White-Hot Mother-of-Pearl Dials
by roberta naas
The idea of using mother-of-pearl for dials in wristwatches came into vogue during the early 1900s at the height of the Art Nouveau and Deco eras, when savvy brands accentuated the play of black and white by using onyx and mother-of-pearl for pendant and wristwatches. Today, the use of mother-of-pearl dials continues—but has been elevated to new heights, as watchmakers have developed new methods to cut and color the substance, adding gold and even diamonds to the dials. This year’s Swiss watch fairs featured an abundance of ladies’ timepieces that showcased the beauty and precision craftsmanship of mother-of-pearl dials.
“Mother-of-pearl offers a unique shine and color combination,” says Gerard Chapuis, directeur commercial of GT Cadrans SA, one of the top dial makers in Switzerland. “Each dial is exquisitely precious, and because it is made of delicate natural material, each one unique.”
The making of mother-of-pearl dials is difficult, and breakage often occurs because the paper-thinness of the final product makes it susceptible to chipping. Depending on the complexity of the dial, the entire production process may involve 15 different artisan steps and can take from four to six weeks. A company such as GT Cadran, which employs 20 specialized dial makers, can only produce about 5,000 mother-of-pearl dials annually.
Thanks to today’s technology, top dial makers have developed a way to cut thin sheets of mother-of-pearl into perfect circles via CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines and other specialty tools. Once that round is cut, the mother-of-pearl undergoes only hand craftsmanship through to the completed dial. Due to the expense of these precision cutting tools, many dial makers opt to buy the disks already cut and start the work from there. Others, such as GT Cadran (which makes the dials for Girard-Perregaux and several other top brands), make their own from beginning to end. “We start by buying shells that we select very carefully,” explains Chapuis. “For the quality we work with for brands such as Girard-Perregaux, only 15 percent of the shells will be used, as we need only the shells that are extra white in color—the rare quality pteria margaritfera from Australia. The rest of the shells are used for lower-quality production.”
The shells are crushed, precisely machined, and formed into pieces that are typically only 0.2mm in thickness. Then the steps to make the actual dial begin: These include polishing the mother-of-pearl to bring out its luster, inking it with the numerals or markers, and adding the hands—a painstaking process, because at any step the fragile mother-of-pearl can break.
Mother-of-pearl dials can be engraved or finished with all sorts of patterns, such as traditional sunray or other decorative motifs, and can be enhanced in color by painting or lacquering the back of the mother-of-pearl. Generally, the substance has a milky white luster; however, it can also be found with a natural pearlescent hue in pale blue, pink, and gray. Brown mother-of-pearl shell also occurs naturally (from the species atrina vexillum) and comes from Vietnam. Varnishing the back of this type of mother-of-pearl with a darker, richer color enhances the natural hue but does not affect its shine or shimmer.
In addition to adding colors and patterns to mother-of-pearl, some brands hand-set ribbons of gold or diamonds onto their dials (an arduous process) for added appeal. Other innovative concepts include marquetry dials with dozens of individual pieces of mother-of-pearl inlaid to form the dial. At the very highest end of the spectrum, brands may actually carve the mother-of-pearl into sculptural forms such as clouds, water, or animals—bringing an all-new dimension to the timepiece.
“Mother-of-pearl is beautiful but subtle. It does not scream, but rather winks at you,” says Michael Margolis, President of Girard-Perregaux, North America. “It is a quiet pleasure.”
Photography by Jeff Gale (watches); patrice shreyer; Styling by Terry Lewis