I will confess to being underwhelmed by Jaeger-LeCoultre’s project of turning its sublime Sixties diver, the Polaris, into a rather too-bland modern sports/everything watch. Or I was, until I encountered a new limited edition version which, for an extra £450 on top of the normal date model (itself a full £1,000 more than the no-date version, ahem), delivers wow factor through a lacquered dial of shadowy liquid blues, set against creamy yellow markers and hands.

The impact stems both from the heavy contrasts, and from the use of a double-colour gradient: both the central disc and the surrounding ring holding the hour markers go from bright blue to near-black at the edges, with different textures and finishes at play.

“The gradient effect gives depth to the dial, it also gives more richness to the light effects,” says Jaeger-LeCoultre design boss Lionel Favre. “Depending on the light, the dial changes tone, and the blue can come out more intensely than the black and vice versa.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Date Limited Edition
Jaeger-LeCoultre

The look actually harks back to gradient-laden versions of the Polaris II, the plump and funky Seventies update on the original “super compressor” Polaris. Not that you’d call the new edition “retro”, in particular: in fact, it’s thoroughly contemporary, since the combination of rich dial colours and shadowy gradients is absolutely everywhere right now.

From the murky grey tones of Tudor’s new bronze-cased Black Bay to Audemars Piguet’s “smoked” enamel dial Code 11.59 minute repeater, from Baume & Mercier’s latest Baumatic to Rado’s retro-edition Golden Horse, via watches from Montblanc, Oris, Tissot, Glashütte Original and, well, just about everyone under the sun, strong colours and shadowy gradients are bringing watch dials alive.

The industry hasn’t settled on a single name for this trope as yet — ‘fumé’ (as in “smoked”), “ombré” (“shadow”) and “gradient”, are all in the mix, and no doubt a few others. It’s a phenomenon that really began kicking in in 2018, and it’s been intriguing me more and more; though getting brands to talk about dial-making can be a bit of a challenge. The reason, I suspect, is that even your most verticalised of manufacture maisons likely outsources its dials, and a substantial amount of the dials used in Swiss watches are outsourced rather further afield.

Moreover, no one likes to admit to following a trend. But when it comes to gradient dials, there is at least one very clear trend-setter. Over the past decade, H Moser & Cie, the high-end Schaffhausen-based independent, developed a beautiful take on the gradient dial, as refined as it is dramatic, and made it the brand’s calling card. In the process, it appears to have set something of a bandwagon in motion.

“The idea came from my predecessors who were looking in the archives of the company for inspiration for a new dial to launch the perpetual calendar in palladium,” says CEO Edouard Meylan. “They found these old fumé dials which were quite trendy more than half a century ago. Unfortunately, no one knew how to produce them anymore, so they had to develop new machines and learn again how to create the fumé effect. It took a while to achieve but the result was stunning.”

H. Moser & Cie CEO Edouard Meylan
H. Moser & Cie CEO Edouard Meylan
H. Moser & Cie

When Meylan’s family firm took control of H Moser in 2012, he made an analysis of the unique features that distinguished Moser in the market place, and fell upon the fumé dial.

“Most of our watches looked too much like other classic, round watches: had we removed the logo, no one would have known which brand it was. At that time, we only had a really small percentage of our watches with a fumé dial but now it’s more than 80 per cent. As a result, today, we purposely removed the logo and people recognise it as ours,” he says.

The fabrication technique involves spraying the shadow onto a rotating dial that’s already been through various colouring and immersion processes, producing results that can be incredibly varied.

H. Moser & Cie Endeavour Concept
H. Moser & Cie

“There are many parameters involved in the quality of the colour, such as the speed of rotation of the dial, the power of the spray,” says Meylan. “You can have a smooth gradient or something that simply has a darker rim, and that makes a huge difference. We actually realise that every batch is very different from the other, with some interesting surprises.”

While Moser invested in the development of the process, it’s a small company and uses an outside supplier: Meylan describes making such dials in-house as “the dream”. Nor is the process proprietary, hence, Meylan says, it’s been finally filtering out more widely into the watch industry. And it seems to have taken Moser’s ‘fumé’ terminology with it.

“To be honest,” he says, “I am not sure where the name comes from. I think we started calling them fumé dials internally, and then as we referred to them that way when we spoke to journalists, it became the nickname of these type of dials.”

There is, perhaps, the sense of paper or parchment that’s been smoked or burnt at the edges. And hey, calling something “smoked” does have a nicely olde-worlde, crafty feel, even when there’s no smoke or heat involved in the process. And the antique feel is a strong part of the appeal of fumé dials. On the one hand, it harks back to the ombré (as they were then called) dials that were a staple of certain dress watches in the Fifties, especially from Rolex. It’s this very polished, jewel-like look that H Moser has turned into an art form.

On the other hand, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Polaris II is a fine example of the profusion of Seventies sports watches that seemed to incorporate a different, more metallic version of the effect. Seiko is another notable exponent in what was a glorious era for its sports watch design, as indeed was Heuer.

A different kind of olde worlde ambience, meanwhile, plays directly to the ongoing trend for rough-round-the-edges, “urban” retro: patina. From faded early Panerais to models like Zenith’s A385 El Primero from the Seventies, the gradient is simply a version of what you could also call “tropical” patina, the sort of thing you hear about dealers sticking under hot lamps to enhance the process and increase the value. It’s what inspired George Bamford’s latest, handsome, limited edition for Zenith, the Chronomaster Radar.

Zenith x Bamford El Primero Red Radar
Bamford Watch Department

“I’ve got a vintage A385 that’s gone this faded, browny texture over time, and we wanted to recreate that, though it’s a really involved process,” Bamford says. “It’s a vintage interpretation, but it’s clearly not vintage. I love that it gives you an obviously modern watch, but it feels touched by vintage. It has an atmosphere.”

When mixed with evocative colours, interesting case materials and rugged retro watches — Montblanc’s green/bronze 1858 models, for instance, or the increasingly creative colour displays from Oris — you get something with enhanced presence, texture and outright style, plus a sense of faded-at-the-edges nostalgia. Remember when it only took a brand adding a blue dial to get us excited?

If spraying shadow onto a dial gives one effect, achieving the same sensation on an enamel dial is quite another endeavour, but one recently achieved by the team at Glasgow’s artisan adventurers, anOrdain. The company’s new range of fumé colours in its Model 2 collection, with a hammered effect glimmering under the translucent enamel is, at £1,500, sensational, and was discovered by accident.

anOrdain enamel dial equipment
anOrdain’s dial-making equipment
anOrdain

Experimenting with silver dial blanks instead of the normal copper, the team accidentally warped a dial that produced an interesting colour gradient underneath the enamel. That set founder Lewis Heath on a mission to find someone who could produce a silver dial with a mildly domed topside. When enamel is applied in a flat layer, the thicker enamel at the bottom of the dome, around the edges, appears deeper and darker than the thinner enamel at the centre.

“The total thickness of the dial is 1.05mm, so you’re making a lot of minute calculations in terms of the dome’s slope,” says Heath, who found a silversmith in Birmingham to make the blanks. “I wouldn’t have gone for it, especially because I was a bit aware of people doing it elsewhere, but it does look particularly attractive, and hammering gives you this amazing finish.”

Given that gradient — of the slope — is literally in play here, these are perhaps the truest “gradient dials” around. I don’t blame Heath for sticking with the “fumé” terminology though as it seems to be the term that’s coalescing for what is, I’d say, the most prominent current trend in watch design. We can thank H Moser for that.