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Let’s Talk Finishing: Why Do Looks Matter?

Great finishing isn’t everything on a watch, but it potentially says a lot more about the quality of a watchmaker than any single aspect a buyer can see for themselves.
By Joshua Munchow
Oct 21, 2022
In the know Let’s Talk Finishing: Why Do Looks Matter?

What is the first thing that attracts you to a watch? Is it a colorful dial, a perfectly shaped case, or perhaps it is the idea of what you can do with a watch or where you can wear it?

There are hundreds of possible answers to this question, and every single one of them is correct for the person that answers, but I would bet that one of the less common answers would be great finishing, especially on a movement. Don’t get me wrong, great finishing is definitely going to be high on the list of reasons why people like specific watches, but it is unlikely to be the first thing that attracts a person to a particular timepiece.

We see watches either on someone’s wrist or, more commonly, on some screen as we browse online through watch blogs, Instagram, or a YouTube video. Some may see a watch for the first time in a boutique window or the case at an authorized dealer’s, but this still does not guarantee that you will even be able to see the movement or handle the watch up close when you first discover it. Some watches will even have visible movements thanks to a skeleton dial, and high-end avant-garde pieces may have exposed mechanics as the main aesthetic choice.

Krayon Anywhere

But even then, the finishing of the movement, dial, or case is still unlikely to be the first thing you notice. For that you’ll have to get up close and personal with a watch or zoom in on high-resolution photos to truly grasp whether a watch has been machine finished, hand finished, or finished by gods (we all know which pieces fall into that last category). At the same time, I argue that finishing is one of the best indicators of a high-quality watch that you can possibly have, and I’m guessing by the end you might agree.

Attention to detail

A watch that is finished well indicates that the person or people that made it have paid attention to the details, and that is supremely important in watchmaking. There aren’t many objects where paying attention to the details can comprise a majority of the work of creating said object, but most objects don’t have hundreds of hand-assembled parts that have to work perfectly together with very little room for error. Smartphones may be argued to somewhat fit that bill, but watches are uniquely poised as a product where the absolute best versions in the world are still finished and assembled completely by hand, and that showcases the quality.

Akrivia Polishing

Mass-produced watches that see little human intervention or attention can have perfectly adequately finished components, but even a glance at them and it’s clear there are many imperfections simply from a lack of attention to detail. A machine-polished case will not have perfectly crisp edges, a hand-finished one will. A machine-finished movement bridge won’t have sharp internal corners and the bevels could be wavy or uneven, a hand-finished one will have sharp angles and smooth bevels. A hand-finished dial is likely to showcase artistic skill while a machine-finished dial will lack life and possibly feel cheap in comparison.

Voutilainen 28ti

High-quality finishing highlights the value of patient human labor, and the ability to focus on every surface and every edge to carefully shape and finish a component is paramount to a truly high-quality timepiece. That attention and labor add a tremendous amount of extrinsic value that is tough to find in lower quality watches without great finishing. But that attention to detail also leads to functionally better components.

If a person that produces a product wants to make sure that each component going into their product is as high quality as possible, it cannot be rough, scratched, misshapen, rusty, or inadequate in any way. So, each component would need to be finished cleanly and precisely to ensure overall quality, and it would be much more obvious should the quality degrade due to a lack of finishing. In watches, that quality also translates into precision.

Accuracy requires fine finishing

Watches work best when tolerances are very tight. A lot of slop in components can lead to the movement ceasing to function. Finishing methods often take away material from brushing, filing, and polishing, not to mention that these processes can alter surface angles, possibly making a part no longer square. To keep a watch functioning optimally, the finishing applied either needs to be minimal to avoid ruining the tolerances achieved during manufacturing, or it needs to be very precisely applied, often to within microns.

Nomos DUW 5201

This makes very highly, finely finished watches more likely to be precise, and everyone wants a more precise watch. This can be seen in pieces from independents most clearly, but it is not restricted to those small watchmakers that make everything by hand, one at a time. Larger brands like A. Lange & Söhne and NOMOS Glashütte (who are incidentally right across the street from each other) both achieve high quality finishing at very different price points, and watches from both of these brands are definitely precise.

Still, however nice the finishing is on timepieces of this caliber, there exist those that are finished to a degree that borders on perfection. The likes of Greubel Forsey, Akrivia, Kari Voutilainen, Romain Gauthier, Rémi Maillat, and the godfather of hand finishing, Philippe Dufour, all take finishing to a level that goes miles further than most brands will dare tread, and that brings us full circle to ask, is it possible to have too much finishing?


Dufour Simplicity

Okay, smart aleck answers aside, the level of finishing accomplished at the edges of possibility do one specific thing – elevate the art of skill. It is clear that all brands that have high-quality finishing employ many very talented watchmakers that have honed their skills to a high degree. But some individuals take those skills and turn them into something akin to a religion, elevating them to a level that they almost become more important than the watch itself.

Greubel Forsey Hand-Made

So much time is spent on finishing that the sheer manpower sometimes overtakes the effort of simply manufacturing all the components. This focus takes these skills and highlights them as something sacred, a devotion to the human effort of creating beauty for beauty’s sake, since it is obvious that much less finishing achieves the same functional result. In that respect, this level of finishing doesn’t matter for any practical improvement to a watch, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

If you want finishing that maintains quality components and a basic level of precision, the basic finishing of movements from ETA, Sellita, or Miyota will suffice. But as finishing improves across different watches, price levels, and complexity, its practical value continues to increase until it plateaus, at which point finishing becomes art for its own sake, a passion for the craft.

We all know when this happens, and for me it is part of what keeps me coming back again and again to see what the next generation of watchmakers have crafted for us all to enjoy. Since I personally enjoy the mechanical side of watches more than the watch as a whole, it allows me a reason to spend time enjoying the hard work and dedication of very talented people, individuals that can turn patience into beauty.