Pocketwatch 101™ – Learn about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches
All About Vintage Pocket Watch Dials - Part 1
Materials Used, Single and Double Sunk Dials, Cracks and Chips in Enamel Dials
One of the most immediately visible features on any vintage pocket watch is the dial. Yes... it's called the dial, not the "face". (Then why is it called an "open face pocket watch"? Beats me...I don't have a clue). Anyway... the dial is one of the first things you see when looking at a watch, and the impression it makes can make a huge difference in the visual appeal and value of a vintage watch. If you love old watches, especially railroad pocket watches, then few things are more strikingly appealing than the crisp, clean elegance of a beautiful old enamel pocket watch dial.
Vintage pocketwatch dials were made with a variety of materials and in a wide range of styles. We'll describe the basic types and help you understand a little more about watch dials.
Dial Materials: Metal and Enamel (NOT Porcelain, NOT Ceramic)
The two most common materials used for pocket watch dials were metal and metal coated with enamel. Metal dials were simply thin pieces of flat metal that were painted, embossed or printed with numbers, markers or other decorative elements. Metal dials on American pocket watches were often embossed with indentations in the style of a single or double-sunk dial, or could be engraved in decorative patterns. Figures could be painted, recessed into the surface of the dial, or mounted on the dial. Metal dials have the advantage that they can usually be re-finished; they can be stripped and re-painted to look nearly as good as new, though this may adversely impact the "originality" of the watch.
Enamel dials were made by firing a layer (or several layers) of ground enamel powder (essentially finely ground glass) onto a substrate of metal (usually copper). The enamel was applied to both the front and back of the copper plate in order to provide additional stiffness to the dial. The front surface was then polished and the numerals and markers were painted on and then re-fired to produce a hard, durable and attractive finish. Enamel dial-making was a labor intensive process that was as much art as it was manufacturing, and finding and preserving these wonderful old dials should be a priority for vintage watch collectors.
Enamel dials are quite often incorrectly called porcelain dials. They are NOT made of porcelain, which has no metal substrate and is a different material altogether. The correct term is enamel dial. Some watch collectors will say "Well it's called porcelain enamel." No... it isn't. It's only called that by people who don't know that it should be called enamel.
Cracks and Chips in Enamel Watch Dials
Enamel dials retain their beauty and color forever, but can be somewhat fragile and don't take well to bending or being dropped. They also don't take well to being stressed by someone over-tightening the dial-foot screws, and that's a common source of cracks. Hairline cracks or small chips in the surface of an enamel dial are not unusual, and while this isn't as desirable as the same dial in perfect condition, most collectors recognize that a few light hairlines are a normal part of many vintage watches. Large chips or missing chunks of enamel can seriously detract from both the appearance and value of a vintage watch. As a collector, you should expect to pay more for a watch with a perfect enamel dial.
While metal dials are relatively easy to refinish, enamel dials are much more challenging to repair. Cracks and chips in an enamel dial are like chips in a piece of glass; cracks and chips may be filled, patched or glued, but there's nothing that will magically "heal" the broken enamel and make the cracks go away. Often, hairline cracks are visible because they are dirty, and careful cleaning can significantly improve the appearance of a dial by reducing the visibility of the hairline cracks.
Single-Sunk and Double-Sunk Enamel Dials
A "sunk dial" on a pocket watch refers to the stacking or layering of various pieces of the dial to create a more interesting finished product. Typically the two areas of the dial that were "sunk" were the center (inside the chapter ring) and the seconds bit. The sunk seconds bit also serves the purpose of allowing the second hand to sit a little lower. A single-sunk dial usually just had the seconds-dial recessed, and a double-sunk dial usually had the center and seconds-dial recessed. There were even some triple-sunk dials, though these are uncommon.
Sunk enamel dials were made by grinding out a hole in the main dial and then soldering-in the separate sunk sub-dials (see photo below). Sunk metal dials were often simply stamped with different "indentations" to simulate the look of a sunk enamel dial.