Watch Finishing – The Local Touch

Discovering the intricate regional traditions of Swiss Côte de Genève, German Balance Cock Engraving, and Japanese Zaratsu polishing that make luxury watches proper artworks.

Watch Finishing – The Local Touch

It's a question that I have been asked on many dates over the years “You write and photograph watches?? That can’t be a job!”. To that question I often don’t have an answer – but the one that inevitably follows is “Why are watches so expensive”? And to that one I kind of do. It is obviously a combination of factors at play – but more often than not it comes down to: brand equity, raw material cost and simply the amount of time spent finishing/decorating a watch. When we say decorating we really mean hand finishing of either the dial, case, bracelet or movement. This is where it gets labour-intensive. Often one individual spends hours and hours shaping metal to make it look beautiful. Enthusiasts spend a great deal of their lives getting caught up in the different types of finishing and which manufacturers are the pinnacle or the most aesthetic when it comes to finishing. The most interesting thing about this is that actually there are regional differences in finishing and there are types of finishing that are unique to countries and even cities. I personally find matchmaking artistry to be the most appealing element of watch design. It's amazing that you can look at a watch immediately and know where it's from not only the brand but the region in which it was made and the same can be said for turning a watch over and looking at the architecture of a movement or the finishing on the movement and know the same. And while this story is absolutely not a deep dive into finishing or decoration, what I really wanted to highlight was just 3 obvious regional differences when it comes to finishing that you'll be able to recognize in watches that you see in the future.

Swiss Côtes de Genève

Turn a watch over and there is a good chance you will see into the movement. This shows you a great deal about the maker. The movement will often have a wave design across the large plates of metal – if this comes from a Swiss maker – this is “Geneva stripes” or “Côtes de Genève”.  The process of achieving Geneva stripes on a movement part is actually relatively simple, on paper. Watchmakers finish the components using a lathe with a rotating, abrasive tool head positioned at a slight angle. They then draw the tool head lengthwise across the part in a smooth motion. The watchmakers must take great care not to alter the speed of the tool’s movement across the surface or the angle, or it would result in an uneven and irregular finish. The key to Geneva striping is a uniform finish. Geneva stripes can also come in a circular version rather than just linear; the watchmaker manipulates the part on a rotating base with the tool head remaining stationary. Vacheron do some of the nicest to my eye, showcasing deep straight lines with Omega employing “sunburst” Geneva striping on some of its calibers. Know your movement stripping and you will immediately know where the watch came from. Just don’t get confused with Glashutte stripping from Germany! 

German Balance Cock Engraving

One of my favourite brands is A. Lange & Söhne. Every one of its watches is unique as the balance-cock on the movement is hand engraved.  The engraving of the balance-cock dates back to the early 20th century when Lange was building superlative quality "1A" pocket watches. When the brand relaunched in the early 90s, it just made sense to continue on with one of Lange's greatest traditions. So, within the halls of the Lange manufacture exists a small group of engravers (less than 10 I believe) that individually sculpt the balance cock via a set of specially created tools.  The average Lange watch receives a floral engraving on the balance-cock, a small piece of metal smaller than a human finger nail.  But, because the work is completed by hand by one craftsman, each cock comes out looking different. Clients can even request a particular design on the balance cock. I’ve seen the engraving take place – it's genuinely incredible and to me what watchmaking is all about. 

Japanese Zaratsu polishing

This style of highly reflective polishing was first introduced to the Seiko family by watch designer Taro Tanaka, who came into the Japanese company to produce a holistic design language that was called “The Grammar of Design''. One of the main tenets of this design language was for all of the flat surfaces of the watch case and hands to be polished to a mirror finish using a method called Zaratsu polishing. Seen on the cases and bracelets of Japanese watches, primarily from Seiko, Zaratsu polishing is what creates the sharp ridge at the border between the mirror and hairline surfaces. The creation of the hairline finish, which is the final process in the polishing of the case, is done by pressing and sliding the case against a metal plate covered with 400- to 800-grit sandpaper.

Finishing is like every other aspect of mechanical horology, constantly evolving, but there are some key elements that will endure as long as the mechanical watch itself has.