Extremely intricate engine-turned dials handmade in Los Angeles, paired with beautiful German movements and cases
Often seen in nature, fractals are all around us. Think about the repeating patterns of a snowflake, the supercharged plasma of a lightning bolt, or the spiral form of a nautilus sea shell. Fractals are defined by Merriam-Webster as “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size.” For all of the examples of fractals in nature, it is rare to find fractals in mechanical devices, and specifically in watchmaking. But one watchmaker has pioneered a new engine-turning pattern based on a fractal. Meet Joshua Shapiro and his new watch featuring an incredibly complex “infinity weave” engine-turned dial.
Earlier this year, I met Shapiro in person when he was in town to lecture at the Horological Society of New York. The humble watchmaker studied through the British Horological Institute’s distance learning program before deciding to specialize in the art of engine-turning. Shapiro lives and works in Los Angeles, California, near master watch and clock maker David Walter, with whom he apprenticed. Shapiro works as a high school principal in Los Angeles and holds a B.A. from UCLA and an M.A. from CSUN, both in history.
It would not be possible to summarize Shapiro’s in-depth lecture on the history of engine-turning in this article, but a brief refresher is worthwhile. Engine-turning (guilloché in French) is the technique of using a specialized tool to cut geometric patterns into a workpiece. The rose engine machine is the most well-known tool for engine-turning, while the straight line machine and brocading machine are used as well. Engine-turning was invented in the 16th century, with the first engine-turned watches appearing in the late 17th century. Breguet was instrumental in popularizing engine-turned dials which continued to be seen in high grade watches until the advent of the quartz watch in the 1960s. George Daniels was responsible in part for the resurgence of engine-turning, with other contemporary engine-turners such as Derek Pratt, Roger Smith, Kari Voutilainen, Roland Murphy, and Brittany Nicole-Cox following suit.
Shapiro’s watch brand, J.N. Shapiro Watches, specializes in watches with engine-turned dials. The dials are hand-made by Shapiro in Los Angeles and the rest of the watch (including an incredible movement) comes from the German company Uhren Werke Dresden. Shapiro’s dials features four engine-turned patterns. Outside of the chapter ring is a barley corn pattern; a ratchet pattern is found in between the minutes and hours; a basketweave pattern sits inside the chapter ring; and last but not least, the aforementioned “infinity weave” pattern is located inside the seconds sub-dial. The infinity weave pattern is a basketweave inside of a basketweave, and takes a week of work just by itself. The seconds ring and nameplate are 18k gold and the rest of the dial is silver.
The movement architecture is stunning, with individual cocks for each wheel in the gear train. A delicately curved regulator accentuates the three spoke balance, with six eccentric weights. An 18k yellow gold serial number plate, made in Los Angeles, finishes off the movement. The case is available in five metals, and is finely finished with contrasting polished and grained surfaces. The example photographed for this article is 18k yellow gold.
I spoke with Shapiro to learn more about his motivation and ideals:
How did you come to specialize in engine-turning?
As I was studying watchmaking I started to explore the world of engine-turning and fell in love with the complexity of it. Engine-turning is a mix of hand pressure like engraving, plus machining. I knew if I could acquire the machines and master this skill, there would always be a demand. Learning how to make engine-turned watch dials also greatly increased my skill level for machining and making watch parts.
How did the idea for your infinity weave pattern develop?
The basketweave design is one of the most challenging engine-turning patterns. Once I started to get comfortable with that pattern I wanted to do something that would really push my skills to their limit. That is when I started to play around with the idea of doing a basketweave within a basketweave. It was not easy and I had to invent a new cam or pattern bar in order to do it. The greater challenge was actually executing the Infinity weave. Each line of the small boxes has to be done individually, and without slipping into the larger squares. All four boxes can fit into George Washington’s eye on a U.S. quarter. It takes me about a week to do the sub-dial alone. I have had instances where I make a single microscopic mistake and have to throw the sub-dial in the scrap bin.
What other contemporary engine-turners do you admire?
I think Derek Pratt is my favorite engine-turner, followed closely by George Daniels and Roger Smith. Pratt’s engine-turning was just as good as his watchmaking. I also think the ladies that work with and engine-turn for Kari Voutilainen are doing a great job and are very creative.
How did you start working with Uhren Werke Dresden?
A friend of mine knew Marco Lang of Lang & Heyne who owns UWD. He showed me the movement and I was extremely impressed with the finishing, timekeeping and overall quality. I reached out to UWD and placed an order soon after. I was thrilled because I wanted to use a unique, extremely high caliber movement to go with the face of my watches. This enabled me to focus all my attention on making the best multi-part dial possible, as well as the hands and serial plate on that back of the movement.
How do you balance your watchmaking work and your day job?
I have always worked in education. Whether as a track and field coach, history teacher, or now principal. I love it. Luckily, I work at a private school and my principal job is only in the afternoons. This allows me to do watchmaking in the morning and early afternoon, then off to the school in the afternoons and evenings. I disavow all work on the weekends and spend that time with my family. I also recently hired the extremely talented watchmaker Artur Akmaev, another Los Angeles resident. Together we are able to get a lot done and make some beautiful watches. Kelly Hunter, one of America’s premier watchmakers, does the final assembly and regulation.
What do you think is in store for the future of American watchmaking?
I have an undergraduate and Master’s degree in U.S. history and have always enjoyed learning about the amazing watch companies that used to exist in the USA. Waltham, Elgin, and Hamilton did literally everything under one roof, and made movements of incredibly high caliber. However when they disappeared or sailed off to Switzerland, they left a giant vacuum in American watchmaking. Now we are really starting to see a tremendous revival in the United States. There are so many talented watchmakers in this country and it is great to see so many step away from service and repair and start making again. More parts are being made here than in anytime since Hamilton closed its doors in 1969. The dangerous side of things are brands that use a lot 6498 parts and claim to be American made, or brands that assemble in the U.S. only, but put made in America on the watch. The U.S. has much stricter rules than Switzerland, for “Made in …” but we should embrace that and be transparent where we source materials from and what parts we proudly make here.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Now that the Infinity Series is really taking off, that gives me the opportunity to start working on a fully U.S.-made movement. I have already invested in the machinery, now it’s the time to do things correctly. My plan is to continue the Infinity Series, while I do work on the movement for the next few years. Currently I source my cases from Germany, but that will be something I bring in house to pair with the movements. One step at a time. Many independents fail because they try to take on too much from the beginning, or can’t produce enough to cover expenses.