Fading from black to brown: For many watch enthusiasts, owning a luxury watch with a “tropical dial” is the crowning jewel of any collection. Most of you have probably heard the term being used in watch circles, often in associated with certain Rolex models. However, other popular manufacturers, including Omega, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet, likewise fell “victim” to these poorly lacquered dials supplied between the 1950s and 70s. So, what exactly is a tropical dial, and what makes them so special?
From Faulty to Desirable
Tropical dials are essentially dials that had inadequate UV protection. Exposure to light faded the color over many years, but it was never an intended or desired effect. Since the changes were so gradual, the flaw was only discovered later down the line. You will find original tropical dials exclusively on vintage timepieces dating from a particular era that have been or still are regularly exposed to intense UV radiation.
Similar to the term “spider dial,” i.e., a dial that has cracked with age, the term tropical dial is more or less a romanticized way of describing a flawed watch, to make it more desirable. The name is thought to have been coined by clever watch dealers who were looking to give customers a suitable explanation for the unusual dial tone. In fact, up until very recently, watches with a tropical dial weren’t sought-after at all. Many owners of watches from this era even had their dials replaced with a fresh black one during routine servicing.
Not All Tropical Dials Are Created Equal
Collectors are particularly interested in tropical dials because each one changes in its own way. The aging process is very individual, making each watch with a tropical dial completely unique. The way in which the dial has faded makes a big difference to its desirability for collectors, especially for models from major manufacturers like Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. The altered dial is the unique selling point of these watches, but not every discoloration is considered desirable. Irregular, mottled dials that look covered in mildew or just plain unattractive are obviously less appealing than a dial that has aged more evenly. The most popular variations are those that have faded gradually from black to light brown in a pattern not dissimilar to a sunburst finish.
The more “refined” the flaw, the more coveted and expensive the timepiece. The tropical dial is like the expensive moldy cheese of the Swiss watch industry, except here the effect was unintentional. Tropical dials have become such a thing, in fact, that some manufacturers have tried to imitate them on newer watches. It must be said, however, that most of these attempts have led to questionable results that are clearly recognizable as imitations. A true tropical patina can only develop over a prolonged period of time.
What You Need to Know About Buying a Luxury Watch With a Tropical Dial
If you’re looking for a luxury watch with a tropical dial, you should definitely keep a few things in mind. Finding a truly authentic watch with a well-aged dial is a bit like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
It’s important that the watch you buy has a verifiable history, i.e., traceable service history. The more facts you can gather about the watch, the better. One aspect that should definitely be clarified before making any purchase is whether the dial is original to the timepiece or if it’s already been replaced. Any luxury watch with a replacement tropical dial of unknown origin is not authentic and won’t justify an exorbitant asking price.
Examples and Pricing Info
Expect to see prices starting at just under the $50,000 mark for a Rolex Submariner “Red” ref. 1680 in good condition. A Sea-Dweller “Double Red” ref. 1665 or GMT-Master ref. 1675 are likely to be much more expensive, depending on the production year and dial inscription; it’s not uncommon to see prices between $54,000 and 110,000. A Daytona with a tropical dial is more still, running between $150,000 and 275,000.
Prices for an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 14790ST with a tropical dial start around $43,000, while the Royal Oak Jumbo ref. 5402 with the same dial costs closer to $110,000.
If you aren’t worried about getting a watch from the brand with the crown or AP, you’ll be able to spend significantly less. One example is the Omega Speedmaster. Prices for a tropical Speedy are $27,000 and up, depending on the exact model and production year. At the upper end of the range, you’ll find examples costing closer to $44,000 – not exactly cheap, but still less than a Rolex.
You don’t have to go bankrupt to get your hands on a tropical dial. Heuer, Tissot, Longines, Eberhard, Enicar, and many more watchmakers can also take credit for poorly-aged dials. Much less fuss is made about these watches, but you can find examples in good condition starting around $2,000.
In Summary: Not All Tropical Dials Are Created Equal
Watches with a tropical dial are particularly interesting for collectors who are seeking that unmistakable one-of-a-kind timepiece. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of taste, and not every worn dial is attractive or desirable to every watch fan. How the dial has aged is more important than the fact that it has aged at all. Again, evenly worn dials in black and brown tones are the most popular. Purchasing an authentic example with an original dial and traceable history is no easy task, so remember to ask plenty of questions about the watch’s origins before you buy. If you like the idea of owning one of these unique timepieces, but don’t have a bottomless budget, you can find attractive and more affordable examples from lesser-known and smaller manufacturers.