The dial was the most visible part of a watch, and from metal to porcelain to celluloid they came in an incredible array of styles, fonts and colors. Learn the basics of dial construction and the types of materials used, see the different layouts, and enjoy a section devoted to fancy dials and private labels.
A porcelain-enamel (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 characters and signatures were all added later by teenage girls, who had the smallest hands.
This was the simplest design, made from a copper disc with stamped depressions to create the lower level for the seconds hand. These were primarily used on lower-grade pieces.
Single-sunk (or sunk) dials had a separate seconds bit that was soldered to the main dial. This was done so that the seconds hand could sit lower, allowing the hour hand to clear it.
Double-sunk dials were assembled from three separate pieces of different thicknesses, and were generally used on higher-grade watches. Triple-sunk dials were used on indicators.
Henry Montgomery was the Inspector of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway from 1896 to 1923, patenting a design that he called the Safety Dial. It had marginal minute numbers that were all upright (not radial like other dials), red five minute subs that were slightly larger than the other minutes, and a '6' in the seconds bit that was 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 could also be found in Montgomery styles.
Elgin, Rockford, and Waltham were the only American factories that made pocket watch wind-indicators in quantity. When the watch is fully wound the indicator hand is starting at zero, marking the passing of the hours as the mainspring unspools. Note that the Rockford dial in the photo has the word "Wind" where the 24-hour marker is placed as a reminder.
Josiah Moorehouse emigrated to America in 1854, eventually becoming employed as a dial painter by Nashua, Waltham, and Edward Howard while inventing his own distinctive 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 watch dials.
Louis Ferguson of Louisiana applied for a patent on his design in November of 1907, which was granted a year later. He produced porcelain dials for many local factories, and they are valuable, so check the back of the dial for the appropriate patent stamps. Hands were originally supplied with the dial, and note the intentional color match between the hands and the numerals.
Celluloid was widely used in the film industry, though it was used for dials by a few watch companies. Invented in the 1860s, celluloid was one of the very first thermoplastics, which was a polymer based on camphor, a natural form of wax harvested from 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. Melamine dials have a flat, dull look and surface cracks that will only worsen as they age and deteriorate.
Aftermarket dials are post-WW II items on metal plates that were meant to replace damaged originals, made by Swiss firms like LaRose. 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, milled patterns, and the fact that they can't crack are some of the benefits.
These are similar to metal dials, except the patterns were raised, making them useful as a Braille dial. They were more popular in Europe, and relatively few American factories produced them.
As watch patterns became more plain, the emphasis shifted to the dial in the 1920s. Patterns and raised numerals became common, and different fonts and multiple colors all emerged.
Military dials from WWII had white characters painted onto a black background for clarity. Earlier versions used radium, a radioactive isotope that glowed, on the hands and numbers.
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. Depending on the brand, they are scarce to begin with and any undamaged examples are worth collecting.
Conversion dials allowed hunter movements to be oriented as open-face by relocating 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, and could be railroad acceptable. They could also be found in a reverse configuration, making 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 watch dials had wire pegs 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 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 dial back.
Watch dials were first held in place by brass taper pins before the practice of using set screws to secure the feet. They were a very poor design choice, with the pins forever getting lost and occasionally falling into the movement. The holes in the dial feet would become enlarged, making removal and installation 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. Since the only way to remove them was to pry them off, cracked and broken examples are all too common.
Dials weren't much use without hands, and they 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 scarce and black would come later, but nearly every company offered fancy gilt hands.
By far the most common, achieved by heating the steel hands to 450° F.
Used primarily by Illinois, done by heating the steel hands to 400° F.
Hamilton used black on later models, made by quenching the hot steel in oil.
Black dials were for military service, using painted white hands for contrast.
Ferguson used the dial and hands as a system with matching the colors.
Fancy hands, commonly called Louis XIV, were produced by gilding soft brass.