Watch Engraving Guide
Many people who approach watchmaking start exclusively from a functional point of view: a watch is a mechanism that must indicate time accurately and reliably.
But they ignore the fact that, in fact, throughout its history, watchmaking has been a hybrid art, where the technical precision of the object has gone hand in hand with artistic qualities.
Are you ready to venture into this elusive and fascinating world?
Can you engrave a watch?
An object like a watch is traditionally made of metal - and metal is historically used to produce jewelry and other works of art, whether cast or by engraving and other techniques. So, it's certainly possible to do the same with a watch, so much so that artisans and watchmaking houses themselves have offered finely decorated and engraved watches over the years.
These decorations and embellishments also led to the birth of some special finishes still used in watches today, such as Cotes de Geneve and perlage, as well as a particular category of work such as skeletonization: in practice, the plates and bridges of a movement are "emptied" of excess parts to make the watch movement lighter - and this for a purely aesthetic function.
Often, skeletonizing also includes creating artistic patterns engraved on the surfaces. And these types of workings are usually done by hand, as machines don't have the precision needed to achieve specific results.
But speaking of modern engraving, the most common form is "just" personalization on the case back - usually commemorative. Throughout history, Watches have often been tokens of appreciation from companies, organizations, and individuals. Although this usage has rarefied recently, you can still find examples personalized in this way in vintage watches.
Remember that watches, especially in the past, were meant to last forever, and so their function as a memento would last forever as well. Back in the days, manual and automatic watch maintenance were a big thing, and people used to be very attentive to their watches and their needs - so a dedication from someone cherished made them even more precious.
How to get a watch engraved?
Typically, the best professionals to engrave a watch are not watchmakers but jewelers. Engraving on metal was a technique traditionally taught in the practice of jewelry making and done by hand with burins - especially on "soft" materials such as gold and silver, which have long been the primary material for cases and backs.
With the advent of stainless steel, around the beginning of the twentieth century, this process has become more complicated, since the hardness of the material to be engraved was higher - and so, even the etchings, which before were made with artistic characters, swashes, and decorations, have become over time simpler and often practiced with mechanical tools.
However, a few artisans can still make these kinds of intricate decorations and custom engravings. It is not a very common activity, especially in watchmaking, but it is still practiced: search online for workshops that offer this service.
Does engraving devalue a watch?
Today, watch lovers consider engraved watches to be of lesser value than non-etched ones - unless the inscription comes from some celebrity. Even so, most dress watches were engraved, and some sports watches were as well.
For example, the famous Daytona that belonged to Paul Newman had an engraving on its back that read "Drive carefully me" - which could be read with many different meanings. The watch, which sold for a whopping eight figures a few years ago, had been given to him by his wife, Joanne Woodward. So we can say that the engraving positively influenced its value in this specific case.
It must be said that if the engraving does not have this degree of importance, there are systems of "reconstructive surgery" for watches as well. Sophisticated micromechanics laboratories can reconstruct the missing parts, adding metal and then finishing the surface with a careful filing to make all traces of the inscription disappear. It's an investment but often well worth it.
There is a separate case where watches acquire value because they have an engraving, and we are talking about assigned timepieces, military, and civilian. The presence on the case back of an initial and a serial number means that the watch was initially used in service and, therefore, is worth more than others that do not display this inscription. Obviously, pay notice: in several cases, these inscriptions were made later in a fraudulent way, just to increase the timepiece's value.
What to engrave on a watch?
Among the most common inscriptions applied to watches, we can find dedications, such as that of Joanne Woodward, or a compromising statement, such as the one on the back of the Rolex DayDate given by Marilyn Monroe to "Jack" - or John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the President of the United States, with whom the star was rumored to have a steamy relationship. This timepiece read " JACK - With love as always from MARILYN - MAY 29th 1962."
It is not uncommon to find the name of the watch owner or, as mentioned above, a number or initials affixed for service requirements. A particular case is when timepieces have other elements engraved, such as a figure or scene - either on the case back or even on the case, bracelet and bezel. There are several examples of this type of engraving, even on watches in the traditional production. In the latter case, obviously, the decorations are part of the watch and therefore do not depreciate it as they would if they were done "custom." In some cases, certain microbrands offer the engraving service directly to their customers so that they can order a fully customized watch.
Can you engrave a smartwatch?
Engraving a smartwatch is undoubtedly possible, assuming the material used for the case supports this type of artistry, but it's not particularly desirable.
By their very nature, smartwatches are transient items, actual commodities that lose value rather quickly due to technical obsolescence to be replaced with a new model - and that means throwing away the engraving every time you replace it.
So, if you have money to burn, engraving your smartwatch may be a good idea: but if you're going for the long term, it might be better to personalize a traditional watch with an engraving rather than an electronic device. And if you want to get to know more about the differences between regular watch vs. smartwatch you can check this article.
Where to engrave a watch?
The engraving on a watch can be placed on any surface - it depends on the taste and choice of the client. If it is an inscription or a monogram - which was a very popular motif in pocket watches - it is traditionally placed on the case back, on the outside, or even on the inside (but remember that this becomes impossible with sapphire case backs).
Any other kind of decoration could be executed on any other part of the watch, starting with the case and bracelet and ending with the bridges of the movement itself. In many instances, even the dials were decorated with repetitive patterns through a procedure called guilloche, performed with a particular machine called a rose engine.
Although today there are CNC machines that can reproduce some of these designs, obviously the preciousness of these comes from who made them and how, as often the inscriptions and decorations are part of larger finishing projects that also include the setting of other contrasting metals and even precious stones to create authentic wrist jewelry.
Also remember that you could be restricted in your choice, as some materials, like titanium, are very difficult to machine. Check our titanium vs. stainless steel watches article for more info about that.
How long does it take to get a watch engraved?
Engraving is not a standard procedure: it is done on request by a specialized craftsman. Therefore, the time required to get an engraving varies depending on its extent and complexity.
For a simple inscription such as a name, which is done using a pantograph, therefore through a machine, it could take a week, but for more complex artistic works, the time increases depending on the workload of the craftsman who does it. For example, the best engravers might take several months to execute an assignment of artful engraving - but in the end, you'll know you're getting a real piece of jewelry.
How much does it cost to have a watch engraved?
Here too, the cost is enormously variable depending on the work required and the craftsman's reputation. Let's say it's similar to that of tattoo artists: there are many studios available, but master tattoo artists are few, with full agendas, and their work can cost thousands of dollars.
Remember that any intervention that modifies the aesthetics and characteristics of a timepiece is generally frowned upon by the watchmaking community, but here too, as there are exceptions in all fields. Personalizing a watch with an inscription or a decoration is a very personal choice, and whoever does it must be aware that this will impact the object's value: but if this intervention makes sense for some particular reason, it would be foolish not to do it.
Watches, like other objects, have a symbolic value that can sometimes be immensely greater than their monetary value - and if you receive a watch with a dedication that says "I love you. Dad," it instantly becomes the most precious watch of the world.
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