What Does “Finishing” Mean And Why Is It So Highly Valued?
The Bovet Amadeo Amadeo tourbillon requires more than 100 hours of hand engraving just for the movement, and 80 additional hours for the case. Photograph courtesy of Bovet
There are many reasons to admire a piece of fine watchmaking: the inventiveness of its workings; the beauty of its decoration; the cleverness of its functions. But going weak-kneed for the luxurious styling and finish of the movement – what’s on show when you flip the thing over – is perhaps the hardest aspect for aficionados to explain to their smartwatch-wearing brethren, not least because it can require a macro lens to do so.
Sure, we can all marvel at sheer mechanical complexity, just as we can appreciate the intricate mysteries of a high-performance sports-car engine. But while the wizardry of a V12 may appear beautiful in its way, it hardly gives the impression of something toiled over by a misty-eyed artisan administering the kind of assiduousness and love an Italian luthier applies to a violin.
The deep hand-working – or finissage – of the engine, however, is a major part of the draw in top-tier horology. Seasoned collectors are liable to give passing attention to even the most decorative of dials, before flipping the watch over, bunging a loupe in the eye and inspecting the movement. That’s not simply to ascertain how the thing works. It’s to see just how perfectly (or not) the plains and edges of its parts have been worked. How exact the bevels, how flawless the mirror polish, how immaculate the stripes of the “Côtes de Genève” surface finish. As much as innovation or ingenuity, it’s this delicate craftsmanship – and the time, effort and deep-set skills that it speaks of – that often separates masterpieces from the merely great.
Left: Hand bevelling of the Maltese cross emblem on a Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers watch. Right: Hand finishing of a Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers watch. Photographs courtesy of Vacheron Constantin
“Watchmaking is artistry, and when you look at that movement and you know that someone’s laboured over that, that they’ve spent hours putting a finish on the tiniest of details, it really connects you to that craftsmanship and to the artist themselves,” says Mr Michael Hickcox, a collector of fine watches since the 1990s. “I like that it’s essentially unnecessary, but it’s artistic and luxurious because it’s done to such extreme perfection.”
Nevertheless, it was necessity that originated the arts of finissage back in the pocket watch era, when smoothly bevelled edges and delicately textured surfaces not only created uniformity, but prevented the components from decaying.
“At the beginning, it was very much to cover irregularities and imperfections from basic machining, and the bevelling and chamfering helped protect from rust and oxidation,” says Mr Christian Selmoni, style and heritage director at Vacheron Constantin, Switzerland’s oldest continuously running watchmaker. Inevitably, in the heartlands of haute horologerie – Geneva and, in particular, the secluded uplands region of the Vallée de Joux – such techniques soon blossomed into displays of ultimate refinement and aesthetic craft. “It became highly important because they were bringing beauty and elevating the perceived value of the movement and of the timepiece,” says Selmoni.
“Watchmaking is artistry, and when you look at that movement… it really connects you to that craftsmanship and to the artist themselves”
Back then, of course, the movements were bigger, which gave the craftsmen plenty to work with. But they weren’t on display, unless you opened the watch up to look inside. In the wristwatch era, as the canvas and tolerances decreased and industrialised watchmaking processes changed, such craftsmanship become vanishingly rare. It was only with the rise of display case-backs in the 1990s, and what’s now viewed as the rebirth of fine watchmaking since that time, that the old finishing techniques took on a renewed significance.
“The level has really gone up and up, and photography on social media has made it a big conversation topic now,” says Mr Pierre-Alexandre Aeschlimann, CEO of the independent watchmaker Andersen Geneve. Unlike the entire finishing departments wielded by major players like Chopard, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin, much of the finishing work at such small brands is done by the watchmakers themselves, or by specialised suppliers.
And we’re not just talking about the main, larger components. Screw heads are mirror polished, pivots the size of pin-heads burnished on miniature lathes, wheels are delicately brushed and grained, even the microscopic interlocking teeth of gear wheels are brought to a shining, precise gleam.
“It sounds like nonsense, but this is about excellence and it’s much too important,” Aeschlimann says. “It’s so elegant to look at the movement closely and see the way it almost seems to breathe. You can’t get that any other way.”
Assembly and fitting of the oscillating weight on the H. Moser & Cie. HMC 200 automatic movement. Photograph courtesy of H. Moser & Cie.
It's arduous stuff, though. Take the arm that holds a Vacheron Constantin tourbillon in place, for instance. The raw part cut by CNC, a wardrobe-sized machine capable of milling out hundreds of parts per hour, is handed to the polisher, who works it not just into a mirror polish, but gets it evenly rounded and tapered at either end, to equal degrees. Any overstep on any axis, and it’s back to square one. The entire job takes 12 hours, says Selmoni.
The headline event in finissage is the anglage – the deep chamfering and bevelling of the edges of bridges and components, brought to a perfectly uniform angle and gleam. Edges are first slowly filed to a chamfer at uniform 45-degree angles, sometimes with a gently rounded profile. The chamfered edge is then smoothed with a series of fine abrasives, burnished with tempered steel and finally rubbed down with a fine diamond paste using a tiny peg of wood. Working a single bridge this way can take hours, but the real magic is in creating total consistency across multiple parts.
“It’s physically demanding work, and takes a lot of training until your hand and brain are doing it automatically,” Selmoni says. “These guys have incredible patience and concentration, but when you ask them how you get a perfect angle by hand, they’ll say that eventually they’re able to do it really by instinct and feel.”
Those burnished, chamfered edges are designed to stand in high contrast to the delicately textured surface plains of the various parts – whether grained, satin brushed, spotted (known as “perlage”), sandblasted or given the grandest and most recognisable finish, the Côtes de Genève, or Geneva Stripes. This 3D wave effect (completely flat, in fact) is generated by minuscule scratches from a hard wood abrasive, which rotates on a lathe as the part is drawn across it.
“It’s so elegant to look at the movement closely and see the way it almost seems to breathe. You can’t get that any other way”
Like many finishing techniques, the stripes are easy enough to replicate at a superficial level by various means of automation, and to varying degrees of effectiveness – hence its ubiquity in watchmaking at all levels. But, according to Hickcox, the truly hand-worked sings in a different way. “You could look at a watch that has some shiny parts to it and not know whether it’s been fine-finished or not, but you start to learn,” he says. “You can see the depth of the valleys in those stripes, the sensitivity of it, the roundness of the anglage, and the interior angles if they’re there.”
Ah yes, the interior angles – not present in every hand-finished watch, but a sure sign of hand-finishing when they are. Where the contours of a bridge or part meet on an interior angle, achieving a chamfer with a crisp corner is exceptionally difficult, and impossible with the rotary tooling used for a machined finish. It has to be done by hand. “It’s a signature of handmade watchmaking and it’s highly important for collectors and watch lovers,” Hickcox says.
What’s notable is the extent to which the finishing can itself influence the entire blueprint of the movement: rather than merely adding craft to the engineering, the potential for finishing can dictate the way parts are designed and movements conceived. Bridges that twist and flow to emphasise the anglage, parts that stand out for the mirror quality of their polish, screws in which the slots themselves are perfectly chamfered.
“We very much think about the architecture of the movement to emphasise the finish,” Selmoni says. “It gives you a platform for surfaces and shapes to show what we’re capable of, and how we’re perpetuating these traditions – that’s at the core of our watchmaking values.”