Making A Solid Case: Why Display Case Backs Are Overrated

Collector’s Guides • 07 Sep 2016

Making A Solid Case: Why Display Case Backs Are Overrated

by Low Ka Wei

A few years ago, an enfant terrible of watchmaking by the name of Beat Haldimann created a beautiful solid platinum timepiece that encloses a hand-crafted calibre boasting a triple-barrel, flying tourbillon. It has all the credentials of a high-end watch, including a breathtaking six-figure price tag, except for that one crucial thing: it does not tell the time. Its sapphire crystal dial is tinted to an opaque shade of obsidian to deliberately obscure the otherwise functional dial and hands.

I was reminded of this amusing piece of horological history when I was asked about the rapid disappearance of solid case backs for watches. Contrasted with the Haldimann H9 Reduction – as that creation is called – timepieces these days seem to bare all, with watchmakers flaunting a penchant for display case backs.

If I had to put a timeline to this, it probably began with the rise of the in-house calibre, thanks to luxury manufactures that wish to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace as well as to reduce their reliance on external movement makers such as ETA. The display case back would then simultaneously allow connoisseurs to verify the bona fides of such a movement, as well as to marvel at the intricacy of its inner workings or its delicate finishing.

While this is an important feature for super high-end grand complications, the novelty of the display case back rather quickly wears off for the mid-range pieces with standard movements. Moreover, this trend poses a problem for those who wish to personalise their watches, for products with solid case backs suitable for engraving are proving harder to find every Baselworld or SIHH.

Brands that stick with the traditional case back include Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre, the latter’s famous Reverso range being the prime candidate for case back engravings that mark a significant anniversary or a personal milestone.

Rolex Oyster case

Rolex Oyster case


Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin 1931 London Edition

Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin 1931 London Edition


Another intriguing option is the Patek Philippe Calatrava with an officer-style case. This comes with a hinged dust cover that protects its sapphire crystal case back. While it does add a bit of thickness to the watch, the hinge itself is a work of art, the result of a two-year R&D process that renders it invisible when closed.

Patek Philippe Calatrava 5227

Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5227.


But if you are considering the Haldimann H9 Reduction, I am sorry to say that the watch, ironically, features a crystal case back. It shows off the posterior of a mostly featureless baseplate.


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