Porcelain, enamel, carbon fiber, meteorite, mother-of-pearl, onyx, aventurine… boring! They all sound exotic and have attractive applications but are, in fact, relatively common watch-dial materials. Watch companies that want to stand out have to get creative sometimes.
The dial is where the show is, and without the same technical and durability constraints of other watch components, it’s one place where watchmakers have some freedom to experiment with unconventional materials that won’t be used elsewhere in a watch. Safely beneath a crystal, a dial can be made from a wide range of things, from the banal to the bizarre (although working with almost any material entails its own challenges).
Most commonly, plated brass forms the base of the dial — to which various finishes can be applied or upon which art can be displayed. Other materials are sometimes simply reinforced by a copper plate underneath. Clear lacquer is often used to protect it, and opaque synthetic lacquer can give it color — or watchmakers can use more difficult and premium techniques, such as those that involve enamel. Other metals can also do the trick, from steel to silver and gold, as well as various kinds of stone.
To get the attention of seen-it-all watch collectors, though, an unusual dial material can help. Avant-garde independent watchmaker Artya, for example, made a watch dial using coprolite, which is a fancy-sounding word for fossilized dinosaur shit. Meteorite has also become more popular as a watch dial material because it has both an interesting look and story.
Here are some other unexpected materials that out-of-the-box-thinking watchmakers have used as dials.
Paper: Citizen Chronomaster
The Citizen Chronomaster‘s dial is actually made from different materials in multiple layers, but what you see is the soft texture of Japanese paper. Considered a traditional craft of Japan, it is typically produced by hand using local plant fibers. On the Chronomaster, it’s sandwiched between a layer of solar panels and a clear disc to protect it. The clear disc gives the logos and text printed on it a floating, three-dimensional effect. It’s one way for Citizen emphasize its remarkably accurate watch and give it a higher-end appeal.
Wood: Breitling Premier B01 Bentley Centenary
There’s nothing quite like the texture and emotional connection of wood, and it has found its way into watchmaking in various forms. Wood dial watches are not unheard of at all, even having featured on the Rolex President, but they remain relatively rare. The dials of the Breitling Premier watch for luxury carmaker Bentley use elm burl with a wonderfully dark and rich wood grain meant to reference elements of a Bentley’s interior.
Eggshell: Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Mosaic
High-end brands like Jaquet Droz are where you’ll find more experimentation with exotic materials and techniques. Eggshell sometimes describes a color, but here it’s actual quail egg shells cracked into thousands of pieces and then selected for color to create an artistic micro-mosaic — in an African elephant motif. It takes a craftsman around 200 hours to produce this unique piece of art, and the completed design is covered with a layer of clear lacquer. The technique comes from a Vietnamese art form that uses duck egg shells.
Denim: Hublot Classic Fusion Jeans
Denim dial? Why not. Hublot is one brand that makes a point of using polarizing design choices and unconventional materials — other such examples include a Classic Fusion with a leather dial. The Classic Fusion Jeans watch uses a blue denim dial that appears to almost be part of the matching denim strap. Not sure if it’ll develop a fade with “whiskers” like your favorite pair of selvedge denim (or if you’d want it to), but it’s sure to catch the eye as a familiar look in an unexpected place.
Coins: Corum Coin
The material of the coin itself isn’t the focus here, though some are still notable as precious metals. What’s more interesting is the familiar look of a coin employed as a watch dial. A number of watch companies have taken this approach over the years, but none is known for it today like Corum, which maintains a permanent collection of Coin watches amongst its offerings. For use as watch dials, silver and gold coins are often horizontally bisected to thin them. Notable also is that the watch’s case sides are given a “coin edge” finish to make the whole package feel cohesive.
Fordite: TAG Heuer x Bamford Carrera Calibre 5
“Fordite” is actually just dried paint. But it comes from layers built up in car factories’ paint bays over years — in this instance, specifically cars painted at the Ford factory between the 1970s and 1990s. When sliced, it reveals colorful strata in unique, organic-looking patterns that never exactly repeat. These particular watches are the result of a collaboration between TAG Heuer and the brand’s official “customizer” Bamford Watch Department.
Salvaged Airplane Metal: Tockr D-Day C-47
Texas-based independent brand Tockr makes watches with dials made out of aluminum, such as the Tockr D-Day C-47. But it’s not just any aluminum. It’s metal salvaged from a WW2 paratrooper transport plane, and the patina is readily evident. The unique way the metal has aged is now preserved under sapphire crystal, and each dial is unique — some featuring extensive wear and others with traces of actual stamped lettering.