Raised on a healthy diet of counter-culture by reading my mum’s and uncle’s collections of MAD magazine, my mental picture of some scenarios has been permanently biased by the work of satirical illustrators like Don Martin and Jack Davis.

One of my MAD-inspired mental archetypes is the Tropical Island. In a sequence lasting no longer than four or five frames, the solitary tanned, bearded, threadbare inhabitant of a sun-baked mound of sand that only barely juts above the ocean’s surface, languishes under the island’s sole palm tree, while some bitterly ironic non-rescue scenario plays out around him.

That is also my mental picture for a few milliseconds whenever anybody starts talking about “tropical dials” on watches. Not that this castaway’s story ever hinged on him having a watch. I suppose that on a slightly larger tropical island, a watch might be quite useful for navigating while tramping through the jungle (point “12” at the sun, and then half the angle between that line and the hour hand will point north-south). Pretty much the only other use for a watch there would be for bartering with some local jungle folk. But only just the once…

1972 Tropical Sub-dial Daytona 6265

Only the sub-dials of this striking Daytona 6265 from 1972 have gone tropical; the rest of the silver dial has escaped any change.

The Sun-Kissed Effect

It is assumed that, like the skin on our marooned island inhabitant, the dials on “tropical” watches have become somehow affected by the heat and constant UV rays of the sun. It’s interesting that light-colored watch dials will gradually darken, while dark dials will slowly lighten, eventually meeting, one assumes, at some chromatic equilibrium.

Pale dials tend to become a dirty yellow over time, whereas dark dials slowly transform into a delicious rich chestnut, via shades of honey, cognac and burnished bronze. It’s the aesthetic allure of this rich, warm, appealing patina of age that makes watches that have experienced this metamorphosis much more valuable than their static, unchanged counterparts.

Gone Troppo

To begin with, let’s set some ground rules for the discussion: firstly, there is no definite evidence that a dial “going tropical” is definitely the result of exposure to the sun, or heat. We assume that it is, but not all watches that have been thus exposed will go the same way.

I would also argue that in order to qualify as tropical, the watch has got to be a valuable or interesting watch to begin with. That Sekonda tide-indicator watch, which has been knocking about in the bottom of your surfboard bag does not count as tropical, no matter how discolored the dial is after all those summers in Biarritz.

What counts as ‘vintage’?

I also contend that true tropical dials only exist in vintage watches. In watches, “vintage” implies the stature of age, without there being a definite cut-off date. A fair measure would be that the watch is no longer in production, and has been superseded by at least a couple of generations. If the dial on a current-model watch started going brown, it is probably going to be reviled as a manufacturing defect.

Finally, I would contend, perhaps to the baying retaliation of hundreds of internet watch vendors, that only a black dial can become tropical. A dial that started life as silver, white, or cream, is simply not a candidate.

Seeing the Light

This is not to say that discoloration of light-colored dials doesn’t add value. One only needs to look at the prices of early Zenith-model Rolex “Cream Dial” Daytonas to understand that a mellowing with age is a multiplier of value to an already-rare watch.

It’s not called “tropical”, though. The community has spoken: it is a “Cream Dial”. Precisely the same applies to the early Rolex Explorer II with sapphire crystal.

Tropical Dial Speedmasters

Although six years younger, the Omega Speedmaster at far left (ST105.003) has undergone an oxidation leaving it with a rich chocolate-colored dial. The earlier 2998-2 is much more subtly-coloured.

In most cases where a light-colored dial has been exposed to ageing influences, be they prolonged UV light, heat or moisture, the resultant effect is not very aesthetically pleasing. The reason is partly the simple fact that any damage is more easily seen on a light surface. Another reason has to do with the way many dials are made, and how each type reacts differently to ageing.

Part 2: Why do dials age differently?

[Excerpted from an article by Justin Koullapis, first published in December 2015]

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