The more the better. Circular-graining – also referred to as stippling, spotting or beading and which consists of tiny circles traced on watch components – is designed to cover entire surfaces. However, like many other motifs in the finishing repertoire, its initial purpose was utilitarian rather then aesthetic. Circular-graining is indeed often found on the inner surfaces of high-end calibres, its essential purpose being to capture dust particles circulating in movements. Having them settle into the tiny indented concentric and even overlapping grooves composing the circular-graining prevents them from affecting other sensitive parts of the calibre. Aesthetic considerations have long since superseded this utilitarian vocation and the overall appearance of movements has thus been considerably enhanced.
Contrary to Côtes de Genève (Geneva stripes), which are clearly visible on the back of a movement, circular-graining is more discreet in that it occupies two rather discreet zones. The first is the movement’s dial side, which is by definition generally hidden by the dial itself. The second is on the back of the mainplate – the strategically drilled and machined plate representing the movement chassis and to which the other parts (wheels, levers, cams, etc.) are fitted, before the calibre is completed by its bridges. Circular-graining is thus barely perceptible beneath this welter of parts.
It nonetheless does not escape the keen gaze of connoisseurs, for of all watchmaking finishes, this is doubtless the easiest to evaluate in terms of quality. For once, the latter is in fact synonymous with quantity, since the difference between merely average and excellent finishing can be appraised by counting off the tiny circles (stipples, spots, beads) on a movement. In the former case, the only circles traced are those that will be visible once the movement is fully mounted. These can be glimpsed between the bridges, from a sideways angle on photo, whereas no circular-graining is to be found in the depths of the recesses located beneath large components. Nobody will look there, so why spend time on circling to no purpose? The realm of Haute Horlogerie takes an entirely different approach and is based on ennobling the entire movement, without making any distinction between the invisible or visible areas. At this level of craftsmanship, circular-graining covers every possible surface, and excellence consists in using various diameters for the circles and cleverly superimposing them.
Technically speaking, circular-graining consists of tracing small circles using a spinning boxwood rod. These subtle grooves form a constantly multiplying motif. Circles overlap to create a denser pattern, thereby catching the light and enhancing the decorative effect. This tool is however confined to a given radius, and reaching every corner of the tiny spaces on the mainplate calls for a second tool with a narrower diameter. In some rare upscale cases, a third and even smaller implement serves to ensure that not a single square millimetre of the metal surface is left bare, untreated, undecorated and unembellished. Finally, as a last very round cherry on the top of the case, the ultimate touch of refinement lies in arranging them in a spiral shape rather than along the same line. The result is truly sublime.