A watch has three main components, the dial, the movement, and the case. Most vintage collectors put too much emphasis on the dial. I acknowledge that the dial is important. The dial is like the human face in that it is the first and most frequently looked at part of the watch. Like the human face which hints at health through shape, symmetry, and the luster of the skin, the watch dial also hints at what is inside. Blemishes in the form of water spotting may indicate a rusted out movement. A poorly done redial is like one too many plastic surgeries in that it indicates a failure to age gracefully. However, even though humans have evolved to look for signs of beauty and thus health and fertility through aesthetically pleasing faces, we know that an attractive face may disguise problems that come to the surface later on in a relationship.
During the peaceful Tokugawa period in Japan, swords became more decorative than functional. Nonetheless, if a sword was drawn it was expected to cut. Today, the emphasis may be more on the heritage and the beauty, but again the watch must fulfill its essential purpose of telling the time.
In truth, the beating heart of a watch is the movement. Sometimes I’ve heard the assertion that the higher accuracy of quartz makes the timekeeping function irrelevant and that it is merely the appearance and decoration of the movement that matters. I disagree strongly. Watches are made in order to tell time. Just because a better timekeeping device exists doesn’t mean that your mechanical watch does not have to tell time properly. During the peaceful Tokugawa period in Japan, swords became more decorative than functional. Nonetheless, if a sword was drawn it was expected to cut. Today, the emphasis may be more on the heritage and the beauty, but again the watch must fulfill its essential purpose of telling the time.
The problem with vintage watches is that examining the movement is hard. It takes skill, patience, and sometimes special tools to remove a caseback. There is fear of creating scratches or bending the case. Looking at the little mechanical marvel within is intimidating. Evaluating the movement quality and condition requires study, mentorship, and hands-on experience. However, I think that understanding the movement is essential to appreciating a watch. An old Timex movement made with stamped bits of metal put together without jewels by unskilled labor is very different from a fine Swiss movement carefully designed and painstakingly polished and assembled by master watchmakers. A cursory examination of the movement will reveal the difference even to a novice.
The case is the third component. It is not as attention grabbing as the dial, but it plays a key supporting role. Because it is also accessible and visible from the outside it is appreciated more than the movement. When the watch leaves the factory, the case is milled so that the edges appear sharp. Brushed and high polish finishes are applied to add contrast to the transitions between portions of the case. Over time the case accumulates little nicks, dents, and scratches. Polishing removes the marks but too many polishes will remove the “sharpness” of the edges and the original brushed portions of the case and will eventually soften and distort the shape. I would argue that the case is at least as important as the dial and perhaps more so because it is very technically difficult to add material to a watch case and polish it back to its original form. In fact, most case restoration depends on removing material rather than adding it. A trashed watch dial also cannot be restored to its original form but a careful, sympathetic restoration of some elements of a watch dial is easier because it is far easier to add elements to a dial than to a case.
The current emphasis on watch dials is best illustrated by vintage Rolex. The small details of printing are parsed in excruciating detail. Furthermore, a dial variant like the Paul Newman Daytona adds tremendous value.
The biggest problem with placing so much value on the dial is that there is always the potential that a set of dials could be found in a drawer somewhere and used by unscrupulous dealers to double or triple the value of a watch. In fact, this is what is described in the classic Hodinkee article “In Depth-The Curious Case of the Patek Philippe Reference 3448 ‘Senza Luna’” by Cara Barrett. She laid out a pretty convincing case that a set of new old stock watch dials without moon phases were found and put onto existing watches and sold at a steep premium without any scrutiny from either Patek or the auction houses. The fact that this type of deception is possible without any accountability makes me wary of assigning so much value to the dial alone. Collectors, I call on you to go “beyond the dial” when evaluating vintage watches.