women today. The most minimalist ‘Portofino’ dials are silver plated, adorned with sleek, whisker-fine hour markers and Roman numerals – each an extraordinary feat in itself, given their gossamer-like forms and impeccable polish.
Meanwhile, Cartier’s interpretation of Roman numerals – which feature on many of the maison’s most iconic timepieces – are unapologetic in their bold font and bring striking character to each dial. The ‘Baignoire Allongée’ timepiece showcases these numerals seemingly stretched to fill its elongated oval case, evoking Salvador Dalí’s melted clocks or perhaps even a hint of Alice in Wonderland surrealism. Where watches are concerned, you may find that once you start noticing the small details, their seismic influence on the overall look of a timepiece becomes inescapable.
Elegant relief and subtle volume are extremely influential in terms of the grace and refinement of a watch face. Vacheron Constantin’s classically beautiful ‘Égérie’ timepieces feature silvered guilloché opaline dials that mimic the effect of pleated fabric, reminiscent of the skirt swathes cascading from a Dior New Look gown. This tapestry technique is brought to life using heritage dial-decorating machinery ensconced in the maison’s Swiss atelier, which was founded in 1755. This is a modus operandi of watchmaking maisons – while they may have keenly embraced avant-garde technologies such as 3D printing and computer-aided design, they also still rely on hand-held tools first forged centuries ago in the hands of master watchmakers, which simply can’t be beaten.
Inevitably, the world of fine jewelry also has a huge role to play in watch-dial designs, with meticulous stone setting and precious details always a mainstay of women’s watches. Yet the approach is not always ‘more is more’ where glitz is concerned. The newest Hermès Timepieces’ ‘Nantucket’ features a delicate spray of tiny diamonds that appear to be scattered across the dial – yet this apparent nonchalance is actually the result of microscopic precision. Another Hermès novelty, the ‘Arceau Soleil’, features an intricately lacquered dial that evokes the radiating rays of the midday sun, drawing on one of jewelry’s most ancient art forms: enameling. The ‘Heure H’, another icon of the Hermès horological family, is available with a striking half-set black and diamond dial that proves the power of pavé diamonds for bringing a watch face to life – each tiny stone nestles next to its neighbor to create a uniform blanket of scintillation, delivering potent sparkle.
Diamonds, however, aren’t the only gem to bring drama to a dial. Famous for its use of ornamental stone dials, Piaget has been crafting watch faces out of varied and vivid gemstones such as lapis lazuli, onyx, rubellite, malachite, opal and tiger’s eye since 1963. The newest model of the glamorous ‘Limelight Gala’ features a delicate mother-of-pearl dial, meticulously engraved with the maison’s signature ‘Palace Décor’ effect, executed by Piaget’s master engravers to create a textured surface that gleams and glints, while those looking for a darker-toned design may fall for its aventurine-faced incarnation – a glistening variety of quartz that evokes the night sky.
The heavens are often an inspiration for women’s watch designs, and perhaps one of the most charming complications to adorn watch dials is the celestial beauty of a moon phase – a miniature feat of engineering that allows its wearer to track the lunar cycle. Each brand executes a moon phase with varying techniques and finesse, but one of the most enchanting is the Jaeger-LeCoultre’s ‘Rendez-Vous Moon Serenity’, where a mother-of-pearl moon shimmers beneath a constellation-strewn sky. Admiring its seemingly effortless, ethereal allure, the complex mastery behind every element of a fine watch dial is palpable – each one requires expert design, rarified raw materials and, perhaps, just a little bit of je ne sais quoi magic.