Day Two at the Rolex Factory: Dial Making

We were up bright and early and on the bus by 9am for our trip to the third of the firm’s Geneva factories at Chene-Bourg. Long, but slim, the factory is squeezed between the road & a railway line, and obviously has to follow the contours of the two; resulting in an almost sinuous building.

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The Rolex factory goes back a long way in the company’s history, as it used to be the old Genex factory where Rolex made cases for almost fifty years. But in 1980 it was completely redeveloped and the new factory built on the site of the old one; then, a decade ago it was almost doubled in size with an extension which continued the outline of the building further down the road. Once the new extension was complete the role of the factory changed to that of dial & jewelry HQ for Rolex & that is what we now see.

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We are first shown how the ‘Jubilee’ dial is made, using an engine turning machine, essentially it is a rotary pantograph, a huge three dimensional model of the dial sits vertically on a turntable. As it rotates a pointer ‘feels’ the outline of the pattern; this movement is then transferred mechanically to a much smaller dial blank rotating alongside.

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There are five of these machines sitting side by side, slowly rotating, and producing a dial every 20 minutes or so.

Then, from dials which are produced individually, we move on to the mass production of dials. Almost all start with a thin brass plate, punched out from a long brass strip.

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What happens next depends on what kind of dial it will become; some are silver plated, some have a PVD coating applied and others will have an image applied to their surface by a different PVD process.

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But not all dials are made from brass, any dial which is gem set will be made from gold, as it is easier to use; also the meteorite dials do not need any kind of plate as they are essentially thin sheets of iron (which is what meteorites mostly consist of). The meteorite dials are chemically etched to enhance the appearance of their structure and then rhodium plated, this isn’t done for appearance sake, but to prevent them rusting. Only the ladies’ meteorite dials are made using a brass plate base structure.

Then it is on to one of the more interesting processes, printing the text on to the dial; the TecaPrint machine has three basic components, a steel plate upon which is etched the text & markings for the completed dial; a holder for the dial blank and a semi inflated small blue balloon. A pad comes down & inks the plate, then a wiper moves across the plate & removes any surplus ink from the surface of the plate, leaving just the ink within the void left by the etching. Then the blue ‘balloon’ is lowered on to the plate, its surface conforms around the plate and surface tension lifts the ink on to the balloon. It then moves directly over the dial blank and in one clean motion drops on to its surface. The ink is transferred from the ‘balloon’ to the dial blank and the remaining ink on the balloon is cleaned off when it is lowered on to the adhesive surface of a wide section of Scotch tape.

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As the balloon is lifted from the adhesive tape, the tape advances, the plate is inked again & as a new dial slides into place, the operation starts again. I know I have made this sound completely automated, but, once again, it is a skilled operator sitting in front of the machine who is really responsible for the work.

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