Vintage watch dial designs and their aging

11 January, 2024

Dial designs from the past

Vintag Silvana watch

Ilja Rijs
Founder and collector

The dial of the watch is often the first thing which catches the eye when looking at vintage watches. This also applies for modern and contemporary watches, but the factor of aging on these modern counterparts, is less evident. ‘Patina’ is a broad used term when it comes to the dials of vintage watches, while there are a lot of factors which could affect the factory original looks of a watch dials. How a dial ages, depends on external conditions, such as weather conditions, and ‘internal’ conditions – Of what material has the dial been made of? The designs of the dials in the past can also be very different from the dial designs we may know today. In this article, we will go through some populair vintage dial designs and different types of aging. 

Types of patina

Tropical patina
Tropical patina is a term referred to by vintage watch collectors worldwide, for watch black dials which have turned to a ‘tropical’ (chocolate brown) colour. The discolouration of the dial depends on the contents of which the dial has been made (the use of different types of paint, lacquer, dial base: metal/ brass etc.) and the condition of which the dial has been exposed to (often for decades long). Prime examples for these ‘Tropical’ dials, are early Rolex submariners, which have been worn in exotic climates for a long time. The consistent exposure of sun and its heat caused the brown discoloration of the dial through the decades.

Pumpkin patina
Pumpkin patina is very similar to tropical patina. The difference unfolds itself within its colour. Tropical patina features more brown coloured tints, while pumpkin patina features more orange/brown colours.  

Creamy patina
White dials tend to discolour over time to an off-white colour. Depending on way the dial has aged, this patina could create a boosts in the value of the watch. Creamy patina can be a very attractive way of aging, but also a con.  


Dial designs

Sector dials (1930-1940’s)
Sector dials designs are especially beloved by collectors who have a soft spot for vintage watches from the 1920-1950’s. Most of these have been destroyed or badly aged due to the absence of a water-resistant watch case. This design was adopted by many great Swiss watch companies, such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Movado. 

But what defines a sector dial? As can be seen on the images below, a sector dial has different interpretations. They all have in common, that the hour and minute markers are ‘boxed in’ by thin and straight painted (or applied) barriers and is abrupted in their designs by inner track. This minute track on the most inside of the dial could be finished with mirrored lacquer of plain matte or gilt paint

Enamel dials
The process of enameling a watch dial is an age-old technique that people have been practicing and perfecting for many years. If you come across an early pocket watch from the 1850s to the 1920s with a white dial, there’s a good chance that the dial is made of enamel or porcelain. Enamel dials, made by baking them in an oven during production, tend to age more gracefully than other types of dials.

These enamel dials, while dense, are delicate, making them more likely to stay in good condition over time. However, their fragility also means they can crack more easily compared to regular metal dials.

Minimalistic dials
In the 1950’s and later (generally speaking), many watch dials became really popular for their simple and clean look. These dials usually only have thin stick-like hands and straight, minimal hour markers. The hands on the dial look like slim sticks, and the numbers or markers for the hours are basic and straightforward.

This minimalist style not only gives the watch a modern and sleek appearance, but it also makes it easy to read the time quickly. The simplicity of these dials became a trend that continued into the following decades, making watches with thin baton hands and minimalistic hour markers a timeless and enduring choice for those who appreciate a clean and understated design.

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