Understanding the Process of Making Mother-of-Pearl Dials

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Sowind Mother of pearl dial disks being readied for work. Photo by patriceschreyer.com.

Many watches today feature mother-of-pearl shell as dials. These shimmering orbs offer a clean, classic and elegant appeal. However,  mother of pearl is not an easy substance to work with. It is quite brittle and ultra thin when used as a dial, and breakage can easily occur.

Depending on the complexity of the dial, the entire production process easily takes anywhere from a month to six weeks and involves 15 different artisan steps. As such, they are predominantly made by companies that specialize in working with the shell. Typically, a dial maker with a strong team of approximately two dozen skilled makers can still only produce about 5,000 top-quality mother-of-pearl dials annually.

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Inspecting a disk

The process really begins with the actual selection of the shells,  especially at the high end of the watchmaking spectrum. Top-quality shells come in extra-bright white hues and hail from Australia and other parts of the Pacific Ocean and exotic seas.

Once the shells have been selected, they are crushed and then precisely machined into thin sheets that are typically 0.2mm in thickness. From these mother-of-pearl sheets, perfect round orbs or specifically shaped pieces are precisely cut by CNC machines. These disks will then be used as the  watch dial.

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Inlaying of mother of pearl and gold for marquetry dials. Photo by patriceschreyer.com.

Because of the complexity involved in creating the sheets and the disks, many dial makers buy the disks already cut and start the work from there.  At this point, moving forward, the majority of the dial work is done by hand.  Each dial orb is carefully inspected and then the further beautification of the dial begins.

Mother-of-pearl dials can be engraved or finished with all sorts of patterns from traditional sunray to decorative motifs. This is all delicately done by hand on either the dial front or back depending on the design.

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Applying color to the dial back of a Girard-Perregaux dial. Photo by patriceschreyer.com.

Dials can be enhanced in color by painting, varnishing or lacquering the back of the mother of pearl. Generally, mother of pearl has a milky white luster, however it can be found with a natural pearlescent hue in pale blue, pink, gray and brown. Polishing is an important step, as it brings out the natural luster of the shell.

Generally, numerals and markers are then inked onto the dial, or cut-outs are made on the dial for the setting of gemstones or applied indices. Further embellishments, including the hands or any diamond accents, are added last. The finished work of art then moves to its rightful place on the watch.

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Understanding the Difference Between Automatic and Hand-Wound Watches

As a top retailer of a variety of timepieces, we often field questions about watches. One of the common questions is “What’s the difference between a hand-wound (manual-wind) watch and an automatic (self-wind) watch?” Essentially, a mechanical watch is a watch powered by the movement’s mechanical parts and not by a battery as in a quartz powered timepiece.

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In a handwound movement, such as this A. Lange & Sohne caliber the wearer needs to wind the crown to power the watch.

In a hand-wind watch, the wearer must act as the initial power supplier by physically winding the watch crown on a regular basis to power the timekeeping function. Inside, via the gear train, energy is transmitted from the crown to the main spring, where it is stored. As is natural, the wound spring tries to uncoil and release the power necessary to activate the movement and make time tick. To regulate that release of energy, the balance wheel and spiral kick into play keeping the energy release even and making the movement accurate. Unfortunately, if one forgets to wind the watch, the energy runs out and the watch stops working. One will need to reset the time and wind the watch again before wearing.

In an automatic movement, such as this caliber from Audemars Piguet, the moveemnt of the wearer's wrist automatically   winds the rotor and stores the power.

In an automatic movement the motion of the wearer’s wrist automatically winds the rotor and stores the power.

In an automatic mechanical watch, the inner movement is fitted with an automatic rotor – meaning that it automatically winds itself as the wearer moves the wrist naturally. Today’s automatic-wind mechanical watches house oscillating weights (also called rotors) that wind the mainspring. As long as the watch is being worn, and generally for a specified amount of time after the watch comes off (power reserve), it retains energy.  When the power reserve left in the watch dwindles (if it hasn’t been worn again), the watch also stops running and needs to be re-set before wearing again.

Another beautiful example of an automatic-wind movement, this one from Vacheron Constantin.

Another beautiful example of an automatic-wind movement, this one from Vacheron Constantin.

Different watches have varying amounts of power reserve, running from a designated hours to a set number of days depending on the watch. The down-side to an automatic watch is that generally, the rotor is large and disrupts viewing of the finely finished movement. New inventions – such as the micro-rotor—are coming into play that reduce the size of the rotor so much that more parts can be visible behind it. The choice between hand-wound and automatic is a highly personal one. You may prefer the centuries-old act of winding a watch, while others may prefer the feel of the oscillating weight inside the watch as it moves around doing its work to store energy and keep time.

7.16 all Understanding How a Quartz Watch Works

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Battery-powered quartz watch movement

First developed in the late 1970s, quartz watches are a relatively new phenomena in the centuries-old craft of watchmaking. Unlike watches with mechanical movements, quartz watches are a whole different breed.

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Essentially, a quartz watch is battery powered. The watch uses a low-frequency, tiny piece of quartz crystal (silicon-dioxide) placed either like an integrated circuit and chemically etched into shape, or shaped like a tuning fork. That quartz crystal serves as the oscillator.

The battery sends electricity to the quartz crystal through an electronic circuit. The quartz oscillator vibrates quickly and with precise frequency (32768 times/second) in response to the electronic charge. The circuit counts the vibrations and generates regular electric pulses of one per second.  The pulses drive the small motor that spins the watch’s hands – offering accurate time measurement (until the battery slows and dies).

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The first quartz watch put into production was the Astron by Seiko (1969) and, as a result, the Asian market swiftly cornered the watch business.  However, in the early 1980s, Swatch Watch was unveiled and helped to recoup the Swiss watch business that had been ailing since quartz had been introduced due to the Swiss reluctance to embrace quartz technology. After Swatch, other Swiss brands embraced quartz technology, too, adding it to their repertoire of fine watchmaking.

Serious Collectors Own Up to 19 Watches, Says LGI Network Survey

Serious collectors own an average of 19 watches, according to a survey of watch collectors’ habits and preferences conducted by LGI Network.

This report provides quantitative and qualitative feedback from more than 500 individuals who collectively own in excess of 2,750 watches with retail values exceeding $65 million. Just a few statistics regarding the respondents: Of the 500 people surveyed, 61 percent were U.S. residents, 36 percent were from Europe and 23 percent were from Asia.

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It comes as no surprise that 52 percent of the collectors who purchase in the over $15,000 range earn more than $300,000 annually.  Most tend to be from the finance, law and healthcare fields. (We wonder… Do the doctors buy pulsimeter watches?)

In the collector’s arena, most own between five and 19 watches at a combined value of $175,000 to $200,000. Usually a mix of brands was represented. Additionally, most do not buy on whim. In fact, in 72 percent of buying instances, the collector had a clear intention to purchase a specific model.

LGI Network divided respondents into four groups: Active collectors who focus on watches over $15,000; active collectors focusing on watches retailing for between $5,000 and $15,000; emerging collectors who have limited collections; and connoisseurs who are active influencers. For the active collectors purchasing timepieces over $15,000 retail, there were two price categories: $15,000 to $40,000 and over $40,000.