L'art et la matière

Exotic dials

Over the years, dials have become a privileged playfield for all kinds of artists and creators. Their artistic reinterpretations have been the prerogative of jewellers for a long time, but have now become the subject of a bidding war between the most popular watch brands. Here is an overview of an offer bound to grow.

By Vincent Daveau

Le cadran poétique de la Van Cleef & Arpels Pont des Amoureux
Van Cleef & Arpels : le Pont des Amoureux

After the transition to the third millenium, a new generation of designers at the head of major brands ateliers has emphasised the need to push the boundaries of watch decoration. Jewellers known for their groundbreaking watchmaking transformations dit it first. They left the “good tone” classicism of the profession to try original experiments to enrich the graphic offer. 

Artistic license

Clearly, a synthetic lacquer dial will never display the deep reflections of a dial designed in genuine Japanese lacquer by a master of the craft.

La Seiko Presage Laque, une montre typiquement japonaise
Seiko Presage Laque, a typical Japanese watch.

Some Maisons, such as Vacheron Constantin and Seiko, have managed to capture the poetry of this living material. They have created timepieces mostly appreciated for the tiny frames they display, which measure barely four-square centimetres. Grand Seiko has mastered in creating dials that evoke the nature of the Japanese mountains. Whether it is trees in autumn or snow in winter. Other Maisons have expressed the richness of nature by creating hard stones dials. Piaget made it their specialty in the seventies and other Maisons followed, such as Corum, Cartier, Bulgaria and Dior. 

Le fabuleux cadran en malachite de la Bvlgari Divas' Dream
The exotic dial of the Bvlgari Divas’ Dream.

After exploring all the possibilities with palaeolithic materials, as Louis Moinet did (mammoth ivory, dinosaur fossil elements), some Maisons, like Rolex, decided to explore other universes. And decided to cut out the dials for their luxury watches in slices of metallic meteorites. 

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona avec cadran en météorite
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona with meteorite dial ©Rolex – Ulysse Frechelin.

Ever since, the brands have been looking for original materials to create a buzz. Of course, the most eco-friendly of them have recently tried offering to their target public dials made of recycled fishnets. But given the size of the object, their action seems as derisory as it is demagogic.

La Tank Must de Cartier et son cadran photovoltaïque
Tank Must watch by Cartier with a photovoltaic dial.

Whereas the smartest of them have decided to install tiny solar panels on their dials to keep the quartz calibres running, like Cartier (read our article Cartier Tank Must SolarBeat, you must have it!) or Casio. While others have called artists to create small series of dials as art objects. Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, Hermès, and to a lesser extent Dior or Bvlgari, have made their specialty of dials adorned with wood marquetry, straw, mosaics, or paintings made of feathers. 

Montre Rotonde de Cartier avec cadran en marqueterie de bois.
Rotonde de Cartier with its exotic dial in wood marquetry. 

Every year, these international brands manage to surprise us, expressing a new vision of art on a few cubic centimetres. Some of them use ronde-bosse or scrimshaw engraving. While others line the dials with a fraction of a real work of art, with leather, precious fabric. But still, most often, diamonds or coloured stones. 

They have totally mastered the ancient technique of cloisonné enamel, which Vincent Daveau thoroughly explained in his previous article. 

Expressing the ultra-technical

True, this is all aesthetically beautiful. But it did not solve the problem of brands that wanted to stand out at the turn of the century. Indeed, their goal was to answer the desires of amateurs. Those who wanted to picture themselves in the future with a mechanical watch on their wrist. And dials were the most appropriate medium to express that. So the most determined of the Maisons manufactured them very early in innovative materials such as carbon fiber. 

La IWC Ingenieur Automatic Carbon Performanc
IWC Ingenieur Automatic Carbon Performance, a full carbon model. 

In reality, given the difficulty of producing them at a decent price, many have simply affixed a varnish-coated carbon print on the brass disc. Well, who would try to dissemble everything just to check if it was real fibre and not a 3D imitation? 

Carbon inspired others who were in search of originality to go looking for new ways to express modernity. Some decided to use carbon nanotubes, while others explored honeycomb dials. Even if a small number of contemporary dials still bear silicon, most watchmakers like the Pequignet Manufacture prefer more noble materials. Such as smoked or sanded sapphire crystal. 

La Pequignet Manufacture Royal Saphir bleue.
Pequignet Manufacture, Royale Saphir Blue Royale Saphir.  

As for Seiko, the brand has already offered their aficionados the velvety softness of Arita ware on their Presage watch. And Omega has been producing high-tech ceramic dials for some time now. Which is a technology that ensures the enamel will last a long time and guarantees a greater resistance for their sports watches. Surprisingly enough, no one has mentioned dials made with a 3D machine for now. In fact, they may already exist, just like with Panerai and their sintered titanium cases. But those who manage the communication teams of the brands remain ignorant to questions and never say a word about their existence. 

La Omega Seamaster Diver 300 Beijing 2022.
Omega Seamaster Diver 300 Beijing 2022.

Changing Dials

Well, those same managers are much more talkative when it comes to reveal watches bearing mechanisms whose embedded complications have an action on the dial. Those pieces draw the attention for being unique and some Maisons have made it their specialty. For example, the manufactures Ulysse Nardin and Blancpain, or the jewellery Maison Van Cleef & Arpels, Bvlgari or the independent watchmaker Christophe Claret. All of them unveil frequently fine watchmaking pieces displaying playful (Bvlgari and Genta Mickey), biblical, technical (Franck Muller and the Crazy Hours) or fun (Blancpain and Ulysse Nardin) sketches that no lover of beautiful things could ignore. 

La Ulysse Nardin Hannibal Répétition Minutes
Ulysse Nardin Hannibal Répétition Minutes and automatons, also known as jacquemarts.

Among the incredible kinetic feat on the dials, connoisseurs regularly cite pieces like the Metamorphosis by Montblanc or the Reverso Répétition Minutes à rideau by Jaeger-LeCoultre as references of the genre. To conclude this subject, which was deliberately exhaustive, we need to mention dials that are made up of the back of the mechanical movement’s plate and whose visible components are the animation.  

La montre Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Répétition Minutes à Rideau.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Répétition Minutes à Rideau. 

And since they occupy an ever-increasing share of the watchmaking market, it is important to highlight the presence of digital dials of the new connected timepieces. They can change according to the desires of their owners, like the TAG Heuer Connected watches, and offer a multitude of faces and features, which traditional watchmakers can only dream about. Even more, they manage to imitate them graphically with talent, just like Moser & Cie does…



Special mention for the dial of the new Sun Wukong Artist Edition by Oris, which is very atypical. Created in collaboration with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Co, it is produced in cloisonné enamel, which is a first for the Swiss watchmaker. Nested inside the brand’s signature model (the Aquis Calibre 400), it displays a scene from the famous Chinese animated movie The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven, in which the hero Sun Wukong arrives in front of the Dragon King’s palace. 

A scene from the Chinese animated film, The Monkey King.

In 2021, Oris issued a version of Sun Wukong of 2,000 pieces. And now the arrival of a second model is the logical consequence, the timepiece is limited to 72 pieces, a number that was not chosen at random but corresponds to the number of forms in which the magical and mythical Chinese character can appear. 

The same scene as below is depicted in cloisonné enamel on the Sun Wukong Artist Edition’s dial.

Entirely made and painted by hand, which makes each piece unique, this miniature work of art requires up to three days of work to be finished. 

The Sun Wukong Artist Edition’s dial is hand-decorated using a technique called cloisonné enameling.

Price: €23,500www.oris.ch

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