The secret beauty of watch decorations
While we know that complications in a watch make the most of its value and price, let’s not forget another quality that renders luxury watches genuinely precious. And this is the presence of finishings and decorations, both in the movement and its case.
And we are not talking of the presence of precious metals and gems in their making, but about the human craftsmanship that has been poured into making that particular element, beautiful.
As strange as it may sound, luxury timepieces offer precisely this. Every element and component of their structure, both the case and the movement, is not just built: it is often polished, carved, decorated somehow. Even where you cannot see. Even on the surfaces that are not exposed.
This refinement is an activity that stays in a middle realm between the functional and the decorative aspect.
More often than not, these tiny elements inside a watch are milled, polished, and decorated, so to be exceptional in every way when you happen to look at them.
Initially, these processes, which were entirely made by hand, had a practical purpose, apart from the aesthetic aspect. Watches have always had a huge issue: that is, the effects of dust inside the movements, as cases were not dust-proof and waterproof in the early days of watchmaking.
Dust tended to accumulate in recesses, and so, clogging up the moving parts, especially the pivots of the wheels, and affecting timekeeping.
So, watchmakers started to create textured surfaces on the metal surfaces of movements, so to “trap” the dust
in excess by making it deposit itself there, and not in the moving parts of the movement.
The two main surface finishings of movements
The first is called “Cotes de Geneve” (stripes of Geneva). It looks like a series of satin stripes practiced over select areas of the movement, mostly, non-moving parts, like bridges.
The second is called “Perlage” (pearling), and also known as circular- graining or stippling.
It consists of applying a pattern of overlapping small circles with a rotating abrasive tool.
While the Cotes de Geneve finishing can be automatized, the perlage cannot, especially in the most intricate details, so it requires manual intervention. More often than not, a single movement is decorated with both patterns in separate areas.
A second finishing, which cannot be totally automatized, is the so-called “anglage” (angling), also called chamfering.
In anglage, the edges of an element are filed with a 45° angle between the two orthogonal sides. The resulting surface is generally highly polished to make it shine brightly, and there is a very sharp edge on the corners between the surfaces. This edge and the polishing cannot be obtained with purely CNC-driven means, so anglage is mostly hand-made, or better, hand-finished.
The lustre of black polish
Black polish is not a decoration, but a way of polishing a surface. When a surface is planar and perfectly smooth, light reflects over it, giving a black effect. Black polish is made by hand by scrubbing the surface with special diamond pastes, more coarse at the beginning, and progressively smoother at each passage.
As you can understand, it is an incredibly time-consuming process.
As a final note, sometimes surfaces are also engraved, and the best engraving is handmade. Usually, the brand of the watch is inscribed on the movement, with some other writings and seals. Other times, bridges and other elements are engraved with decorations in bas-relief, making them almost a work-of-art.
Another critical aspect of decorations in movements is the presence of screws, which are of a different color than other elements. This happens because traditionally, screws were tempered at a high temperature so to render them harder.
The different temperatures used in tempering gave them a different color, one of the hardest being a bright blue. This is the reason why in some luxury watches you see screws of a bright blue color. Companies like Lange und Sohne and NOMOS Glashutte are well-known for their use of this technique.
Even if today the blueing can be obtained through a chemical reaction, high-end manufacturers still use the traditional thermal blueing of screws.
Now consider applying these techniques and finishes to every one of the mechanical pieces composing the 300 of a typical complicated watch (that is, a watch featuring different exotic functions). And we mean the inside of the movement, as well as the outside.
Remember that cases, bezels, and backs are often polished with different finishes, shiny and satin-like, and this work cannot be done entirely automatically.
The beauty of handcarving
Cases and movements can be carved by hand so to reproduce scenes like this one. As you can see, the bridge has been carved to display a woman, who is sitting under a tree and holding a bunch of flowers, in front of a lake. This exquisite craftsmanship was completely hidden from view under a cuvette. Still it was there , ready to be shown as a surprise effect to the watch owner’s friends.
It is rather evident that this effect has nothing to do with the functions of the watch: it is just an aesthetic display made to appease our sight.
The same can be said for decorations made on the case of a watch, or even, on the dial.
You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.