The Avant-garde mind needed to design the complex inner workings of a watch fascinates all but a selective few of us, mere mortals. The Promethean ambition to master time has inspired inventive minds for centuries; with the hands of talented craftsmen bringing exquisite horological art to life. Beyond the intricacies of the mechanics of time, the relentless search for perfection in their manufacturing is the hallmark which we call “Haute Horlogerie”. Here is an in-depth guide to the different techniques used to finish a movement, according to the concept of “Haute Horlogerie”.
The term ‘finish’ encompasses the vast array of techniques performed on watch components once they have been produced by machines. All the traces of machining are erased, parts are polished and decorated with extreme care by hand. Raw metal is turned into works of art – horological alchemy.
The intricacies L951.6 calibre of the A. Lange und Söhne Datograph. As always with the Saxon manufacture, the movement is identifiable at first sight through unique details, among which technical features and characteristic finishes, such as the gold chatons for the jewels held by blued screws.
In some respects, finishes might have a practical application or function. Beyond the aesthetic interest, plating protects from corrosion. Geneva stripes are sometimes said to help ‘trap’ dust away from the moving parts of the movement. The traditional heating of steel screws changes their colour to a deep royal blue while also hardening them. In any case, finishes on the movement are a sign of the attention given to the minutest details in making the movement, hence a guarantee of its technical perfection.
Details of the superb movement by Finnish independent watchmaker Kari Voutilainen. Understated at first glance; but beneath the apparent simplicity lies exceptional craftsmanship in every respect. Hours of meticulous hand work are needed to obtain the flawless polish of the balance bridge.
While modern CNC machines can be used to produce and pre-finish watch components, elaborate hand-finished movements are something else, and can be considered as true works of art. The charm of parts embellished by gestures and skills passed down through generations and performed by talented craftsmen cannot be rivalled or equalled by industrial finishing processes. Some operations, like the work on certain angles can only be performed by hand (this is the case for internal or sharp angles). Last but not least, each piece becomes unique, the gift of “imperfections” being authenticity plus, however as trained watchmakers are, no two will ever be perfectly identical.
An overview on a few finishing techniques among the countless ways of perfecting movements
Anglage refers to bevelling or chamfering. It consists of bevelling their edges to the same angle (in general 45°) and width, performed in particular on bridges and plates. The rim, meticulously polished, highlights the shape of the part. The anglage must be regular and smooth. It is one of the most delicate finishing techniques.
Modern machines can now produce improved, clear-cut chamfering which can be finished industrially for large-scale production; this also makes it easier for high-end manufacturing with the work performed at a second stage, guiding the parts and tools by hand using lathes, to perfect the bevel.
Hand-filing of angles on a Vacheron Constantin skeletonized bridge. The work on the complex shapes can only be performed by hand.
Hand-made bevelling with traditional tools such as files, wood pegs and abrasive pastes is incomparable to modern machining and remains a necessity for inside cut-outs. Different pastes with increasingly fine grains can be used in succession to obtain a flawless polish and perfect shine. This meticulous technique requires great dexterity and skill. One type of angle can only be done by hand – what insiders know to be the holy grail of finishing in Haute Horlogerie, the rounded angles, like performed by Romain Gauthier or the Master, Mister Philippe Dufour. Here, the surface of the chamfer isn’t flat but convex and only a few extremely trained hands can achieve such detail – see some of these angles in this Dufour Simplicity.
Also called mirror polish (poli noir, miroir ou bloqué in French), this time-consuming finish is characteristic of Haute Horlogerie and is used to acquire a perfectly smooth surface of the steel parts, which in return reflect the light like a mirror or appear black when gazed from a certain angle. Such polishing requires a perfectly flat surface, with not a single irregularity or rounded angle on the part in question (the edges of the part must be perfectly flat too) and light reflections must be in one single direction. Depending on the light, reflections can be black (when the light is perpendicular to the part), metallic grey or white. Even if such a polishing decreases the risk of oxidation, it remains mainly some decorum.
Parts, before and after a black polishing process (left). Mirror polish at achieved by gently rubbing the parts (right).
To achieve such a finish, the surface must first be softened (adoucir in French) to be perfectly planned. Surfaces are less rugged with a minimal shine. Once the surface planned, the finisher scrubs the plane surface of the part on a zinc plate. With the help of abrasive diamond pastes (these pastes getting thinner and thinner till the end of the process), the watchmaker will do circular movement to remove the imperfections on the part until he achieves a perfect black polish. This process, only done for high-end watches, is extremely time consuming. Polishing the upper surface of a tourbillon bridge can take up to 3 hours.
A Geneva stripe refers to one of the most traditional types of decoration, consisting of applying regular parallel wave-like patterns to the parts, for instance, plates, bridges and rotors. The stripes can be straight or circular and shall always be aligned perfectly across the different parts.
Geneva stripes are applied removing metal to create parallel lines using rotating abrasive. Here at Christophe Claret.
This technique is mainly applied on the flat visible part of the bridges (main plates are usually treated with circular graining). It remains a finish entirely decorative (which couldn’t be used on moving parts, considering the amount of material removed and the non-regular surface of the part once finished with Geneva stripes). Several techniques can be used, the most common ones relying on machines. Semi-automatique machines are guided by hands. The part is fixed on a moving tray that goes under an abrasive tool, scratching the surface of the part. A more modern (and even cheaper) technique uses CNC machines. No human hand is required here. Finally, there’s the manual, hand-made solution, of course time-consuming, of course more irregular but much more beautiful to look at. Here, the part slides under a rule with an abrasive tool in wood, cut to a chosen diameter, defining the size and motif of the stripes.
Bridges of a Laurent Ferrier Tourbillon watch, with continuous and large ribbings from a bridge to another.
Another traditional finish, also known as circular-graining or stippling, consists of covering the surfaces of the plates or bridges, by applying a pattern of overlapping small circles with a rotating peg. Often, it is used on hidden surfaces, for example, the back of the main plate (below the dial) or recesses. This finish is one of the few not to be entirely automatized and usually, a watchmaker’s hand is required to apply circular graining.
Upclose with the perlage (circular graining) of a plate or bridge (left). Perlage operation in progress (right).
Engraving is generally used to present hallmarks or various information, predominantly starting with the brand itself on the movement. It can also be used to decorate and personalize the parts with true work of arts.
Hand push engraving of a Vacheron Constantin bridge. To achieve the work: wax to hold the metal in place, simple traditional tools and human skills. The bridge is hollowed out to a depth of 2/10th of a millimeter without pre-applied design.
Several methods are used to engrave movements. For large scale production, engraving is achieved with CNC machines, lasers, chemicals or pantographs. Hand engraving, a very complex, time-consuming and rarefied art, makes a huge difference. Under a microscope, one will spot roughly cut lines, imperfections that catch the light which adds unique brilliance.
A concave chamfer around the screw heads or jewels is carved and polished. The hole has been previously machined. The irregular rims of the drilled holes may be polished by hand.
Close up of a Philippe Dufour Simplicity movement with Geneva stripes, flawless anglage and jewel sink polishing. (photo Peter Chong). Dufour, one of the most respected and talented craftsmen in the Haute Horlogerie industry, is praised by connoisseurs for his uncompromising pursuit of perfection in the handcrafting of watches.
Even the smallest parts such as screws are subject to exquisite finishing embellishing the movement. Screws are polished to add brilliance. They are often blued, a traditional finish with captivating hues.
Extremely small screws on the gold bridges of the new Girard-Perregaux Esmeralda.
Even If some brands chose industrial polishing or blueing techniques (chemical blueing), high-end manufacturers still work using century-old gestures. Screw heads are polished by hand to a mirror polish, rubbing them patiently. They are then thermally blued. During this delicate process performed with a flame for small productions, screws must be heated at a very precise temperature to obtain the right identical colour.
A movement from A. Lange & Sohne, with polished screws, blued with a flame and holding in place solid gold chatons.
The wheels are subjected to numerous finishing techniques, specifically for high-end watches. The machining marks are carefully eliminated. Their spokes can be chamfered on the upper and lower sides, sinks are polished – in high-end watches (such as watches with the Hallmark of Geneva). Their surface is circular satin finished.
The painstakingly finished wheel of a Patek Philippe Tourbillon Minute Repeater, with curved spokes, entirely bevelled and finished by hand (photo by SJX)
The pinion leaves and other working parts of the wheels are polished or burnished while these operations should not modify their functional shape.