26 December 2021

Stone Dials: Three Takes on Watchmaking’s Grooviest Mineral

by Randy Lai

For over half a century, dials made of exotic ‘stone’ (that is to say, a mass of naturally occurring mineraloid matter) have been one of the great aesthetic quirks of watch designing. Today, a broader shift in the galaxy of businesses we call consumer luxury -- towards nostalgia and anything vaguely discernible as being ‘retro-inspired’ -- has injected fresh curiosity into this detail, which in the case of multiple brands, can be retraced to the heady maximalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Brands like Piaget popularised the usage of bold, variegated stones during the Swinging Sixties: including onyx, malachite and lapis lazuli -- variations on a theme which lent themselves well to the growing landscape of ultra-thin watchmaking. In every subsequent decade, at least a handful of brands have kept this flame for decorative dials alive: from Vacheron Constantin’s eye-bending Prestige de la France to the many notoriously collectible versions of the Rolex Day-Date. 

To borrow fashion’s conventional wisdom about the cyclical nature of taste, the twenty-twenties appear poised to usher in yet more mineraloid mania. Steady demand for uncomplicated, ultra-thin watches has lent itself to a widening of demographics interested in stone dials. Previously dismissed as the preserve of would-be-mafioso types (à la Joe Pesci in Casino) they’re now finding favour with everyone from serious vintage collectors to petrolheads who simply want colour-coded accessories (don’t we all?). Speaking from a technical vantage, stone dials are often also visually representative of a watchmaker’s skill. According to Nicholas Foulkes, author and president of the GPHG, the physical properties of many naturally occurring stones make them “notoriously fragile”. “[The] wastage rate can be as high as 80 [percent],” says Foulkes. Because of this, stone dial blanks are cut to an initial thickness of 1mm, as opposed to the 0.4-0.6mm range required for conventional dials. “Even then, they need to be fixed to a brass plate for extra stability...which can triple the total [thickness] within the overall confines of a slim watch.”

Visually alluring when well-executed, here are three of my favourite stone dials (and the watches they’re affixed to) which have come through the Subdial website..

Piaget Ref. 9286

With a case sized at the surprisingly wearable dimensions of 23mm x 25mm, this extra-slim time-only wristwatch harkens back to the Golden Age of Piaget’s design studio. The ‘A6’ variation is most commonly configured in 18k yellow gold, although the present example showcases a slightly more unusual combination of lapis lazuli and white metal. The watch is fitted with a matching integrated bracelet, decorated with a horizontally grained finish meant to evoke the appearance of wood. That motif is repeated across both sides (lengthwise) of the case and on the bracelet’s folding clasp, creating the sensation of a single seamless texture whilst worn. 

The Piaget ref. 9286

 Renowned for its vivid blue hue and various artistic applications (throughout the 16th century, it was often pulverised in order to create ultramarine pigments) lapis lazuli is a metamorphic rock variety that has long been popular with watchmakers. Because it’s formed through a process involving sharp increases in pressure and temperature, no two lapis lazuli stones appear the same. In this dial, the characteristically intense ultramarine colour is present, along with a number of monochrome inclusions that give the lapis a certain, marble-like quality.

Moving beyond the dial, this Ref. 9286 represents a tremendous value. There is some hairline scratching (most noticeably on the screw-down caseback) that is consistent with a watch produced in 1972, though the hallmarks and bevels remain sharp and visible to the naked eye. The case, bracelet, and movement are all endemic of an era when Piaget was rapidly consolidating as many parts of the watchmaking process as they could in-house - long before this was deemed fashionable or conducive to a brand’s marketing activities. Often erroneously nicknamed the ‘Piaget Tank’, this reference nevertheless scratches many of the same itches as the eponymous Cartier dress watch. The distinctive form language and finishing will make this ideal for collectors whose tastes tend to err on the classic end of the spectrum; whereas the lapis dial fits into the wider (extended) moment that colorful watches appear to be having.

Rolex Day-Date Ref. 18238

The universe of the Coronet is one of constant, eclectic, myriad variation: even the smallest, seemingly marginal detail can be the difference between a good and all-time great reference. In the vintage community, this is a phenomenon that is most apparent amongst Daytona and Submariner collectors; though Rolex’s back catalogue of dress watches boast the lion’s share of ‘organic’ dials -- those made with exotic stone or woods. The Day-Date figures prominently in that narrative, with the first onyx-dialled iterations appearing in the late 1970s. The present example hails from much later in the style’s history, being a Ref. 18238 -- the first Day-Date to introduce the double quickset function -- manufactured in 1990.

The Rolex Day-Date ref. 18238

A kind of oxide mineral sourced from parallel bands of layered chalcedony, some of onyx’s most common decorative applications have been in hardstone carvings or, after a process of cutting, as cabochon. Density of colour and the material’s suitability to polishing make it a striking foil for the Day-Date. The almost impenetrable blackness of the dial lends the impression that the handset, branding, and calendar displays are floating mid-void, with the cleanliness of this execution offset just enough by the characteristic extravagance of the Day-Date’s yellow gold case and fluted bezel.

On a technicality considered a ‘vintage’ Day-Date, this 18238 saw Rolex introduce an essential new movement (calibre 3155) in which the date and day could be quick-set independent of one another. This reference also preserves the overall proportions of the original Ref. 1803; espousing a fit that looks fantastic across a spectrum of genders and wrist sizes even today. Worn in its natural habitat (i.e. in J.Press, hunched over the Resolute desk) or alongside Japanese denim and your favourite sneakers, this particular 18238 is a delightful study in contrasts, with plentiful credentials as a ‘daily wearer’.

OMEGA Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch ‘Aventurine’

Likely the most subtle iteration of a stone-dialled watch to make our list, this Speedmaster ‘Aventurine’ -- with an impossibly long 14-digit reference number -- made its debut at Baselworld in 2010 and has since been discontinued. Even before coming into contact with the dial, this particular riff on the Speedy lineage makes its presence keenly felt. The Moonwatch case, with its signature flared lug profile, weighs in at a considerable 44.25mm -- a diameter that is offset somewhat by the watch’s relative thinness (14.5mm, despite the integration of a chronograph, moonphase, and date).

The Omega "Adventurine" Speedmaster Professional

In the context of watches, the choice of aventurine merits further discussion. Though the eponymous material is indeed a rock from the quartz family, watchmakers frequently use an artificial alternative -- created by mixing copper elements into glass while the latter material is in a molten state. Unlike its naturally occurring namesake, this aventurine is characterised visually by a deep, shimmery blue; augmented with gold inclusions that are dispersed in a manner that’s extremely uniform. This results in a dial material that appears grey under diffused light; but not dissimilar to the night sky when directly illuminated. Considering the Speedmaster’s heritage of use in manned spaceflight, the aventurine works here as both visual metaphor and a purely aesthetic detail.

The present ‘Aventurine’ Speedy is fitted with Omega’s factory-issue three-link bracelet, and accompanied by all of its original packaging and documentation. Latterly, this watch is accorded the ‘Moonwatch’ designation because its movement is derived from the historic calibre 1861 -- the go-to movement for spaceflight-qualified Speedies since 1968. In the ‘Aventurine’, unlike more widely produced Speedmaster variations, several key elements of that movement are executed by hand: these include the cap on the regulating organ and posts used to stabilise the chronograph bridge.

Randy is an Asia-based luxury journalist specialising in watches and the beverage industry. For other articles and regular updates, you can follow him on social media