Just recently, at a well-known auction house, a Patek Philippe ref. 2526 first series was being offered for sale at what I thought was an unexpectedly low estimate. Surely the watch would use the estimate as a starting point and the bidding would jump accordingly. It was during the pre-sale viewing, with a loupe, that I found the reason for the low estimate. The dial was cracked: a hairline ran from the center all the way across to the marker at four o’clock. The dream was shattered once more. The value of the 2526 lies, to a large extent, in the condition of the dial. And there in lies the rub. Enamel dials are extremely difficult to manufacture and maintain. However, I have recently found something worrying for collectors who, like myself, would love to own a 2526 but are concerned about dial provenance and condition.
Enamel dial manufacturing is a dying art. Literally. In Switzerland, there is only one dial manufacturer, Donze Cadrans, making them that is independent of other watch firms, and this Donze Cadrans makes enamel dials for the likes of Patek Philippe, A. Lange & Söhne, Ulysse Nardin, and Hermès (among others). Employing only six people, the combined experience of whom adds to a century worth of time, the manufacture of enamel dials is something that might look easy, but is actually very complex. Enamel dials (even the most basic form) are essentially a work of art and the following example shows the complexity and subtleties that this involves.
Talking to the artisans at Donze Cadrans is time well spent. It was learning about how enamel dials are manufactured that the second, more concerning, discovery was made. Original Patek 2526 dials, it seems, are not only unique in terms of their manufacture, but also both their color and the base metal plate used are different. Donze Cadrans has started, at the request of some 2526 owners, to manufacture replacement enamel dials. I should add that this only refers to the white and cream colored dials and not the rarer black versions. In short, without seeing the back of the dial, or carefully inspecting the font or the color of the enamel, it is entirely possible that you could be looking at a watch with a very convincing replacement. So here’s what to look for.
First, there’s the color. I spoke with the lead dial maker at Donze Cadrans and he told me that it has not been possible to replicate the true cream color from the original 2526 dial. It would seem easy to replicate a color, right? But as the enamelists admit, they have not been able to replicate the exact tone and luster of those original 2526 dials, despite a pallet board of many shades of white or near white enamel powder on which to draw from in the archives. And that brings me to the second part. The original base metal for the 2526 dials was silver. Modern enamel dials usually have a metal base plate made from copper. Why does this make a difference? Fired enamel dials are a fusion of materials – the enamel powder bonds with the metal disk, and the layering in the enameling process also contributes to the color difference. A third part might lie in the number of enamel layers that are fired to produce the finished article. Modern, and more refined, enamel techniques allow the dial to be more durable but may contribute to a different finish and tonality.
Let’s look a little closer at how that fusion process works. First, take your metal disk. As already mentioned, for modern enamel dials (and some older dials, for that matter) that would be a thin disc of copper. The disk is slightly curved to allow the viscous properties of the melted enamel to form a uniform layer over the metal. Enamel dials are built up of layers, so depending on the required depth of the enamel surface, the correct number of layers are applied accordingly. The artisan dusts the enamel powder onto the disk and then briefly fires it in an 800° C (1,472° F) oven, removes it, and allow it to cool, setting the enamel. Once cooled, the surface of the disk is examined for “frissures” or small air pockets that develop in the melting process and scratch off the surface. Untreated, frissures will lead to a weakness in the dial that can result in cracks occurring later on. The thicker the application of the enamel powder in one go, the more likely it is that frissures will develop (there’s more material to produce a bubbling effect). The thicker the enamel dial (the more layers), the greater the depth of color and luster in the surface.
So this is where it gets tricky. The original 2526 dials were reportedly double fired, although no one knows for sure – they don’t even know exactly what “double firing” a 2526 dial entailed. Whoever was in charge or involved in the manufacture of the dials for Patek back in the 1950s is long gone and the knowledge of how they were actually made has been lost. However, it probably means the dials were only fired two times. Modern dials are fired anywhere between six and 10 times, depending on the required thickness of the dial enamel. The modern rule of thumb is that each firing of a new layer adds approximately 0.1mm of depth. An original Patek 2526 dial has an average of 0.65mm of depth, which, if we assume only two firings, would indicate that the enamel powder was layered considerably thicker than is typical today. This is entirely possible. The actual techniques (and technology) of creating true fired enamel dials have not changed, but the process has been refined. In layering the enamel powder in a thicker layer (on the original 2526 dials), and only undertaking the process twice, the maker assumes a greater chance of ending up with an inconsistent finish and frissures that need to be fixed.
Even with today’s refined method of manufacture, the failure rate on these dials is still very high. For every one dial that is successful, there are approximately three that are thrown into the bin. Note that if the dial is triple layered – requiring three separate enameled dial parts to be soldered together, as with the Richard Lange Pour le Mérite or the Slim d’Hermè – the failure rate rises in proportion, meaning approximately only one in 10 or 12 survives. When the Patek 2526 dials were originally being produced, the failure rate for the single-layer dials was even higher: one in 10 would make its way to a watch. The reason chiefly being the way the enamel was layered, contributing to failure as the dial ages too. Cracks appear because the frissures were not necessarily removed before the subsequent firing of the dial.
What should be noted is that a Patek 2526 dials are now being replicated to replace broken or fractured original dials. The dials are being supplied with the retailer names as well where appropriate (in the example shown you’ll see “Serpico y Laino Caracas”). However, a close inspection of the dial, ignoring all other factors such as the exact shade of white or cream, indentation around the markers, and the name of the retailer (or not), you’ll see that the font for “Patek Philippe Geneve” is ever so slightly different than on the original. It’s a little thinner, more elongated, and, yes, I am going to say it, more refined on the original. While a first series Patek 2526 dial is easy to spot thanks to the indentations around the hour markers on the dial, it’s harder to spot a genuine second series versus a modern version.
The moral of the story is simple: if you’re in the market for a 2526, check the dial! The original dials are slightly darker, richer in texture, and a creamier color. Modern dials are slightly lighter, more consistent in terms of the dial surface, and whiter in color. Given that the majority of the value for a Patek 2526 lies in the condition of the original dial, and original dials are becoming more scarce (time is against their survival), be sure that the Patek 2526 you are looking at does not have a modern replacement. Check color, consistency, font, and, if possible, the back. The back of the original will also have a serial number stamped on the disk.