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The American Spirit: Joshua Shapiro

Engine turning or guilloche is defined as a style of hand or machine finishing with intersecting wavy or straight lines. Most of the time a combination of the two in a variety of different patterns are used on each workpiece. This finishing is usually an indication of a high-grade and classically designed timepiece. As George Daniels described it in his 1981 book, Watchmaking, “The complication of the work and the skills required confined the process to the most expensive hand-made watches.” This level of finishing can be found on several places inside and out on a fine timepiece, but is most common on the movement bridges, rotor, case components, and, of course, dials.

Abraham-Louis Breguet was the first noted watchmaker to incorporate guilloche on his dials. He picked up the idea to use the finish for his watches from a trip to London where he found many pieces of wooden furniture that were engraved with a type of guilloche engraving. A.L. Breguet liked the design not only for its pleasant appearance but also for its functional benefits, including greater legibility of the hands. With a dial made up of patterns, texture, and depth, more refined hands could be used. This eventually led to the use of simple, blued-steel hands with a circular crescent moon shape and attached triangular tip, referred to today simply as “Breguet hands.”

Today, there are only a handful of watchmakers or brands that incorporate traditional guilloche on their watch dials. Of course, Montres Breguet SA, the modern incarnation of Breguet et Fils, the company A.L. Breguet started with his son Louis, uses a combination of traditional and modern methods to achieve the classic look. However, not many individuals make dials almost exactly like A.L. Breguet did in the 18th century. Among those who do are Roger Smith, the famous watchmaker from Isle of Man who apprenticed with George Daniels, and Joshua Shapiro, a California-based artisan.

Shapiro grew up around a machine shop; his father and grandfather were machinists and owned a sandblasting business. As much as he loved the machines and watching things being manufactured, he started on his own path, studying history at UCLA. With a history degree in hand, Shapiro decided to go into teaching shortly after graduation. Before college, he was an accomplished pole vaulter, and his first job took him back to his high school to be a track and field coach. Arcadia High School had over 4,000 students at the time, with over 400 students enrolled in the track and field program. This, and working on his master’s degree, kept Shapiro very busy for the six years he was there. Shapiro moved on to teaching history at two different private schools and eventually moved to a more administrative role. He currently is Vice Principal of Secular Studies at Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch, a private Orthodox Jewish high school located in Los Angeles, California.

In 2011, around the time that Shapiro got married, he became fascinated with watches. This brought back the joy he had experienced being around his family’s machine shop as a kid. He dove headfirst into the world of watches, studying Watchmaking by George Daniels, and completing the distancelearning course offered by the British Horological Institute. He experimented with skeletonizing some existing watches to become familiar working with small tools in tight tolerances. During this time, it quickly became apparent that making an entire watch would be extremely difficult and require more time than he could spend on it. He was drawn to the 13th and final chapter, Engine-Turned Cases and Dials, of George Daniels’s book.

The last four years Shapiro has spent an enormous amount of time and money amassing the tools necessary to create engine-turned dials at a professional level. He began to model his workshop after watching online videos by Roger Smith, where he shows the machines and techniques used in the manufacture of his dials. He even resorted to selling some classic cars he had collected to pay for the new tools. He currently has in his machine shop two rose engine lathes, a Schaublin 102, an 8mm Levin, a Hauser 3BA jig borer, a Dyna CNC mill, a Sherline lathe and mill, and a fiber laser that he uses to engrave numerals and cut out hands. When Shapiro sent an email to Roger Smith in 2013 asking what steel he uses to make his hands, he later received a hand-written letter with a stack of 1075 spring steel, the same steel Smith uses. They have been corresponding, and Shapiro plans to visit Smith’s workshop in the near future.

The first dials Shapiro completed were bespoke projects for some private clients, one being a watch with a Hamilton 921 movement. He got involved with the local watchmaking and collector community for a few years, getting advice from notable independent advocate Tim Jackson along the way. The projects he was commissioned to work on were inevitable learning opportunities. He met David Walter (see “American Spirit” in HT February 2017) about a year and a half ago and struck an agreement to produce the dials for his Presidio line of watches. So far, he has made five completed dials for Walter, and it took manufacturing 11 dials to get enough that would meet his personally imposed, strict standard of quality. With this success, Shapiro has recently been contacted by many independent watchmakers to produce some special edition dials.

The dials he prefers to make are “single layer,” which means all the different finishes are made on one piece of metal, so when a mistake is made on one finish, the entire dial is scrapped. This method is riskier than making “multi-layer” dials, which allows you to manufacture separate layers and attach them in the finishing process, making each section reproducible on its own if a mistake is made. In Shapiro’s own words, “A single level engine turning dial specifically with the basket weave is so difficult because the cuts have to start and stop within a border. It is literally like putting a square into a circle at the microscopic level. The first cut of the basket weave I must put a .488mm-sided square into a .5mm border. If I mess that up, it goes in the chapter ring and it’s time to start over. Conversely, a multi-level dial is difficult because the different levels must be perfectly machined to fit into their recesses and soldered without destroying the engine-turned parts. They both take about the same amount of time, but both are extremely difficult.”

The most recent projects Shapiro has taken on are his most challenging to date and will inevitably be his most rewarding. A private client has asked him to produce a dial for a Breguet quarter-repeater pocket watch from 1808, a watch that may have been handled by A.L. Breguet himself. Some collectors might see this as heresy, but Shapiro sees it as keeping it within the spirit of the watch: A.L. Breguet would often swap out dials for engine-turned ones at a client’s request.

Shapiro has also been working on his own line of limited watches to be available sometime this year. They will consist of 18kt-gold cases and movements that are not as common as some of the current mass-manufactured movements being used. The dials will be the ultimate focus. However, Shapiro aims for the quality to be as good as what Roger Smith is producing. The dials will be single-level, utilizing a very fine basket-weave pattern as well as some other patterns that have never been done before. Shapiro estimates that 150 hours will be spent on the manufacturing process for each dial.

With a full-time education administrator career, and part-time machinist passion , Shapiro still finds time for his wife, Ana, his four-year-old daughter, Rivka Leah, and his 18-month-old son, Meir. He is very active on Instagram, @engineturned, and plans to produce a series of YouTube videos later this year that will reveal the process of his dial production.