Things you should know about pocket watch dials

When you look at antique pocket watches, or any watch for that matter, the first thing your eye is instantly drawn to is the dial, or ‘face’ of the watch. The condition can leave a lasting impression, and can make a vital difference in the aesthetic appeal and value that pocket watch holds.

Things you should know about the dials of antique pocket watches

Vintage pocket watch dials have been made from a variety of different materials and in varying styles depending on the brand. Here we go through the basic types to give you a better understanding regarding watch dials.

Dial materials: Metal and Enamel

Two of the most common materials that were used for pocket watch dials were metal and enamel. The metal dials were wafer thin pieces of flattened metal that were painted, embossed or printed with the numbers and decorative markings. Often the pocket watches were embossed with indentations or engraved with decorative patterns to make them distinctive to their brands. Figures can also be painted or mounted to the dials for decorative purposes.

One main advantage of metal dials is that they can be re-finished, stripped or re-painted to restore their finish. Although before you do this you should consider whether this work affects the value of the piece, as some natural wearing can add value to antique pocket watches.

Enamel dials differ from one or several layers as they had to be fired from the ground enamel powder onto a substrate of metal, which was usually copper. This enamel powder was fired onto both the front and back of the copper plate to ensure the dial remained a stiff quality. The front would then be polished and the numerals and markers added later by paint; afterwards, the pocket watch was re-fired to give it its hard and durable quality. Obviously this was a very labour intensive technique that required a huge amount of skill to complete and maintain pocket watches made with this material.

These enamel dials can often be mistaken for porcelain dials, usually down to the colouring, which is argued by many watch collectors as being “porcelain enamel”.

Cracks and Chips in Enamel Dials

Enamel watch dials can be quite fragile if they are bent or dropped. They also do not respond well to over-tightening of the dial-foot screws. These can all be triggers to cause serious cracks on the enamel dials. Hairline cracks or little chips on the surface are not particularly unusual for pocket watches made of enamel; while these imperfections are not exactly ideal for collectors, they are recognised as a normal ageing process of vintage watches.

Because of the intricate process of enamel dials the repairs can often be quite challenging compared to ones made of metal. These cracks and chips can be filled, patched or glued; however, there is no cure to ‘fix’ the broken enamel. These hairline cracks often become visible because they have become dirty; often a good clean can drastically improve the appearance of the dial and the cracks.

Single-sunk and Double-sunk enamel dials

Sunk dials refer to the layering of many pieces of the dial to create a dynamic piece. Usually the layering happens within two areas of the dial: the centre and the seconds’ part, which allowed the seconds hand to sit a little lower than the other hands in the watch. These were made by filing out a hole in the main dial and then putting in the separate sunk dials. Sometimes pocket watches were just stamped to give the impressive of a sunk enamel dial.

If you’re wanting any more information on antique pocket watches and their dials, it’s always best to consult with a specialist.

Image credit:Mark Cooke, Available under Creative Commons.