Buying Vintage Watches Part I: Watch Dial Details

No aspect of buying vintage watches is more critical, taxing, or discussed than the task of evaluating a dial on a vintage timepiece. Condition, originality, special marks, original components, and degree of re-touching are critical talking points about which vintage watch collectors obsess. Moreover, the quality of a seller can be inferred by how and to what extent that vintage watch seller portrays, describes, and discloses details of a vintage watch dial.

It is no exaggeration to say that dial condition and originality are the heart and soul of the vintage watch market. For most of the 20th century, dials were one of the main differentiating factors among Swiss brands that often shared case suppliers, movement suppliers, and small component suppliers.

Small Differences And Big Money

Otherwise similar watches were set apart by dials that have come to define the watches in the eyes of collectors. Especially in the world of vintage Rolex watches, a dial can account for 50-100 percent – or more – of the value premium that one example commands over another. What is the difference between a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 6263 at $60,000 and another priced at $120,000? If the dial is the Singer-manufactured so-called “Paul Newman” or “Exotic” dial, it’s a few squares, dashes, and contrasting patches of paint.

And dial preference isn’t only a Rolex-market phenomenon. What is the difference between a $25,000 Heuer Autavia 1163 “Jo Siffert” and a $4,900 Autavia 1163 of identical vintage and specification? Take one guess.

While those are extreme examples, they are not the most dramatic ones to have emerged from the vintage scene in recent years. The vintage market has begun to assume the appearance of an asset bubble, and the result has been that watches once thought surplus to investor interest have become valuable, and this often draws nefarious characters into the realm of lower-priced brands and models. When small distinctions such as a retailer co-signature, a military unit mark, a black dial, a blue dial, or special hands can lead to pricing premiums, it is important to exercise vigilance.

A Methodical Approach Requires Evidence

Therein lies the challenge of evaluating vintage dials; many of the most pivotal details are simple, were created in comparatively primitive facilities, and can be duplicated or enhanced without great expense or industrial equipment. For that reason, all dial evaluation starts with clear images, use of references, and active questioning of the seller.

Clear images are the foundation of dial evaluation. In the year 2017, with vintage watches now an established investment/asset class, any vintage watch listing that does not feature clear dial images should be viewed with extreme suspicion. There are only two reasons that a vintage watch listing will include unclear images; the seller is incompetent to accurately represent the piece, or the seller is trying to obscure some flaw that will expose his game. As due diligence, request clear photos of the dial from the seller. Anything but prompt delivery of crystal-clear images of the exact same watch should be considered disqualifying; move on.

As an additional safety measure against photo-manipulation of dials (e.g., Adobe Photoshop enhancement), request additional cell-phone photos of the watch set to 2:27. This achieves three purposes; the unusual time display forces to vendor to take the watch in hand and provide proof that he actually has the exact inventory being offered; it forces impromptu photo work with a basic instrument that generally discourages the photo manipulation that can be achieved with planning, staged, and enhanced photography on a PC; it gives the prospective buyer a sense of the seller’s responsiveness.

References Are Your Yard Stick: Stick With Them

Published references are key for any buyer who seeks to purchase a vintage watch. From Audemars Piguet to Zenith, a specialist volume exists for collectors of almost any vintage timepiece brand, model, or class. Professionally written volumes are the most extensively vetted sources of photographs and knowledge, and certain editions are published with acknowledgements to major collectors, factory archivists, and museum staff. These are your best resources.

Look for spotter’s guides written by recognized authorities in the brands and models of interest:

  • Guido Mondani,
  • Pucci Papaleo Editore,
  • James Dowling,
  • John Goldberger,
  • Osvaldo Patrizzi

…and countless others have published exhaustive references on Rolex; there are equally authoritative books and yes, websites, that have been written by passionate experts on less scrutinized brands.

Use these references as visual guides and compare your prospective purchase against corresponding images in your reference volumes. Match alignments of text, serif styles and sizes, stroke weight of print and paint, and placement of added features such as metal indices or numerals. In general, factory features of dials were precise, repeatable, and comparable across individual units. Known degradation tendencies such as those of 1980s Rolex “crazed” dials, late 1960s Tudor Submariners, and 1950s Rolex/Stern dials represent deviations from factory standards, but even these tend to proceed in a fashion that makes batches of spoiled dials distinctive of factory work.

Buy a loupe of at least 10x power; combine that loupe with a powerful LED penlight or table light. Use both of these items in tandem whenever a prospective purchased can be examined in advance of the transaction.

The Anatomy Of A Dial, The Lynchpin Of A Watch Purchase

Approach dial evaluation with skepticism and use references with religious zeal. Again, cut bait and look elsewhere if a seller does not furnish photos that permit close scrutiny. Break the dial into four components; printed components, painted components, applied components, and base finish.

Printed components include hash marks, signatures such as “Swiss Made,” “T,” or “Incabloc,” “railroad” chapter rings, and brand marks. Rarely were these painted free-hand. With few exceptions, transfer techniques such as stamping and mechanical printing produced these “printed” marks.

While fabrication technology during the mid 20th century did not allow perfection, factory marks were clean and repeatable; there should be little variation between your reference images (i.e., a book or authoritative website) and a similar watch being considered for purchase. Sloppy alignment of characters, mismatched fonts, irregular lengths of hash marks or indices, print that spills over from a sub-dial onto the main dial, or character serifs that run should be considered evidence of a re-dial; run.

Painted components include free-hand numerals, indices, makers marks, as well as luminescent paint on hands and indices. Paint can be judged separately from printed ink by the height of the material over a surface; print is perfectly flat. While painting is less precise than transferred or printed imagery, the task of painting fell to specialized artisans who achieved great consistency and quality. In general, attempts to replicate painted marks will lack both of those qualities. Look for paint that appears too thick, irregular, or fails to match other marks on the dial; look for luminescent material that sits too high or irregularly covers indices and numerals, and hands.

Keep in mind that re-application of new luminescent paint was considered proper service procedure for many vintage dive watches, and collectors of the type will distinguish between a “re-lumed” dial and a full-wipe “re-dial.” The former is imperfect but often accepted; the latter is considered disqualifying to serious collectors.

Applied elements include features such as polished indices or numerals, gems, and a raised corporate logo (e.g., Greek letter Omega on a “pre-Moon” Omega Speedmaster). As with hand-painted figures, these elements tended to be added by the hands of highly-skilled artisans who achieved clean execution and consistent quality. Look for evidence of amateur handling on indices; hand oils, glue, and paint indicate an adulterated dial. Check to ensure that hour indices placed around the circumference of a dial are properly aligned and equidistant from the bezel as the factory would have shipped the watch.

For example: certain sub-par re-dials of the highly collectible Heuer Monaco 1133B “Steve McQueen” fail to recognize that the original orientation of the applied indices was horizontal. As a result, “radial” placement of these elements or vertical orientation is a giveaway to collectors who do their homework.

Base coatings are universal on all but the most elaborately engraved or bare enamel dials. These coatings include sprayed paint, galvanized layers, and physical vapor deposition. In general, the layers will be even, flat, and consistent in color. Ripples, dips, what auto-body shops call “orange peel” patterns, and irregular color are clear warning signs that a dial has been “re-dialed.” This is close to a death knell for a watch’s collectability. Removing the base coat of a dial means removing all printed, painted, and applied elements in addition; almost nothing is left from factory manufacture.

With few exceptions so specialized that only professional appraisers should attempt to proceed, the total re-dial of a watch renders it damaged goods and minimally collectible.

Parting Shots: Peripheral Clues And The Value Of Friends

Finally, use the cleanliness of a watch’s dial and hands as peripheral guides. Oils, glue, paint specks, finger prints, dust, and incorrect or battered hands are evidence that amateur watchmaking, indifferent ownership, or nefarious designs have taken their toll on a dial’s originality.

When possible, check a dial by “dialing” a fellow watch collector and/or a trusted watchmaker to provide a second set of seasoned eyes. Adding a knowledgeable friend increases the chance of asking revealing questions and checking the correct features of a dial. A watchmaker may be able to remove a dial and inspect the condition of the feet, maker’s marks on the hidden reverse side of the dial, and check for reverse-size overspray or multiple paint swatches that can unmask even a very adroit re-dial effort.