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.
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.
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.
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.