The Sparkling Secrets Behind Jewels in Watches: A Closer Look at Their Functionality and Beauty

The Sparkling Secrets Behind Jewels in Watches: A Closer Look at Their Functionality and Beauty

The role of jewels in watch movements

When you think of jewels, watches might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, these tiny gemstones play a crucial role in the inner workings of timepieces. The primary function of jewels in watch movements is to reduce friction and wear on the moving parts of the movement. By creating a smooth and durable surface, jewels help to ensure the accuracy and longevity of the watch. But how exactly do jewels achieve this?

In a mechanical watch movement, there are many gears, pivots, and pinions that need to rotate smoothly and with minimal friction. This is where jewels come in. Typically by synthetic sapphire or ruby, these gemstones are meticulously placed in specific locations within the movement. The pivots of the gears are mounted on these jewels, allowing them to rotate freely and smoothly. This reduces the friction between the moving parts, resulting in improved accuracy and longevity of the watch. The use of jewels in watch movements is a testament to the meticulous craftsmanship and engineering precision that goes into creating these timepieces.

jewels watches chinese movement escapement.jpg

Watches movement (photo by Hustvedt, Wikimedia Commons)

Understanding the functionality of jewels in watches

To truly appreciate the functionality of jewels in watches, it's important to understand the concept of friction and its impact on mechanical movements. Friction is the force that opposes the motion of two surfaces in contact. In a watch movement, the gears and other moving parts constantly rub against each other, creating friction. Over time, this friction can wear down the components, leading to decreased accuracy and potential damage to the movement.

watch jewel bearing.jpg

Cross-section of a jewel bearing in a mechanical watch. Photo by By Chris Burks Chetvorno (Wikimedia Commons)

By placing jewels in strategic locations within the movement, watchmakers are able to minimize th effects of friction. The hardness and smoothness of the jewel surfaces create a durable and low-friction bearing surface for the moving parts. This allows the gears to rotate freely without excessive resistance or wear. The result is a watch that not only performs accurately but also maintains its precision over time.

Cross-section of a jewel bearing in a mechanical watch with capstone

Cross-section of a jewel bearing in a mechanical watch, with a capstone. Photo by By Chris Burks Chetvorno (Wikimedia Commons)

Why is it so? Because the jewels used in watches are very hard. They are mostly artificial rubies, with a hardness level of 9 on the Mohs scale – just one factor less than the hardest substance known to man: diamond. On contrast, steel has a measly performance of 4. This means that, when a steel element such as a steel pinion rotates on a typical watch jewel, it doesn’t grind in it – and a little watch oil applied at service intervals helps to make its continual motion almost effortless. 

To learn more about watches, buy The Watch Manual here

The benefits of using jewels in watch movements

The use of jewels in watch movements offers several benefits that contribute to the overall performance and longevity of the timepiece. Here are some of the key advantages:

1. **Reduced friction**

As mentioned earlier, the primary function of jewels is to reduce friction between the moving parts of the watch. By providing a smooth and durable surface, jewels help to minimize wear and ensure the accuracy of the watch.

2. **Improved accuracy**

By reducing friction, jewels allow the gears and other components to rotate more uniformly, so, with greater precision. This translates into improved timekeeping accuracy, which is essential for a high-quality timepiece.

3. **Enhanced durability**

The hardness of synthetic sapphire and ruby used in watch jewels makes them highly resistant to wear and scratching. This ensures that the watch movement remains in optimal condition for a longer period of time.

4. **Longer service intervals**

With reduced friction and wear, watches with jewel-set movements often require less frequent servicing. This not only saves time and money but also ensures that the watch remains in top condition for longer periods between servicing.

The use of jewels in watch movements is a testament to the commitment of watchmakers to create timepieces of exceptional quality and precision. It is a reflection of their dedication to the art of horology, their ingenuity and relentless pursuit of perfection.

jewel bearing

The history of jewels in watches

The use of jewels in watch movements has a long and storied history that dates back centuries. The idea of using jewels to reduce friction in mechanical devices dates back to ancient civilizations: however, it was not until the 18th century that the use of jewels in watchmaking became a reality.

The intuition came to a Swiss inventor residing in London: Nicolas Fatio de Duiller. Around the beginning of the 1700s, he perfected the art of cutting jewels – back then, small shards of natural gemstones – and inserted them in watches, revolutionizing the industry and becoming a rich man at the same time. More, he patented his method, keeping it an absolute secret – a fact that assured the technical domination of British horology for almost 60 years, before the French finally managed to achieve the same results.

The development of synthetic jewels

From this experience, watchmakers globally recognized the importance of reducing friction in timepieces. They understood that using jewels, particularly ruby and sapphire, instead of simple brass bushings, they could significantly improve the performance and durability of their watches. This led to the development of jewel-set movements, which quickly gained popularity among watchmakers and collectors alike.

Eventually, the Swiss watch industry, in particular, played a pivotal role in the advancement of jewel-set movements. The development of synthetic jewels by a Swiss chemist, Auguste Verneuil, in the last years of the 1800s, rendered these precious elements affordable for everyone, so the use of jewels diffused itself also to more economic watches. This further solidified the reputation of Swiss watches as symbols of excellence, quality, and practicality.

Today, the use of jewels in watch movements is considered a hallmark of good-quality and luxury timepieces. It represents a tradition that spans centuries and continues to be cherished by watch enthusiasts around the world.

To learn more about watches, buy The Watch Manual here

The different types of jewels used in watchmaking

Watchmaking use mostly gemstones by synthetic sapphire and ruby for creating watch jewels. These materials possess the necessary qualities to reduce friction effectively and withstand the rigors of constant movement. However, not all jewels are equal. Let's explore the different types of jewels used in watchmaking.

1. **Synthetic Ruby**

The most common jewels in watches come in synthetic ruby. Manufactured through a modern chemical process very similar to the one invented by Verneuil, synthetic ruby is a lab-grown material that offers excellent hardness and durability. It is known for its vibrant red color, which adds a touch of elegance to jewel-set watches. Both mechanical and quartz watches commonly use synthetic ruby jewels.

jewels in watches ruby.jpg

Synthetic ruby in a watch

2. **Synthetic Sapphire**

Synthetic sapphire is a lab-grown material belonging to the same family of synthetic ruby: Corundum. Corundum is second only to diamond in terms of hardness, making it an ideal choice for watch jewels. High-end watches sometimes use synthetic sapphire, for its durability and aesthetic appeal, thanks to its rich blue color. 

3. **Diamond**

Luxury timepieces occasionally use diamonds as a watch jewels, even though they are not so common. Diamonds are prized for their exceptional hardness and brilliance, making them a symbol of opulence that goes above and beyond the “simple” ruby.

While synthetic ruby and sapphire are the most popular gemstones in watchmaking, certain watches use also other materials such as quartz, garnet and agate. The choice of gemstone depends on various factors, including the desired aesthetic, performance requirements, and brand identity. Of course, some more affordable modern watches still use brass bushings instead of jewels, but apart from rare exceptions, their quality is usually low.

How jewels enhance the beauty of watches

Beyond their functional role, jewels in watches also contribute to the overall beauty and aesthetic appeal of the timepiece. The careful placement of gemstones adds a touch of elegance and sophistication that elevates the design of the watch – so much that in some cases, manufacturers placed them inside the movements for purely aesthetic reasons.

But let’s not forget that jewels can also be placed on the watch dial and case to enhance the quality and beauty of select timepieces. The category of jewelry watches has a long tradition; and in fact, one of the earliest wristwatches is a precious Patek Philippe, created in 1868 for the Countess Koskowicz of Hungary. It is a gold bracelet structure decorated with precious gemstones and enamels. It also houses a hidden watch face in a central secret enclosure, which one can open through a lid.

From that time, the most precious luxury watches have mixed watchmaking and jewelry, to create dazzling expressions of beauty and opulence to wear. 

Here's how jewels enhance the beauty of watches:

**Sparkling accents** 

The presence of jewels, especially when on the dial or bezel, adds a captivating sparkle to the watch. This creates a visual allure that draws attention and makes the timepiece stand out.

**Colorful expressions**

Jewel-set watches often incorporate gemstones of various colors, such as rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. These vibrant hues add a pop of color to the watch, creating a visually striking and dynamic appearance. Among the most coveted, we see the “rainbow” timepieces, where an array of gemstones of every color of the spectrum is carefully arranged on the dial to have a smooth transition effect.

**Artful arrangements** 

The placement of jewels in watches is a work of art in itself. Watchmakers and artisans specialized in decorations often work together to carefully balance the design and layout of the jewels to create visually appealing patterns and configurations. Also, remember that, because of the uneven surface and shape of watches, very often the watchmakers cut the the jewels in unique shapes. This attention to detail adds a sense of artistry and craftsmanship to the watch.

**Exquisite craftsmanship**

The process of setting jewels both in watch movements and in cases, bezels and dials, requires a high level of skill and precision. Specialists meticulously position each gemstone, ensuring a flawless fit and alignment, and a perfect setting to obtain a smooth and regular surface. This level of craftsmanship is a testament to the dedication and expertise of the watchmaker.
The beauty of jewel-set watches lies in the harmonious combination of functionality and aesthetics. The watchmakers select and place each gemstone to enhance both the performance and visual appeal of the timepiece. The result is a watch that not only tells time but also tells a story of elegance and refinement.

The process of setting jewels in watch movements and cases

Setting jewels in watches is a delicate and intricate process that requires meticulous attention to detail. Professionals – both watchmakers and jewelers - follow the same routine: a series of steps to ensure that each jewel is properly placed and secured. Here's an overview of the process:

1. **Selection of jewels**

The first step is to select the appropriate jewels for the specific watch location. The watchmaker considers factors such as size, shape, and material to ensure a proper fit and optimal performance.

2. **Preparing the jewels**

Before setting the jewels, the watchmaker carefully inspects and prepares them. This may involve polishing the surfaces to ensure a smooth and flawless finish.

3. **Creating the settings**

The professional then checks the settings or settings holes in the watch movement or surface. These are the precise locations where the jewels will be placed and set. The settings are typically made of metal and are designed to securely hold the jewels in place.

4. **Placing the jewels**

Using specialized tools, the artisan carefully positions each jewel in its designated setting. This requires a steady hand and a keen eye for precision.

5. **Securing the jewels*

Once the jewels are properly positioned, the professional secures the jewels in place. This is typically done by using a combination of heat, pressure, and adhesive, and much fine manual work is usually needed. The goal is to ensure that the jewels are firmly secured in the settings and will not move during normal wear.

6. **Final inspection**

After set the jewels, the watchmakers check that everything is in order. This includes checking the alignment, smoothness of rotation, and overall performance of the movement, or the optical effect of the surface where jewels have been applied. 

The process of setting jewels is a testament to the artistry and precision that goes into creating these timeless treasures. It is a delicate dance between functionality and aesthetics, where each jewel has to enhance both the performance and beauty of the watch.

Famous watch brands known for their use of jewels

Several watch brands have gained recognition for their exceptional use of jewels in their timepieces. These brands are some of the bet-known manufacturers that have mastered the art of incorporating jewels into their watches, creating timepieces that are not only accurate and reliable but also visually stunning. Let's explore some of them:

1. **Patek Philippe**

Known for their exquisite craftsmanship and attention to detail, Patek Philippe is revered for their jewel-set watches. Each Patek Philippe timepiece is a masterpiece of horology, with meticulously placed jewels that enhance both the performance and beauty of the watch.


Jewels in a Patek Philippe watch (photo from Patek Philippe website)

2. **Rolex**

While not traditionally renowned for their use of jewels, Rolex has incorporated gemstones into some of its most iconic models. The Rolex Datejust and especially, Daytona models, for example, offer versions with diamond-set dials and bezels. These watches combine the precision and reliability of Rolex with the elegance and brilliance of jewels, to achieve a sublime effect of luxury.

3. **Audemars Piguet**

Audemars Piguet is worldwide famous for its Royal Oak collection, which features jewel-set versions of their iconic watches. These timepieces showcase the brand's commitment to both craftsmanship and innovation, with jewels adding a touch of luxury and sophistication.


Audemars Piguet Royal Oak with gemstones

4. **Cartier**

Cartier was originally a jeweler, and the meticulous attention to quality is evident in its most revered watch models. The Maison is synonymous with luxury and elegance, and their jewel-set watches are no exception. The Cartier Tank, Santos, and Ballon Bleu collections offer models with diamond-set cases and dials, creating a truly captivating and opulent appearance.

5. **Jacob & Co.**

Among the most luxurious watches, the brand founded by the jeweler Jacob Arabo finds a familiar ground. From the first gem-studded watches created for the rapper community of New York, Jacob & Co. evolved to combine its skills as a jeweler with precious technological complications that create a dazzling display of horological technique and beauty.


Brilliant Flying Tourbillon by Jacob & Co

Of course there are other equally notable brands, but these are just a few examples of watch manufacturers that have embraced the use of gems as a beauty enhancement in their timepieces. Each brand brings its own unique style and interpretation to jewel-set watches, showcasing the diversity and creativity within the world of horology.

Conclusion: Appreciating the craftsmanship of jewel-set watches

In conclusion, the synergy between jewels and watches is a testament to the artistry and precision that defines these timeless treasures and comes from the same technique and specialization originally performed by the same artisans. Beyond their exquisite aesthetic qualities, jewels also play a crucial role in ensuring the smooth and accurate performance of timepieces. From reducing friction to enhancing durability, these tiny gemstones contribute to the overall performance and longevity of the watches.

The functionality of jewels in watch movements complete the beauty of the watch. Jewel-set watches captivate with their sparkling accents, colorful expressions, artful arrangements, and exquisite craftsmanship. The careful placement of these gemstones adds a touch of elegance and sophistication that elevates the design of the watch over its operative function as a time-teller.

Whether you're a horology enthusiast or simply appreciate the beauty of fine jewelry, jewel-set watches offer a mesmerizing fusion of functionality and aesthetics. Each tick of the watch is a testament to the artistic craftsmanship and engineering precision that goes into creating these remarkable little machines. So, the next time you admire a jewel-set watch, take a moment to appreciate the sparkling secrets that lie on its elegant appearance, and also, within its mechanical heart.

 To learn more about watches, buy The Watch Manual here

The Watchonomicon is an independent blog, written and managed by The Watch Manual. The Watch Manual is NOT affiliated in any way with any brand mentioned in articles.

Back to blog