Watch Dials – A Beginners Guide


watch dials - detail

A watch’s dial is its literal face, its unique and identifiable focal point. If you want a watch whose appeal will last, you need to dial it in. TTAW has explored dial colors. Here we examine materials and texture to introduce the wide world of watch dials . . .

Movado museum watch dials it in

For the sake of brevity, this primer will ignore indices (markers indicating the time) and numerals (numbers), branding and other marks (e.g., date, moon phase, etc.). And we’re talking analog dials not digital, ignoring the digi in ana-digi. Right. The basics.

In theory, a dial needs to barely be anything but a blank slate with a “this end up” 12 o’clock marker of some sort. In practice that’s a Movado Museum watch. If you want even less dial with your dial, there’s the crotchless underwear of horology known as a skeleton dial. The genre – particular to mechanical watches – usually sacrifices legibility for the “gee-whiz” of seeing the movement move.

Casio MQ-24 watch dials

The most basic dial is flat plain black or white. On something as minimal as a Casio MQ-24, the dial is textureless and colorless, seemingly made of copier paper. Cheap wall clocks seem to have no compunction about card stock dials, but I haven’t had a watch that chintzy yet (that I know of). Even with no variegation, no luster, no texture, no nothing, there’s likely a metal backing.

Watch dial bases are almost always made of metal. This creates a thin rigid surface that can be drilled and produced with relatively ease. Back up. If there is a metal base, a bare metal dial is most basic. Not in a basic bitch or basic bro sort of way, just most elemental. Well, gold and silver are elements, as are platinum, rhodium, brass – oops, that is copper and zinc.

Formex Essence Leggera Electric Blue sky

Gotta finish that metal, even if it is naked. (Metal. Anyone using medal when they mean metal or vice versa will be flogged.) Generally the finish is not mirror polish, because that’s crazy.

Brushed satin finishes with a parallel grain are simple and effective. Brushing metal with a radial pattern produces a sunburst dial (not to be confused with Starburst candy). The shimmer of reflecting light is much more lively with a brushed metal base.

Or not. Guilloché is where machined finishes get more intricate. Thank the rose engine lathe for freeing the mechanized finish from circles and lines. The technique can create elaborate patterns – albeit generally geometric – for those into ornateness.

Want metal with a woven finish? You could use a screen door or get a linen dial. Linen is made from the reedlike flax fiber and has a slubby and nonuniform texture. This isn’t simply a fine grid of cross-hatched lines. Artifice is required.

That stuff is hard. Putting concentric grooves on a disc with a lathe is much easier. A dial  ribbed for your viewing pleasure adds depth and a geometric sense of center. Chronograph subdials love this; it provides a sense of a border without being too busy.

watch dials - fume

Some watch makers (e.g., H. Moser & Cie.) have rediscovered the monochromatic depth of a fumé dial. (Ignore those “No Fumé” signs. That’s Spanish for “No Smoking.”)

The actual process used for these dials is secretive. For all I know, it’s just airbrushing, but the result is a gradient with darker edges, as in a smoky room.

Sometimes the index is a cutout in the dial. You’ve got a sandwich dial! Being a peeping tom on the movement underneath is a possibility, but generally there is some other dial backing in place.

Lume is an option. Note that this is essentially a stencil, and the typeface will always be open. If that six or nine had closed loops, the donut hole would fall through.

People speak of porcelain dials. Porcelain, as seen in toilet bowls, is ceramic. Yes, I know, so are many bezels. Pedantry time! Heating ceramic atop metal substrate produces a bonded surface properly called enamel. It sounds less fancy, I know.

There are surely even more types of dials on the modern market. For instance, the crazy coffee dial. Meteor dials exist even though I don’t understand them, as do other non-metallic mineral surfaces. I never owned anything but solid painted dials for decades until unwittingly getting a sunburst dial on a cheap pocket watch last year.

I can’t claim it greatly enriched my life, but the knowledge increased my appreciation of the more artistic aspect of timepieces. Beware that while knowledge is power, ignorance may be bliss. I never knew there were so many different dial types to covet. But at least I know how to refer to them to seem vaguely up on things.

Rolex Day Date President

Final warning: watch dials must be seen in person to be properly appreciated. Photos don’t do justice to the elegant sheen of a porcelain dial, for example. But just as a house needs a solid foundation, a great watch needs a superb dial. After that, well, it’s game on.


  1. You need to get into the weeds at some point and write a part two. Indices and fonts are a key part of the dial. The font used on that Casio? Apparently it is the same font used for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: Voyager.

    • Ah, you saw Forster’s article yesterday, which I found to generally agree with the opinion I had in my review. He got lucky having a son that somehow is a font recognition wizard. I read one book on the topic, but that’s all I know. Indices, there are printed and applied and that sandwich thing above. I cede the article topic to anyone knowing more than I on these fronts, which is likely many of our readers.

      • LOL. I wish KeyDunkHo ran more articles like that. What I know about fonts comes mainly from what I’ve picked up as a book collector over the years.

    • I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong. However, I said copier paper, which is always the cheapest, thinnest, textureless commodity available in my experience. I use fountain pens and have typewriters, so I am sensitive to the varying grades of paper. They are not using copier paper.

      Part of me worries about vegetable matter deteriorating, but this is probably misplaced apprehension with modern sealing and crystal materials.

  2. I was given a snowboarding watch some years ago that had a face that would change from Black when cold to light brown / yellow when hot. My son is interested in watches and was looking to get him one similar but cannot find one anywhere.

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