What Are Rolex Dials Made From?
Aesthetically, there is no element more important on a watch than its dial. As well as being tasked with displaying all the relevant information, it is what gives a timepiece its character. Get it wrong, and it doesn’t matter how good the watch is in every other respect, it will likely fail to find an audience.
As crucial as the face is to a contemporary model, they are, if anything, even more critical with vintage pieces. Experts reckon anywhere between 80%-90% of the value of a classic watch resides in the condition of its dial. Just the tiniest discrepancy can make a difference totaling thousands of dollars.
Interestingly for a company like Rolex, they only brought the creation of their dials in-house in 2000. That was the year they acquired the dedicated manufacturer, or cadranier, Beyeler, one of a number of firms the brand had contracted to make their dials over the years.
As you would expect, crafting such a significant part of the watch is a highly involved mix of science and art. Read on below to find out just what it takes.
With just a handful of exceptions, all of Rolex’s dials are made from brass. Strong, hardwearing and easily machinable, it is the perfect material for the job.
Manufacturing takes place in Rolex’s Chêne-Bourg factory, one of four massive complexes in their Geneva compound.
The blank dial is punched out of a long brass strip and then, depending on the type it is set to be, it is sent off to undergo one of a number of procedures.
If it is to be a simple block colored face, that is achieved with a lacquer coating. For metallic shades, like gold, silver or rhodium, the blanks are put through an electroplating process. And for some colors, PVD or Physical Vapor Deposition is also used.
If there is to be a decorative pattern added, Rolex employs a rotary pantograph. The machine carves out the desired form on a huge model of the finished dial, and the design is transferred mechanically onto the real thing sitting alongside by a diamond-tipped engraving tool. The brand has five of these devices, which are actually old enough to be described as vintage, updated with the latest computerized modules.
The only time Rolex departs from using brass is on some of the very special and particularly rare dials. Any one which is destined to be paved with gemstones is made from 18k yellow gold, as the softer metal makes setting easier. Also, the men’s models with meteorite dials have no need for the underlying brass base, as they are basically a thin sheet of iron. Strangely, on the ladies’ meteor models, a plate is used, with the material applied on top.
One other outlier is the Rolesium Yacht-Master, which has a solid platinum dial to match its bezel.
All of the other unorthodox faces, both contemporary and from the archives, such as mother-of-pearl or the enamel Stella dials and even the wood burl from the 70s, have a brass plate as well, with a sliver of their defining component fused on top.
Once the dial has its basic color and texture, the text can be added. The method they use is known as pad printing, or tampography, and works on the principles of gravure printing. An embossed plate is coated with ink and a silicon rubber pad, which looks like a half-inflated balloon, is pressed onto it. The ink is transferred to the pad which is then set onto the dial. It is an indirect printing system invented specifically for the watch and clock industry, and is an extremely flexible technique, able to print on any small or uneven surface.
Once the dial has dried, the hour markers and Rolex crown are added.
Since around 19854, both have been made of yellow or white gold to prevent them tarnishing with age, as the previous steel ones did. The same is true for the hands, which are still outsourced from Fiedler SA, a family-owned Swiss company which has been creating high end watch hands since 1846. Then, if it is called for, indices and handset are filled with luminescence.
Types of Luminescence
The type of luminescent material used by Rolex has changed several times over the years, sometimes as merely an upgrade, other times as an absolute necessity.
The first variety painted onto their watch dials was radium, in the 1950s. This was in the days when understanding of radiation and its effects was limited, and it led to real tragedy for those who came into contact with it.
The Radium girls were groups of young working-class women employed in dial painting workshops. They would color the hands and hour markers of watches and clocks with the new miracle element, which gave them the ability to glow in the dark. To ensure a brush point fine enough to get an accurate coating, the girls would wet their brushes between their lips, unaware of the poisonous radioactivity of what they were ingesting. By the time the dangers were fully comprehended and the use of radium was halted, dozens of the women were dead, and even more were subject to appalling disease.
For Rolex, they continued to use radium on the dials of some of their sports models until the end of the 1950s. However, with the release of the first of the GMT-Masters, the ref. 6542, they elected to have the bezel numerals illuminated as well. For this they used paint with a different luminescent constituent, Strontium 90. Another isotope produced by nuclear fission, it too was highly radioactive.
In 1959, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) tested the 6542, judging it too dangerous for sale to the public and leading Rolex to recall all 605 models of the GMT-Master which had been sold in the U.S.
Unfortunately, it came too late for one naval lieutenant commander, Willard Mound, who sued the company for $5 million in August 1961. He had bought his watch in Hong Kong three years previously and claimed that he, his wife and their five children had all suffered serious physical effects from exposure to the watch.
In 1962, Rolex made the switch away from radium and onto tritium. Another self-luminous element, it was also radioactive but at a much lower and far safer level—it had a half life of just 12 years. By comparison, the half life of radium is 1,602 years!
Tritium served Rolex all the way up until 1998 when they decided to change the material again, this time to Luminova, a completely non-radioactive coloring invented by Nemoto & Co. Ltd of Japan. Although entirely harmless, Luminova first needed to be exposed to light before it would glow, unlike its predecessors.
After only a short run, Luminova was swapped for SuperLuminova in the 2000s. Essentially the same, Superluminova was supplied by a Swiss company, RC Tritec AG.
Finally, in 2008, Rolex upgraded again with Chromalight. Giving off an attractive blue light rather than green, and shining for much longer than Superluminova, it makes its debut on the new Sea-Dweller Deepsea before being rolled out across the portfolio.
As well as being a useful addition to the hands and indexes of a watch dial, the type of luminescent material is a good way of identifying the age of a Rolex.
Each different variety of paint was identified on the dial in some way.
Before the AEC-demanded recall, the word ‘Swiss’ was printed alone under the six o’clock index, near the very outer edge of the dial.
Between 1960 and 1963, a small dot appeared under the hour marker but above the word ‘Swiss’ (now known as the exclamation point dials) indicating they still have a radium content but at a lower level.
The ‘Underline’ dials were produced for a very short period, between 1963 and 1964. They have a small horizontal line either above or below the hands and are thought (although Rolex has never confirmed it) to mark the changeover from radium to tritium. Of course, these are extremely rare and highly sought after on the vintage market.
The tritium dials, those made from 1964 to 1998, are marked with either ‘Swiss-T<25’, T SWISS T, ‘T Swiss Made T’ signifying the presence of the safer lume. (The ‘T<25’ means ‘less than 25 mCi’, or millicurie, a unit for measuring radioactivity.)
From 1998, with the introduction of Luminova, you will see dials with simply ‘SWISS’ under the 6. With Superluminova, that changed to ‘SWISS MADE’, which has carried over onto the Chromalight generation as well.
The creation of a Rolex dial is a deceptively complex process, taking more than 60 separate operations for each one. As with everything else the brand does, it is meticulously controlled at every stage in order to safeguard the impeccable aesthetics.
They have progressed greatly over the years and have only continued to improve with the brand incorporating their manufacture into the rest of their vertically integrated assembly plant.
What’s more, Rolex is still innovating, creating impressively colored faces such as the Milgauss’s Z-Blue or the James Cameron-inspired D-Blue for the Deepsea.
What else they have in store for us, only time will tell.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.