Big in Japan
After the war, the Roman/Arabic dial seemed to fade out of sight, most likely on its way to oblivion, but then something strange happened in the 1980s to change all that. Japan’s central bank pumped trillions of yen into the economy and the retail banks then eased their lending criteria so that they could loan that money out. This easy money found its way into property speculation, which, in turn, drove up the notional value of all land and properties in Japan. At the height of the speculation in 1988, the land beneath Tokyo’s Imperial Palace was worth more than the land in California.
Because of the easy availability of money and the rising value of their properties, the Japanese began to feel rich and their corporations splurged on everything from art (the two most expensive Van Goghs went to Japanese buyers at this time) to real estate worldwide (they bought Pebble Beach Golf Course in California and Rockefeller Center in NYC) and movie studios (Sony bought Columbia Pictures). Japanese citizens experienced a trickle-down effect as they saw the value of their homes rise massively, sometimes by as much as 25 percent in a year. So they too embarked on a spending spree that just happened to coincide with the birth of the vintage-watch market. The new Japanese buyers favoured smaller watches — particularly the Rolex Perpetual of the 1930s and 1940s, otherwise known as the “Bubbleback”.
For reasons I still don’t understand, the Roman/Arabic dial became the dial of choice for the Japanese retail buyers, and so, Japanese dealers sought them out, but the supply was small and soon dried up. Most Japanese dealers who traveled to buy watches went to the west coast of America, particularly to Los Angeles. There were several dealers of vintage watches in LA and when the demand for these dials began to overtake the supply, one of them turned to a local dial-refinishing company, Kirk Rich Dial Corp., and had it overprint existing Rolex dials with the desired design. At this point, the Japanese buyers were unable to tell the difference between original and reprinted dials, so refinished pieces flooded the market and, because of their origin, they became known as “California” dials.
As the 1980s slid into the 1990s, the Japanese economic bubble collapsed, and with it, the market for Rolex Bubblebacks, and it was assumed that the Roman/Arabic dial had finally gone for good. In reality, it had only gone for about 15 years, because in the early part of the new century, two firms reintroduced the style. The first was the sister brand of Rolex, Tudor, who used the dial on various-sized watches: ref. 76200 as a 36mm Day-Date, and ref. 74000 in 34mm with just a date window at three o’clock. Not to be left out, the following year, Panerai — now part of the Richemont Group and heavily mining its heritage — brought out the PAM 249, an almost-exact replica of the Kampfschwimmer watch. While the Tudor watch has long since vanished from its catalog, Panerai keeps reissuing versions, which it (along with Tudor) calls the “California Dial”.
Even though the life of the dial on Rolex watches was comparatively brief — less than a decade — I would like to suggest it still lives on. Look at the dial on any Rolex Submariner or Sea-Dweller and you cannot but notice the influences of the “Error Proof” dial and hands of the early 1940s. The triangle at 12 o’clock is still there, as are the luminous bars for the remaining quarter hours, and 75 years after it was first introduced, the “Mercedes” hour hand is still going (and glowing) strong. All thanks to patent no. 221,643.