Resto-Modding a Dali Watch
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Resto-Modding a Dali Watch

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Hobbies
Published
July 3, 2022

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been passionate about watches, and timekeeping in general. Whether it was sorting through my grandfather’s Soviet-era watches, making sundials in the yard, or waiting by the grandfather clock in the living room at noon, watches and clocks fascinated me.

As an adult, I came to understand and appreciate horology, the study of timekeeping, a lot more. Furthermore, owing to another passion of mine - finance, I was always interested in how watches are priced by manufacturers and valued by customers, in both primary and secondary markets.

Today, watchmaking is a dying trade, with increasingly fewer watchmakers entering the profession every year, while many more retire. Meanwhile, wristwatches continue to increase in popularity as accessories or jewelry, store-of-value, and art. In response, some watch brands have begun to cherry-pick their customers - catering only to their most loyal ambassadors, while others have streamlined production in hopes of gaining market share. Unfortunately, my taste in watches tends towards the brands that haven’t lost touch with their heritage, and consequentially - for the time being - remain out of my reach.

Sourcing a Dali

November 2021, confined indoors by Vienna’s notorious autumn windchill, I browsed local and international online ads for avant-garde vintage watches, looking to find anything that bears a semblance to Cartier’s Crash.

The Crash is a remarkable watch. Cartier’s timeless elegant aesthetic elbowed at the hip, but remaining composed. The asymmetry; from the deformed kinked case and the offset hands, to the distinctly-Cartier roman numerals, now exploded - there is a lot to take in.

If you were to compare the shape of the Crash to the shape of the clocks in Salvador Dali’s “The Pertinence of Memory”, you wouldn’t be the first. However, at least officially, there is no evidence of Cartier taking design cues from the Spanish artist. The design was inspired by a customer of Cartier, who brought the watch after it was involved in a car accident.

Image courtesy of Italian Watch Spotter (www.italianwatchspotter.com)

Nevertheless, whether or not the Crash was inspired by Dali or not, in looking for a like-homage, you may come across many Dali-inspired watches. That is exactly what happened to me, when I stumbled upon an eBay parts auction for a strange, avant-garde, watch case.

“Throw in a movement, dial, and a strap,” I thought, “and it will be all good.”

I’ve taken watch backs off in the past, I’ve seen the way quartz movement are suspended by a plastic ring. I wanted to retrofit a mechanical movement - for a lot of reasons, including; the potential challenge, convenience of not having to change the battery, and because I value the research and craftsmanship of mechanical movements. However, should I fail, I knew that I would - at the very least - be able to source a fitting quartz movement.

In early December, I took delivery of the watch case, complete with glass, case back, and the original watch crown and stem. You’ll notice in later photos that the case back is curved, just like on the Crash.

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The watch case, complete with glass, on a stack of post-it notes.
The watch case, complete with glass, on a stack of post-it notes.

Early Prototyping and Design

As soon as the watch arrived, I realized that I was in trouble. Quartz movements are not just used to cut costs, they are also used in cases with very little space. It’s also worth noting that small mechanical movements are typically manual-wound, difficult to service, and don’t keep time as well as their larger counterparts.

To place a movement within this case I need to design and produce a movement holder. Whenever a movement is re-cased or retrofitted, it likely needs additional support to prevent it from moving around while being worn. This is commonplace with quartz movements, but less so in mechanical movements.

Courtesy of ExplainThatStuff.com
Courtesy of ExplainThatStuff.com

I needed to source a movement. I started by measuring the inside cavity of the case, converting the width of the case in millimeters to lignes. Then I found Ranfft.de, which contains a directory of watch movements, that can be filtered across many different parameters, including movement width.

I was pleasantly surprised when I found that there were quite a number of options to choose from. It turns out that small wristwatch movements were readily available because of the popularity of finger watch rings during the 1970s. I settled on a AS 1977-2, manufactured by Adolph Schild, or AS. The reason I chose this movement is because it was an Ebauche movement, meaning it was manufactured to be put in watches by other brands. It was so immensely popular that it was produced by multiple factories by DuRoWe, and can be readily found in Europe. Interestingly enough, DuRoWe (Deutsche Uhren-Roh-Werke) is still around, while AS would not survive the quartz crisis. Ultimately, this decision brought me peace of mind in knowing that I could always source a replacement movement.

Movement holder and dial combination. Prototype no. 16.
Movement holder and dial combination. Prototype no. 16.
3D printed prototypes.
3D printed prototypes.

After receiving the movement, I began designing the plastic movement holder. I modeled the design in SketchUp, and 3D printed the holder in PLA on my Creality Ender 3. The idea was simple: use one side of the movement holder to hold the dial of the watch, while the movement rests on the paws of the holder, and is supported on two sides by the watch hands, and by the crown.

In order to mount the movement inside of the watch case, I would inevitably need to disconnect the crown and stem of the watch from the movement, and insert it back in after placing the dial

Battling Tolerances

Below is a cross-section illustration (imagine the watch lying face down on a table, and then cut in half) of the watch assembly.

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The hands of the watch rest on a pinion that extends from deep inside the watch movement through the movement holder and the dial. It’s also important to note that the movement is wider than the narrowest part of the watch case.

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Effectively, the square cavity that houses the movement narrows to the size of the outside case, which means that the watch movement cannot be brought closer to the crystal in any way.

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This presents a very big problem because the movement and entrance bore for the crown and stem have to line up, otherwise, the stem cannot be inserted into the movement.

It’s also worth noting that removing and setting the watch stem is a very delicate procedure that requires a lot of precision.

To remove the screw holding down the stem you need a flathead screwdriver approximately 0.2mm thin. If you wear glasses, the screw in holding your glasses together requires a 1mm precision. It’s also very important to keep track of how many rotations you make to unscrew the stem so that you are able to make just as many - not more - when you set the stem.

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Throughout testing and assembly, I managed to incapacitate my movement and learned a valuable lesson on just how calculated my actions have to be. Fortunately, I easily sourced a lot of vintage movements from eBay, containing four AS 1977 INT movements made for Gruen. By the end of building this watch, I broke one cannon pinion and two balance wheels of movements that I am going to try to get serviced soon and use in future projects.

Eliminating the dial of the watch enabled me to get 0.3mm closer to the fitment that I needed. I also changed the nozzle on my printer, and its settings, to print in a higher resolution with a smaller layer height.

This was one of the most arduous parts of the project, for a number of easily explainable mistakes:

1) 3D printing at home is an imperfect science. There was a little bit of luck involved in dialing in the settings just right. Bed leveling, heat, an open window, humidity, and filament quality - are just some of the variables that determine the quality of your print.

2) I used tools that were not as precise as I needed them to be. My digital caliper, for instance, has a margin of error of +/- 0.2mm, whereas I was working with distances of 0.1mm.

3) I didn’t have a plan.

The latter is not as excusable. I experienced a lot of hesitation at the start of the project. I have a great deal of respect for watchmaking, and the prospect of assembling a watch was so foreign to me that I didn’t even consider planning the project out. I would solve one problem, and cause another. Every single part of building this watch was completely experimental, and for the most part - improvised.

Conversely, this lead to me discovering certain best practices organically, and those “eureka” moments were exciting! Whether it was making sure that my workspace was prepped before beginning a new step in the project, or counting the rotations that I make to screws - it was beyond interesting to discover the intricacies of engineering, watchmaking, and prototyping all on my own. By the end of the project I had created my own prototyping processes, with written steps, and each tool had its own designated spot on my desk.

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There were over 50 prototypes of the case holder, in combination with the dial. While the design of the movement holder didn’t change much from the original, I was also trying to determine what was the best way to create a dial, and how it would be connected within the assembly, which necessitate constantly reiterating over the holder as well.

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On the right, you can see the final result. The object on the bottom is the movement holder, and the object on top is the dial “caddy”. Despite the fact that there were more than 50 prototypes of the pair, this is prototype number 40.

Under this design, the movement sits flat on the inside bevel of the watch case - and the caddy protrudes into the cavity between the crystal.

Making Watch Dials At Home

Assuming that creating the watch dial would be easy was a grave mistake. What fuelled my initial confidence was my experience working with nitrocellulose lacquer, which I was able to apply on my guitar, and eventually buff down to a smooth polish. However, those processes aren’t simple to replicate in scale orders of magnitude smaller.

Water Colour Dials

Originally, I wanted to use acrylic paint, and simply paint the dial with a brush. However, I had actually attempted something similar 4-5 years ago with a quartz watch and found that the layers of paint made it impossible to fit the hands back on. I was about to start facing the same problems.

Consulting a local artist, I was suggested to use watercolors instead. The last time I painted anything with watercolors must have been in primary school, so I had her supply me with blots in different colors and patterns.

Eventually, I was making so many dial prototypes, that I purchased my own watercolors, and ramped up production.

The artist’s watercolour blots.
The artist’s watercolour blots.
My watercolour blots.
My watercolour blots.

In parallel, I experimented with different aerosol sprays - but never quite made it to airbrushing, which remains something that I want to try.

I had also decided that I wanted the dial of my watch to be turquoise, reminiscent of Tiffany Blue, but not quite. At the time of writing, blue and turquoise dials are extremely popular, especially following Patek Phillipe’s release of the 5711 with a Tiffany dial.

Working with watercolors also presents its own unique challenges. There is a fine balance between paper that is too thick to accommodate watch hands, and paper so thin that it warps when the color dries. The paper also needs to be varnished because any water-based adhesive will reactivate the paints even after the paper has dried, which means that even certain lacquers cannot be used.

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Aerosol Applications

To build a watch requires patience. At all times you are constantly waiting for either a new 3D printed part, adhesive to dry, paint to settle, or varnish to cure. I tried to maximize the use of my time because I wasn’t certain whether certain methods that I was experimenting with would be sustainable, and used in the final version of the watch.

So, while waiting for my watercolor paper to dry, I proceeded to experiment with aerosol acrylic spray paint.

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Again, the lack of predictable production quality forced me to create multiple copies of the same part, in the hopes that one would come out with no blemishes. While I was able to get close to the desired effect, in the end - I was not content with the color, and did not want to make the leap to airbrushing.

Numerals and Markers

The process of applying numbers, words, and designs to watch dials warrants a blog post of its own. The dial work done by luxury watch brands is remarkable, and not something that is possible to reproduce with traditional DIY methods at home. This article by Quill and Pad helped me understand just how brands like Audemars Piguet are able to print such intricate designs on textured watch faces. Ultimately, if I intend to produce more watches with my own dials, I will need to build my own pad printing machine.

Image courtesy of quillandpad.com
Image courtesy of quillandpad.com

Under the constraints of DIY, I decided to apply my dial numerals using a waterslide decal. I was already familiar with the method of applying guitar headstock decals and thought this would be a suitable cost-effective solution.

I used Photopea, a Photoshop clone, to create the exploding numerals, and experimented with different designs.

Version 1
Version 1
Version 2, making more space for the hands.
Version 2, making more space for the hands.
Version 3, trying something different.
Version 3, trying something different.
Version 4
Version 4
Final version
Final version

I used TransOurDream transfer paper, which I purchased from Amazon, in combination with my HP Deskjet 2700 inkjet home printer. I experienced a lot of issues with getting my budget printer to print consistently at a high resolution. The finer the detail of the design, the blurrier the outcome. I tried to work with local photo printing stores, but they weren’t willing to help. In the end, I was able to create a design that I was happy with, and that I could effectively produce at home. Notice how much bolder the numerals are on the final design when compared to the first version.

Steps to Assembly

At some point, I was ready to assemble my watch. Although I could have researched and experimented for months more, I wanted to start enjoying my watch and test out its wearability and dependability. Further improvements would require even more time and resources, and I wanted to be able to step away from the project and reflect on what I should focus on next.

I will break down all the steps necessary for producing and assembling the watch, as it stands in its current capacity.

The images I used are just to showcase what part of the assembly process I was working on. They do not correspond with the final iteration of any part or process.

Step 1: 3D print the movement holder, drop-in dial, and inner bezel. Use a 0.2mm nozzle, at 0.1mm layer height, with ironing enabled. A glass bed is a must.

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Step 2: Paint dial patterns with watercolors. I used Hahnemühle Sketch, 100% cotton, 140g/m2 drawing paper.

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Step 3: Print the waterslide decals on transfer paper.

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Step 4: I sprayed a thick coat of varnish over the watercolors and the decals, and wait a day until they are properly cured.

Without a healthy coat of varnish, parts of the ink simply detach from the film.
Without a healthy coat of varnish, parts of the ink simply detach from the film.

Step 5: I took the drop-in dial, positioned it on the back side of the watercolour paper, and glued it in place with a dab of super glue. Once it dried, I cut the dial with paper out and did a fitment test.

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Step 6: Next, I began the process of applying the waterslide decal. I first apply a thin layer of hairspray onto the dial, then dip the decal into water for 20 seconds before sliding the film onto the dial, then letting it dry.

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Step 7: I prepare the inner bezel for application, which involves deburring and smoothing the thin 3D printed part of the dial, before finishing it with acrylic markers. Using a dab of superglue, I would attach it to the dial.

An early prototype of the inner bezel, which was too complex to be printed predictably.
An early prototype of the inner bezel, which was too complex to be printed predictably.

Step 8: After the whole dial assembly has dried, I then trim any excess edges, and conform the dial to the shape of the recess in the case.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of this step. However, it was a lengthy and delicate process that used a dremmel, and an Exacto knife (so here’s a photo of a knife?).

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Step 9: It’s time to start assembling the watch. First, we remove the watch crown and stem from the movement. To do this, I unscrew the tiniest screw on the back of the movement, while making sure to count the number of rotations that my screwdriver makes.

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Step 10: I then place the movement into the plastic holder, put the dial into place, and slide the hands of the watch onto the cannon pinion.

On the right, you can see an early fitment test that I did, which corresponds to this step. The watch hands are barely visible because the numerals make the dial very busy.

A very busy dial where the hands are barely visible.
A very busy dial where the hands are barely visible.

Step 11: Now, we slide the watch assembly into the case, and connect the winding stem to the movement, screwing it into place. The movement is effectively held in place by the plastic holder, the watch hands, and the winding stem.

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Step 12: Now the case back gets put on, the straps attached, and the watch is done.

A Short History of This Watch

While this post is less so much about the watch as it is about the process behind restoring it, it’s important to talk about the origin of these watches. Most of these details came to my attention only after I had completed working on my watch.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Salvador Dali’s health was failing. He suffered from Parkinson-like symptoms and faced substance abuse issues.

1983, Dali sets up the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation, named after his wife and designed to promote the painter’s artistic and cultural legacy, as well as to combat counterfeiting. The foundation was also intended to be the ultimate benefactor to his own estate following his death.

In 1984, Dali enlisted the aid of a colleague, Robert Descharnes, who chaired Demart, the company responsible for redistributing Dali’s commercial merchandise, such as art prints. Descharnes was given total control over Dali’s intellectual property until the year 2004.

On January 23, 1989, Salvador Dali died, which triggered a series of processes as the Foundation begins to consolidate Dali’s estate.

In that same year, Philippe Muller, director of Exaequo Geneve, a Swiss manufacturer of novelty watches, is inspired by Salvador Dali’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”. Philippe becomes set on producing a melting - or “soft” - watch.

Gaining the support and licensing needed from Robert Descharnes, in 1990, Exaequo began to produce the Softwatch, which is the original trade name for this watch, and the collection that it was a part of.

In 1991, Philippe applies for a patent for the asymmetric, rounded, watch case.

In 1994, Philippe applies for another patent.

No other watch case patents were filed by Philippe Muller or Exaquo.

US Patent:
US Patent: USD336859S
US Patent:
US Patent: USD362629S

Throughout the 1990s, Descharnes remained in a constant feud with the Dali Foundation, who claimed that Descharnes and Demart were using Dali’s intellectual property in poor taste. The Foundation would come to eventually seize all intellectual property from Demart, absorbing the company in the process, and giving Mr. Descharnes the boot.

Unfortunately, the transition period from 1995 to 2004 is not well documented. Licensing was revoked from certain products, such as underwear and deodorant, while other products remained licensed.

The back of my watch case is inscribed with the “Demart D Salvador Dali” logo, a trademark now owned by the Foundation, and the serial number 200156. After extensive research across classifieds and photos of these watches, I couldn’t find any patterns that would help date the watch. However, I have been able to source another watch case, which might shed some light on the history of this model. Exaequo dissolved in 2004, and cannot be consulted.

Today, this version of the Softwatch is the least readily available.

The history of these wristwatches is largely undocumented, but with Crash-seekers frequently stumbling upon the Softwatch, both prices and interest continue to rise. You can check out some more information on the Softwatch, and the Demart and The Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation lawsuits across these sources:

“The battle over copyright: Even in death, Dalí spreads chaos”, The Art Newspaper; https://www.theartnewspaper.com/1999/12/01/the-battle-over-copyright-even-in-death-dali-spreads-chaos;

“Dalí estate resolves bitter dispute with Demart”, The Art Newspaper; https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2004/10/01/dali-estate-resolves-bitter-dispute-with-demart

Presenting: The Dali Restomod:

After months of work, the watch was done, all that was missing was a bit of polish.

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When I embarked on this project, I didn’t expect that I would get to touch so many parts of the watchmaking process. While I still have a difficult time identifying as a watchmaker, having not done much to the movement of the watch, I would definitely call myself an amateur watch builder instead.

Here are some photos of the watch:

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Once I finished the project, I decided to gather all of my prototypes for a small impromptu photo shoot.

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Valuation

If you will humor me, I’ll entertain you with a valuation. Dali’s Softwatches traded for approximately $200 to $600 last November, when I first bought my case.

Now, a full set fetched up to $3000, and the search traffic for Dali watches has also roughly doubled. However, despite seeing many new classified ads for the watches, I can’t find any evidence of actual transactions.

Moreover, I can’t find my watch model for sale anywhere. Even so, I have already received multiple offers to sell this watch for close to the price of a full set. I also have sourced a gold case of the same shape as my watch, which I will be working on over the next two months and then selling.