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to aged perfection

Aged to perfection
The tropical dial - a value proposition?

Let us first establish a few rules shall we, before we dive into this veritable minefield. Because of some very notable auction pieces, which sold for astronomical prices, any aged dial with patina is scrutinized for its tropical properties.

A dial is considered tropical when

1) It has faded naturally to a different colour. Note that the fade is often from black to brown, but can be from any original colour so long as a material change in colour is evident. Also note that the change must be brought about “naturally”. This can be through exposure to the sun, natural ageing or indeed any other natural process. Baking it in an oven most definitely does not count as natural.

2) A tropical dial needs to be almost uniform in its fading. Sometimes a watch dial gets only partial exposure to the sun and this results in a clear fade but only to some parts of the watch. To be a pure tropical dial, the fading should be uniformly and evenly spread across the whole dial.

3) The change in colour should not be due to water (or other) damage. This is not to say that various types of damage can create very unusual dial outcomes - indeed, often attractive - but this would not be considered a tropical effect.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. Item 2 and 3 were directly ignored in several high end auctions. It goes to show you that it pays to keep tabs on developments or even become a trendsetter. Christie's is famous for that, and not only as far as watches are concerned. In the end the watchworld will deliberately confuse tropical with patina or aged - why? Because it pays.

Read on if you want to know the nitty gritty of it all...

Aged Watch Dials: Good Investment, Or Ticking Time Bomb?
(Thanks Hodinkee)

In 1993, a Daytona 6239 "Paul Newman" hammered at Antiquorum for $9,257. In 2013, the same reference hammered for $75,000 at Christie's, and since then prices have continued to rise. This may be a challenging year for newer watches (pre-owned or new) but the most desirable vintage models, especially those in good original condition, are still – to all appearances – blue chip buys and investment opportunities. And yet, much, or even most, of the value of some very collectible watches rests on something that was never intended to last forever, and which may well deteriorate out of all recognition in the lifetime of its owner: the dial.

Aging of a watch dial and dial markers can take on an almost infinite variety of forms, including browning ("tropical" dials) crazing ("spiderweb" dials) and other forms of aging seen as dramatically enhancing the value of a watch. Such aging might seem simply a sign of a watch past its prime to the uninitiated, but to serious enthusiasts and collectors, a dial that has aged properly – emphasis on properly – is an indication of a certain honesty and authenticity by which modern collectors set high store.
Despite this, the whole idea that a visibly aged dial should command a premium seems a fairly new one, and perhaps no where can this be seen more clearly than in how brand service centers respond to requests to leave certain parts untouched. Collectors often struggle to get brand service centers to leave original (or presumed original) dials on a watch. Service centers, on the other hand, are very often still driven by service policies that originated in an era when a watch with a noticeably cosmetically compromised (and often functionally compromised) dial was the last thing most consumers wanted. A dial with badly faded paint, yellowed lacquer, and luminous markers that no longer glowed was simply seen as well past its useful lifespan. Brand service centers were not (and generally, still are not) in the conservation business; their brief was to return the watch to the client in, as much as possible, new condition, both functionally and cosmetically.

Aged dials are nowadays seen by collectors as evidence of authenticity and as a visible connection to the history of a watch. Our relationship to dial patina can be a complicated one. In art, there's a similar conundrum: when restoring an artwork, should you try to bring it back to, as much as possible, as-new condition, or should you simply act to make sure there's no progressive deterioration going on? One dramatic example of how opinions can differ is the restoration of one of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous oil paintings: the Virgin And Child With St. Anne. The restoration was undertaken at the Louvre in 2011, and the change in the painting was dramatic. The soft browns, umbers, and burnt sienna tones many associated with the painting vanished under the restorer's cleaning swab, revealing bright blues, reds, and skin tones no one had suspected lurked under centuries of accumulated grime and surface oxidation.  The outcry at the transformation bears a noticeable similarity to the anger many collectors express at an unasked-for change in a beloved watch – and it's not just sentimental attachment; in today's market the substitution of a new for an original dial can utterly demolish the value of a timepiece.
And yet, like artworks, dials are made of materials that slowly but irrevocably change over time. One of the very surprising things about watch dials is just how little good, reliable information there really is out there, about how chemically stable the materials are that were originally used to make watch dials. In general, though, paints and lacquers have a limited life expectancy; oxidation, heat, ultraviolet radiation, and moisture can all exert slow but inexorable, and largely irreversible, effects on watch dials. This may not have mattered much when a Paul Newman Daytona was a sub-$10,000 watch but today, with hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions) riding on subtleties of dial cosmetics, in what are watches whose dials were never intended to last indefinitely, the question becomes a worrying one. Lume plots will, sooner or later, detach themselves from dials; "tropical" dials may very well continue to fade, discolor, or otherwise behave in unpredictable ways, and no one can really say with any certainty what will happen over the next few decades to dials of extremely high value watches that were bought with the largely unspoken assumption that the condition they're in now, is the condition they'll retain in the future.


Have vintage watches been a good investment over the last 10 years? In at least some cases they have been an absolutely spectacular investment with rates of return unheard of in most other investment vehicles. But there may be a perfect storm just over the horizon: a softening of the vintage watch market, combined with the huge number of possible and probable fakes that have entered the market, combined with the irreversible physical deterioration many watches may exhibit, could easily combine to make vintage watch collecting a very dangerous sea on which to sail.
Adminishing the #$@ out of it
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Better response on post <span class="highlight" style="padding-left: 0px; padding-right: 0px;">Aged</span> to perfection: editorial    

Aged to perfection — The patina trend in watches

Eric Wind, Vice President, Senior Specialist in Watches in New York, reflects on the move towards ‘honest’ vintage watches whose appeal is enhanced by the ‘ravages’ of time

"One of the most interesting evolutions in vintage watch collecting has been the desire to move away from watches that have been restored and polished to look ‘like new’ in favour of watches in original condition with honest patina. Nicks, scratches and fading that may have developed over the course of decades of wear can enhance a watch’s desirability."

As with many trends, it is hard to track the exact origin of this appreciation, but certainly one of the places it originated was in Japan, where the wabi\-sabi aesthetic values imperfection developed over time. In Japan, this has affected watch collecting for many years, particularly in regard to vintage Rolex sports watches.

Japanese collectors have long preferred original cases made beautiful by years of wear — with accumulated scratches, and fading on original parts such as bezel inserts on Submariners and GMT-Masters — compared to vintage watches that have been made to look pristine. Of particular interest and desirability is a black dial that has turned brown or ‘tropical’ with fading over the years.

This trend towards seeking honest patina has extended worldwide, particularly over the last five years, and is associated with a massive growth in the number of vintage watch collectors. Many people are drawn to vintage watches for the beauty of having something that looks old. As one new, younger vintage watch collector told me, ‘If I wanted something that looked new, I would just go into a boutique and buy it. But I wanted something different; a watch that has been made unique by the ageing process. The way vintage radium and tritium lume on dials and in hands can look, from a warm orange to a bright yellow, is so much cooler than the stark and sterile bright white look of LumiNova and Super-LumiNova found on new watches today.’

One issue surrounding this desire to collect vintage watches with honest patina is that it is extremely difficult. Well-known watches such as the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Speedmaster are especially rarely found in original condition because of their famous affiliations over the years. Those who owned one were likely to wear it and have it serviced over the years, when parts were frequently replaced (such as bezel inserts and crowns), and perhaps the luminous material on the dial and in the hands was refreshed for better night visibility — all with the goal of making the watch a more effective tool, and with no mind towards future value to collectors. Furthermore, the cases were polished to remove scratches and make them look like new, making the lugs a bit thinner in the process through the removal of metal.

For non-collectors, it is not at all intuitive that a watch inherited from their father or grandfather needn’t be restored. In fact, when I present to groups about vintage watches, the concept that collectors prize originality over restoration is one of the things that many people find most surprising. However, there is something that is very appealing, even to a non-collector, about a watch that has aged in a unique way. A great example of that is a Rolex reference 8171 in steel that we sold at Christie’s New York last June. A pilot purchased the watch in the early 1950s and seemingly wore it for a few years until it stopped working. The reference 8171 is one of the most complicated watches ever made by Rolex and featured a moon phase indicator as well as a complete calendar display. Perhaps due to the complexity of the movement and the associated cost of servicing it, the gentleman put it away and it passed down within the family unused for decades.

Rolex. An extremely rare and fine stainless-steel automatic triple calendar wristwatch with moon phases and tropical dial. Signed Rolex, Perpetual, Precision, Ref. 8171, Movement No. 56924, Case No. 686258, Circa 1951. 38mm diam. Sold for $161,000 on 7 June 2016 

Remarkably, this Rolex retained what appeared to be its original grey leather strap and also the original Rolex buckle. Furthermore, the large steel case that earned the model the nickname ‘Padellone’ (or ‘large frying pan’ in Italian) had remained unpolished with its striking case and edges retained. The dial had developed an unusual and striking patina, perhaps from heat and moisture that had gotten in the non-water-resistant case over the decades.

Like finding an amazing vintage motor car that has somehow survived the decades with its original upholstery and all its original parts, the discovery of this reference in original condition was spectacular, and it was a piece that watch people could not keep their eyes off during our preview. On auction day, there was a fierce battle for the watch and it sold for $161,000 (including buyer’s premium).

Jaeger-LeCoultre. A stainless-steel automatic diver’s wristwatch with sweep centre seconds, alarm and date. Signed Jaeger-LeCoultre, Memovox Polaris model, Ref. E859, Movement no. 1’924’860, Case no. 1133080, manufactured in 1968. Sold for $21,250 on 19 October 2016 

In our Important Watches auction in Dubai last October was a Jaeger-LeCoultre (signed ‘LeCoultre’ on the dial for the American market) Polaris dive watch with alarm from 1968 — one of the most desirable vintage watches made by the venerable brand. The watch is in remarkable condition and has had its outer dial turn ‘tropical’ brown over time, which provides a strikingly beautiful contrast to the grey-black internal bezel and the dark brown-black central alarm disc. The watch is a dream for a collector and had a conservative estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $21,250.

Patek Philippe. A stainless-steel wristwatch with ‘tropical’ dial and bracelet. Signed Patek Philippe & Co., Genève. Retailed by Freccero. Ref. 565. Movement No. 926255.Case No. 634112. Manufactured in 1944. Sold for $77,500 on 6 December 2016 

At our New York auction in December 2016 were many honest fresh-to-market watches that excited our clients. One notable watch was a Patek Philippe reference 565 in steel on original bracelet, originally retailed by Freccero. It has retained its original water-resistant case in remarkable unpolished condition, with a dial that has also undergone a unique ageing process. The vast majority of these 1940s reference 565 watches have had their cases polished at some point during their 70-year and more lives, and lose the strong definition of the case shape. It had an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, and sold for $77,500.
 Omega. A fine stainless steel chronograph wristwatch with ‘tropical’ dial and bracelet. Signed Omega, Speedmaster, Ref. ST 105 003, No. 26441774, Manufactured in 1967. Sold for $30,000 on 6 December 2016 

Omega. A fine stainless steel chronograph wristwatch with ‘tropical’ dial and bracelet. Signed Omega, Speedmaster, Ref. ST 105 003, No. 26'441'774, Manufactured in 1967. Sold for: $30,000 on 6 December 2016

Additionally, we had an Omega ‘Ed White’ Speedmaster reference 105.003 with a dial that has turned a tropical brown to match the original bezel, which has also faded in a unique way. The watch has an unpolished case, which is an extreme rarity in the world of early vintage Speedmasters from the 1950s and 1960s. It had an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000, and sold for $30,000.

While, in general, the hierarchy of vintage watch collecting would rank a true ‘new old stock’ vintage watch that has never been worn as the Platonic ideal for a collection, second place is now strongly held by that same watch in original condition with honest patina and wear, rather than a watch that has been restored. In some cases, a watch with a beautiful ‘tropical’ brown dial can even be worth more than it would be in ‘new old stock’ condition. This desire for honest patina seems so strong with collectors across the spectrum today that I think it will continue to shape the vintage watch market for decades to come.

This article was published in the December 2016 edition of Revolution magazine
Adminishing the #$@ out of it
Wow, so now we know. Kidding aside, I do see a growing appreciation for tropical dial watches with wabi sabi ;-)
Vintage watches with tropical dials are an investment. Just don't buy expensive watches... you will be profiting much more percentage wise.
That Patek is just ugly in my book...
I just had to post this... Keeps things in perspective.

I am inspired by all this. tropical dial it is!

(08-02-2017, 06:14 PM)Mauvais Wrote: Vintage watches with tropical dials are an investment. Just don't buy expensive watches... you will be profiting much more percentage wise.

Agreed, buy low sell high...

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