History of Subdials

The history of subdials is intertwined with the evolution of watchmaking itself. As horologists strived to increase the accuracy and functionality of timepieces, the concept of subdials emerged. The earliest pocket watches featuring subdials were crafted in the 17th century, primarily to display the seconds. This was a significant advancement in horology, as it allowed for more precise timekeeping.

Over the centuries, as watchmaking techniques became more sophisticated, the functions of subdials expanded. Today, they are integral to many complications in mechanical watches, showcasing the remarkable advancements in horological engineering.

The Role of Subdials in Chronographs

One of the most common uses of subdials is in chronograph watches. A chronograph, which is essentially a stopwatch combined with a display watch, uses subdials to measure elapsed time. Typically, a chronograph has two or three subdials for measuring hours, minutes, and sometimes, seconds.

The first chronograph was invented in 1816 by Louis Moinet, but it was Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec who was credited with creating the first commercially available chronograph in 1821. The subdials in these early chronographs were used for timing horse races and were a revolutionary addition to the world of horology.

Subdials in Moon Phase Watches

Another intriguing use of subdials is in moon phase watches. These timepieces display the current phase of the moon as seen from Earth. The moon phase is displayed on a subdial that completes a rotation every 29.5 days, which is the lunar month.

Moon phase watches date back to the 16th century and were initially used by sailors for navigation. Today, they are prized for their romantic representation of the lunar cycle and are a testament to the watchmaker’s ability to combine technical precision with artistic creativity.

Types of Subdials

Subdials come in various types, each serving a unique function. The type of subdial used in a watch depends on the complications it features. Some of the most common types of subdials include the small seconds subdial, the chronograph subdials, and the dual time or GMT subdial.

Each type of subdial brings its own charm and utility to a timepiece. They add depth to the watch face, creating a multi-dimensional look that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Small Seconds Subdial

The small seconds subdial is perhaps the most common type of subdial. As the name suggests, it displays the seconds, allowing the main seconds hand to be removed or used for other functions. This subdial is often found at the 6 o’clock position but can be placed anywhere on the watch face.

The small seconds subdial is a classic feature in many dress watches. It offers a clean, uncluttered look and allows the wearer to easily read the seconds without distracting from the main time display.

Chronograph Subdials

Chronograph subdials are used to measure elapsed time. A typical chronograph watch has two or three subdials, usually at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions. These subdials can measure seconds, minutes, and hours, depending on the complexity of the chronograph mechanism.

Chronograph subdials are a defining feature of sport and aviation watches. They allow for precise timing of events, making them a practical tool for pilots, athletes, and anyone who needs to measure time accurately.

Dual Time or GMT Subdial

The dual time or GMT subdial allows the wearer to keep track of time in two different time zones. This is especially useful for frequent travellers or business people who need to keep track of time in another part of the world.

The GMT subdial usually displays the time in 24-hour format to distinguish between day and night in the second time zone. This feature is a testament to the ingenuity of watchmakers in creating timepieces that cater to the evolving needs of their wearers.

Design and Aesthetics of Subdials

Subdials play a significant role in the design and aesthetics of a watch. They add depth and complexity to the watch face, creating a visual interest that enhances the overall appeal of the timepiece. The placement, size, and design of the subdials can greatly influence the look and feel of a watch.

Watchmakers often use subdials as a canvas to showcase their creativity and craftsmanship. From the classic simplicity of a small seconds subdial to the intricate design of a moon phase display, subdials can be a visual feast for the eyes.

Placement of Subdials

The placement of subdials on a watch face is a critical aspect of watch design. The most common positions for subdials are at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions. However, some watches feature subdials at the 12 o’clock position or even in a diagonal arrangement for a unique look.

The placement of subdials can affect the balance and symmetry of the watch face. Watchmakers carefully consider the placement of subdials to create a harmonious and aesthetically pleasing design.

Size and Shape of Subdials

The size and shape of subdials can also greatly influence the design of a watch. Subdials can be the same size or different sizes, depending on the design of the watch. They can also be circular, square, or even triangular in shape.

The size and shape of the subdials should complement the overall design of the watch. They should be large enough to be easily readable, but not so large as to overpower the main dial.

Design Elements of Subdials

Subdials can feature various design elements, such as different colors, textures, or decorative patterns. Some luxury watches feature subdials made of precious materials, such as mother-of-pearl or gold, for an added touch of elegance.

The design elements used in subdials can enhance the visual appeal of the watch and reflect the personality and style of the wearer. They are a testament to the watchmaker’s attention to detail and commitment to creating a unique and beautiful timepiece.


Subdials are a fascinating aspect of luxury mechanical watches, offering a blend of functionality and aesthetics. They showcase the remarkable craftsmanship and technical prowess of watchmakers, adding depth and complexity to the timepiece. Whether it’s a simple small seconds subdial or a complex chronograph function, subdials are a testament to the artistry and innovation inherent in the world of luxury watchmaking.

Understanding the purpose and types of subdials not only enhances one’s appreciation of these exquisite timepieces but also allows for a more informed decision when choosing a luxury mechanical watch. So, the next time you admire a luxury watch, take a moment to appreciate the intricate world of subdials and the remarkable craftsmanship they represent.


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