Like Playing a Violin
At onetime, making a watch meant doing it by hand, because there was no other way. Today, C.N.C. (computer numerical control) machines have taken over a lot of the work that previously was painstakingly done by hand, but a hand finish remains the mark of high watchmaking — and it is not just about aesthetics, it also is about function.
Almost every component in a watch movement works against another component, so when they are finished by hand, with smoother, more precisely calibrated edges, they will last longer, with less need for lubrication, and there will be less chance that the metal used to form them will shed particulates and cause wear on other working parts.
Most types of finish are, in fact, rooted in function: In the days before water-resistant cases, polished and blued screws were oxidized to that color to protect them from moisture damage and deterioration; côtes de Genéve, the name of the fine stripes often engraved on rotors or bridges, was designed to deflect dust; perlage, the circular graining often applied to back plates, was applied because it hides the scratches that can occur during movement assembly and final adjustment.
And because most finishes are rendered by hand, technique is everything. Consider chamfering, sometimes called anglage, which is the art of beveling and polishing the edges of plates and bridges to 45 degrees using a file or a wooden peg and fine abrasives. A perfect, uniform bevel, and especially a rounded bevel, sends aficionados into paroxysms of joy.
“Because it’s done freehand, technique is important and becomes a means of expression, even a trademark of certain watchmakers,” said Gary Getz, a California-based business consultant and avid watch collector.