Gilty Pleasures: a Selection of Early Production Gilt and Laquer Dial Stainless Watches in Oversized Steel Cases
Gilt has its roots in old English from the term gilding, which refers to coating an object with a layer of gold. But in making dials for watches gilt means something completely different. Gilt dials are produced by applying unfinished metal, revealed in negative relief, to the dial instead of printing the dial with ink. The metal used to create the dial design and details can be of course be yellow or white gold, but it generally is not.
The dial starts from a base metal (such as brass) which is mirror polished and sometimes plated in gold or silver. The design of the dial, including the manufacturer’s details, indexes and subsidiary dials is then pad-printed on the dial with nonconductive material. Pad printing uses an etched plate and pad to transfer the raised design (created with gold color raw metal) on the dial. The dial is then coated with a base color (most commonly in black for contrast) in a galvanic tank. To reveal the underlying pad-printed design, the dial is then washed to remove the galvanized ink and allow the raw metal design to shine through. Sometimes this whole process is repeated to add layers of color; and typically as a final step the dial is coated with clear lacquer to preserve the exposed metal from oxidation.
The result of this painstaking work is a warm and charming dial that looks different and reflects light distinctly from a typical metallic ink. As you turn a gilt dial against light, you see a range of color tones from bright and shiny to very subtle and warm. Part of the charm of a gilt dial is even the best produced dials have a slight fuzziness to the printing.
These gilt dial will not corrode if the layer of lacquer on top is undisturbed, but they will oxidize if the dial is scratched or cracked and the design is exposed to the elements. Sometimes oxidation can come up to the surface from the base of the dial if the surface has small pin-hole imperfections. Gilt printed dials are impossible to restore, and a good watchmaker is usually able to sport reprinted ones.
Gilt dials were popular in the 1930s, but because of the labor-intensive manufacturing process, they have all but disappeared from the industry over the last 50 years. For example, Rolex ended their run of gilt dials in their Submariner and GMT sports models in mid-1960s. Rolex stopped making multi-scale gilt chronograph dials even earlier.
At Parthian Watch Company we have a special affinity for gilt printed dials, and today we have in inventory a number of time-only and chronograph treasures from the 1930-1960s. These watches are notable, not only because of their dials, but also because of their oversized cases: at a time when men’s dress watches were 31-33mm, these examples were encased in 37.5mm stainless steel which makes them very contemporary in scale. Stainless steel itself was a relatively new metal in watch production starting in the 1930s.