Other than the movement itself, no part on a watch had as much variety as the dial. From kiln-fired porcelain to celluloid to textured metal, they came in an astounding array of styles, fonts and colors.
Learn the basics of dial construction and the types of materials involved, see the experimental and innovative layouts, and enjoy a section devoted to fancy dials and private labels with logos.
There's a section on Hands further down the page.
A porcelain (or glass) dial started as a stamped copper disc before the holes were drilled, any cutouts made, or the feet attached. Sintered porcelain was then powdered onto the top and fired in a kiln until the porcelain flowed like wax. The dial markers, characters, and signatures were all added later, either by template or by teenage girls, who had the smallest hands.
This was the simplest design, made from a single disc with depressions stamped in it to create the lower level for the seconds hand. These were used on lower-grade pieces.
Single-sunk dials had a separate and thinner seconds bit that was soldered to the dial. This was done so that the seconds hand sat lower, allowing the hour hand to clear it.
Double-sunk dials were assembled from three separate pieces of varying thickness, and were used on higher-grade watches. Triple-sunk dials were used on indicators.
Henry S. Montgomery was the Inspector of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway from 1896 to 1923, patenting a marginal minute dial after the turn of the century that he called the Safety Dial. It had several distinctive features, including marginal minute numbers that were all upright (not radial like other designs), red five minute subs that were slightly larger than the other minute markers, and a '6' in the seconds bit that was generally smaller than the other hour numbers.
The 24-hour dials were an import requirement for Canadian railways, which adopted this standard in the mid 1880s. The 13 to 24-hour Arabic markers were generally inside of the 12-hour ring, and the variations were extraordinary. Roman/Arabic dials were common, and these dials could also be found in Montgomery or marginal minute styles.
Only three American companies - Elgin, Rockford and Waltham - made pocket watch wind-indicators in larger numbers. The indicator sub-dial shows how many hours have passed on an unspooling mainspring, meaning the indicator hand is starting at zero when the watch is fully wound, which might seem somewhat backward.
Note that the Rockford dial in the photo has the word "Wind" where the 24-hour marker is placed as a reminder to its owner.
17-year-old English-born Josiah Moorehouse came to America in 1854, eventually becoming employed as a dial painter by Nashua, Waltham, and E Howard while inventing his own distinctive Arabic style.
Daniel O'Hara first worked for Waltham making watch cases, pairing with Edwin Weatherbee around 1890 in what would become the O'Hara Dial Co, makers of colored and decorative watch dials.
Legitimate examples of both styles are highly prized by collectors.
Louis Ferguson of Louisiana applied for a patent on his unique dial in November of 1907, which was granted a full year later. He produced porcelain dials for many local companies in pressed and sunk designs, with production eventually moving to Switzerland. They are highly sought after, so check the back of the dial for the appropriate stamps.
Hands were supplied with the dial, and note the intentional color match between the hands and the minute and hour numerals.
Fancy dials were also made from kiln-fired porcelain. Each additional color meant another trip through the kiln, which made them even more brittle and more delicate. Scarce to begin with, any undamaged examples are worth collecting. Photography transfers also became possible.
Celluloid was more widely used in the film industry, though it was used for dials by a few watch companies. Invented in the 1860s, it was one of the very first thermoplastics, which was a polymer based on camphor, a natural form of wax harvested from domestic evergreen trees.
Melamine was an early laminate made with formaldehyde, arising from war-time material shortages during World War II and used in place of enamel. Dials made from melamine have a flat, dull appearance and surface cracks that will only worsen as they age and deteriorate.
Aftermarket dials are legitimate post-WW II items meant to replace damaged originals, made by Swiss firms like LaRose with plastics on metal backing plates. The tip-offs are 5-minute markings that are too cherry-red, and sinks with incorrect diameters and indistinct edges.
Metal dials were painted or milled, and some were considered railroad grade as Hi-Visibility. Scenic settings, gorgeous patterns, and the fact that they can't crack are some of the benefits.
These are similar to metal dials, except the patterns and numerals are raised, making them a kind of Braille dial. They were more popular in Europe, and relatively few American factories produced them.
As watches got thinner and the patterns became more plain, the emphasis shifted to the dial. Patterns and raised numerals became common, different fonts were tried out, and multiple colors emerged.
Ordnance dials from WWII had white characters painted onto a black background for clarity. Earlier versions used radium, a radioactive isotope that glowed in the dark, on the hands and numbers.
Conversion dials allowed hunter movements to be used in an open-face case by moving the seconds bit to the 3:00 position, returning the winding stem to 12:00. These began showing up after WWI, were usually made of metal or melamine, and could be railroad acceptable. They were also occasionally found in a reverse configuration, making for a left-handed sidewinder.
Private label watches were those with the name of a person, a group or club, or a local jeweler inscribed on either the dial, the movement or both. Orders were placed through regional jobbers, who acted as distributors for the factory.
American pocket watch dials had thin wire posts soldered to the back of the dial to anchor it to the movement, using either taper pins or set screws. The larger sizes had two, three, and sometimes even four feet, and their location was not standard, varying by model and size.
A few companies mounted the dial with screws passing through the movement, threading them into pockets on the back of the dial.
Pinned dials were first held in place by brass taper pins before someone thought of using set screws to secure the feet. They were a poor design choice, with the pins forever getting lost and occasionally falling into the movement and getting wedged in the gear train. The holes in the dial feet would become enlarged, making removal and installation of the dial difficult, leading to cracks and other damage.
Smaller-size watches generally had snap-on dials to save room on the pillar plate, although a few larger models used them too. Elgin's 16-size convertible model was one of these, and removing the dial was tricky.
Dials weren't much use without hands, and they too came in many different styles and colors.
The factories were able to stamp these delicate steel parts with great precision, especially the pierced ones with tiny irregular holes. Bluing (tempering) took place in basement kilns, to harden them and also to impart the colors of plum and cobalt blue. Painted hands were fairly scarce, and black would come much later, but nearly every company offered fancy gilt hands.
By far the most common style, achieved by heating the punched steel hands to 450° F.
Used primarily by Illinois on Bunns, done by heating the punched steel hands to 400° F.
Hamilton used black on later 992 models, made by quenching the hot steel in oil.
Most black dials were for military service, requiring painted white hands for contrast.
Ferguson used the dial and hands as a system, matching the colors to either one.
Fancy hands, commonly called Louis XIV, were produced by gilding soft brass hands.