Watch suppliers

Perspectives on dialmaking

May 2024

Perspectives on dialmaking

Over the past few months, we met with dozens of professionals in the dialmaking sector: the company bosses, managers and independent craftspeople whose studios and factories are dotted across the Arc Jurassien, a region unique for its dense network of specialist microenterprises. They spoke generously and openly with us, fuelling reflections on the challenges and opportunities faced by an often fragile business model.


n a recent podcast, Shark Tank presenter, collector and watch “investor” Kevin O’Leary confessed to being “a dial man”.

While the dial has recently gained in prominence, the companies, artists and craftspeople working day after day to produce anything from a one-off piece to a run of several hundred remain very much out of the public eye. Many are sworn to secrecy by NDAs and are not credited.

Yet they contribute to the desirability of watches and have helped forge the “founding myths” of the modern watch industry. The Rolex Daytona, Patek Philippe Nautilus, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak… none of these twentieth-century icons would have seen the light of day without dialmakers’ ingenuity and an array of exotic-sounding tools: cream of tartar, soapbark, rose engines, as well as multi-axis milling machines.

Of the 23 dialmakers we met for this special report, 13 have since been subsumed into watch brands while two have been taken over by competitors. Once threatened by a wave of verticalisation, more new dialmakers have gone into business these past 20 years than in the entire previous century.

Dialmaking covers many different realities, from the 3D design studio which outsources most of the production process to factories that employ several hundred staff and operate on an industrial scale, to small units specialising in one or several métiers d’art (the craft techniques that accompany watchmaking).

For every one of these professionals, the business model remains fragile. Switzerland now has just one fully independent centenarian dialmaking company, Jean Singer. Far and away the sector’s biggest producer, it made one and a half million dials last year. The company’s president and sole proprietor, Joris Engisch, told us that the brands his company supplies are also competitors, having taken over legacy dialmaking companies and benefitting from an infinitely greater investment capacity.

From Meyrin to Les Bois via Boudry, Le Locle or La Chaux-de-Fonds, one could sit a map of Swiss dialmakers on top of a map of the Arc Jurassien and the two would almost perfectly overlap. This is hardly surprising. Over generations, the region’s industrial landscape has developed around a multitude of machine shops, machine tool manufacturers and specialists in electroplating or other surface treatments. This tight-knit fabric of small and medium-sized businesses forms the backbone of the watch industry – an amalgam of talents and larger-than-life characters who often sit down together over a glass of wine or a traditional Swiss fondue.

The industrial culture within the Arc Jurassien draws on the remarkable creativity of the machinists, chemists, designers and engineers who are always ready to work together and weather the numerous cyclical crises, accepting the sector’s inevitable difficulties and never failing to invent solutions. Theirs is a language which can be difficult to understand for the neophyte arriving from one of the major European capitals.

This “anatomy of a dial” would not be complete without the point of view of the artists who carry on these centuries-old crafts, in many cases adapting them to modern tastes. The limited series they create – blink and you’ll miss them – spark joy in the hearts of collectors who are obsessed with Anita Porchet’s cloisonné and paillonné enamels or the razor-sharp, hand-executed guilloché of Yann von Kaenel.

However, as brands continue to bring their specialisms in-house, these fiercely independent individuals are threatened with extinction. The uncertainty that hangs over their professions is all the more incomprehensible considering that manufacturers frequently highlight their virtuoso talent. Like their Japanese counterparts, will we one day need to protect and recognise these national treasures in order to ensure that their skills are passed on?

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