Timepieces constructed from a mix of metals have long split opinions as well as tones. A blend of gold and steel is one of those looks that tends to drop in and out of fashion more frequently than those that exclusively use one or the other. The first two-tone watches can be traced back to the 1930s, when Rolex patented their Rolesor process. These original examples were given a case and outer bracelet links in steel, with the bezel, crown, and center links forged in yellow gold. The manufacturer dipped its toes into their new color scheme hesitantly at first on a variety of models, before turning it loose on the Rolex Datejust a few years into its run and creating perhaps the most quintessentially Rolex visual of them all.
However, the heyday for two-tone watches was really the 80s – a decade of wanton excess and dubious tastes. A favorite among freshly-minted yuppies, as epitomized by American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and his Rolesor Datejust, two-tone watches suddenly got an unwelcome reputation that has taken a long time to shake. But as with all things, the trend is coming full circle, and bi-color watches are starting to receive the attention of a younger audience. While it is an aesthetic that is still very much pivotal in Rolex’s lineup today, it has inspired homages from just about every brand across the industry.
Below, we will take a look at three of our favorites.
Some of the very first two-tone watches ever manufacturer were Rolex timepieces.
Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126711CHNR
The ref. 126711 is a fresh take on the classic “Root Beer” GMT, and continues Rolex’s tradition of being a pioneer and industry leader when it comes to two-tone watches.
It seems only fair to kick off with the originator, and Rolex’s contemporary roster offers a number of two-tone watches. The opulence of gold and the utility of steel make it the perfect choice for several of the more luxurious tool watch collection, such as the Daytona and the Submariner, and it has lately made a welcome addition to their newest release, the Sky-Dweller. Tempering all that precious metal with a splash of stainless has brought Rolex’s flagship traveller’s watch within the price range of more fans and collectors. However, it is a model that has a long history of mixing its colors that we’ve picked for our list.
The GMT-Master II has become a bona fide legend since its arrival more than 60 years ago, and the modern range contains two two-tone examples, both of which are heavy on retro vibes. A steel and yellow gold example with an all black bezel insert has been a fixture in the lineup for many years in one form or another, and the latest Cerachrom bezel version entered the catalog in the mid 2000s. However, even that piece lost out in the nostalgia stakes last year, when the ref. 126711CHNR arrived – a wonderful throwback to the Root Beer models of the 60s and 70s that even managed to steal some of 2018’s Pepsi-dominated headlines.
Known alternatively as the “Tiger Eye” or the “Clint Eastwood” (after the star was spotted wearing one in a number of his famous roles), the original Root Beer Rolesor GMTs were fitted with a brown dial and solid brown bezel, before Rolex switched things up to a bi-color bezel insert with a golden lower half to match the crown and center links. This latest variation on the two-tone theme swaps the original’s yellow gold elements for Rolex’s proprietary Everose pink gold for an altogether softer and more versatile look.
Inside, as one of the brand’s most recent releases, the reference 126711CHNR has been given the Cal. 3285 movement, while their other Rolesor GMT-Master II (with yellow gold) has to make do with the older Cal. 3186 (for now at least). The newer caliber comes with a host of modernizations, including an increased power reserve of 70 hours (instead of the previous 48), in addition to Rolex’s Chronergy escapement – a reworking of the traditional Swiss Lever mechanism which reportedly gives an increase in efficiency of 15%.
As the whole of the horology world continues to go forward by looking back, this latest piece that has drawn inspiration from the Rolex archives has succeeded in giving us just the right amount of historical aesthetic. A definite standout in a portfolio not short on heavyweights.
Patek Philippe Nautilus 5980/1AR-001
Easily one of the best looking two-tone watches currently in production, the ref. 5980/1AR even appeals to those who are generally not fans of the Nautilus (Image: Patek Philippe).
Well, I may as well add a bit of controversy, but I’ve never really been a Nautilus fan. Yes, I know it’s an icon. Yes, I know it’s from one of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of watchmaking, and yes, I’m well aware it is one of the most important designs ever made, from probably the greatest shaper of wristwatches who ever drew breath.
Don’t care. Don’t like them.
That being said, there is something about the 5980/1AR-001, the two-tone edition released in 2013, that appeals to even my uncultured eye.
Like the GMT above, a more contemporary 18k rose gold has been used in place of traditional yellow gold, forming the softly rounded octagonal bezel and its ‘ear’ hinges, as well as the large chronograph pushers flanking the winding crown. Similarly, the precious metal makes up the central links of the integrated bracelet which, ok I’ll admit, is a bit of a beauty.
The rest is a mix of satin-brushed and mirror polished stainless steel, the overall look staying true to Gerald Genta’s original vision from 1976, clearly based around the design of a porthole on a boat. However it is the exquisite dial which could almost make me join the legions of Patekaholics out there. A deep graduated blue reportedly inspired by the very first Nautilus, the 3700, it changes hue under differing light and is finished with horizontal stripes reminiscent of a luxury yacht’s teak decking.
The hour markers and handset are coated in lume and given a rose gold edging, as is the clever 60-minute and 12-hour mono-counter chronograph sub dial. The trio of contrasting colors works extraordinarily well, the whole watch fairly dripping with class and opulence, without feeling the need to shout about it.
Driving it all is the manufacture CH 28-520 C, housed neatly in the 40.5mm case, and visible through the display back. A column wheel-controlled, flyback chronograph, the frictionless vertical disc clutch eliminates any sign of hand slop on starts and stops, and allows for the sweep chrono hand to be used as a continuously running seconds hand. Complete with date display, the 28,800vph movement provides up to a 55-hour power reserve and is comprised of some 327 characteristically beautifully finished parts.
All told, it is this version that has come closest to changing my mind about the Nautilus, and it is proving to be a real favorite among true Patek aficionados in addition to general fans of two-tone watches. And at just north of $60,000, it is far from the priciest Nautilus option too.
The Omega Speedmaster ’57 Co-Axial
Two-tone versions of the Speedmaster ’57 Co-Axial are available with either yellow gold or red gold accents. (Image: Omega)
The Speedmaster ’57 Co-Axial is one of a handful of homages that Omega has made to their original chronograph within the last several years. This, another 2013 introduction, was the first to house their wonderful caliber 9300 movement in a sub-44mm case.
Currently there are three bi-color models sitting among the 17 different versions; a white dialed watch with yellow gold details and center links, and two black dial pieces with red gold accents – one with a similarly set up steel bracelet, the other on a leather strap. Each two-tone model in the lineup has its own character, with the red gold versions perhaps more suited to formal occasions, although all are very much on-trend at the moment. The two examples on steel bracelets share a price point, with the leather strap version saving you a bit at checkout (as one would expect).
Rather than being a carbon copy of that debut CK2915 like the 60th anniversary edition from a couple of years ago, the ’57 Co-Axial draws some inspiration from its ancestor while adding in its own styling traits to keep things fresh. The case, which is a very wearable 41.5mm, will certainly look familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the brand, with its long straight lugs and absence of crown guards. Additionally, the Base 1000 all-steel bezel is period correct, since the distinguishing black aluminum insert did not arrive until the model’s second iteration.
However, it doesn’t take an eagle eye to spot the most glaring difference between old and new – the number of sub-dials. The Co-Axial 9300 has allowed for a fairly radical redesign of the chronograph. The small seconds indicator is still sitting at the nine o’clock; however the 12-hour and 60-minute counters have been combined into one unit and placed at the three. Taking that time-honored tri-compax layout and reducing it by one has left plenty of room – even with the addition of a date window at the 6 o’clock location. Additionally, the sub-dials are significantly larger than before, greatly aiding legibility as well as giving an almost perfect balance.
The handset, too, owes more to the second generation Speedy than the first, with Alpha-style main hour and minute hands. However the classic Broad Arrow is still there if you look hard enough; it now makes its appearance as the small chronograph hour pointer.
Aesthetics aside, it is the movement that demands most of the attention. The caliber 9300, which debuted in 2011, is visible through the domed sapphire back, which gives the Speedmaster ’57 a little more height than you might expect. Unlike the chronograph caliber it replaced, the 3313, the 9300 was specifically designed around the Co-Axial escapement, rather than having it as a retrofitted addition. The self-winding, 54-jewel, column wheel-controlled mechanism has been given a silicon Si14 hairspring and boasts a 60-hour reserve. Made entirely in-house, it has been a triumph for Omega, and is finished with the house’s own Geneva waves in arabesque.
All told, the Speedmaster ’57 Co-Axial is, much like a two-tone watch’s color scheme, pretty much the best of all worlds. Just enough of a throwback to the icons of the past, with plenty of modernity in all the right places.
BONUS: Rolex Datejust ref. 16233 (best bang for your buck)
Even with a diamond dial, a Datejust 16233 can be purchased for a surprisingly affordable sum.
The reference 16233 is certainly not as flashy as a two-tone Patek Philippe Nautilus, or the mega-desirable Rolex “Root Beer” GMT-Master II; however it offers a rock solid in-house movement and the quintessential Rolex look at a Price that is still relatively attainable.
First introduced in 1988, the reference 16233 Datejust is the classic 36mm Yellow Rolesor (stainless steel and 18k yellow gold) version of Rolex’s iconic date-displaying chronometer wristwatch. Although the Caliber 3135 movement that powers the Datejust 16233 dates back to the late 1980s, Rolex still uses it some of their modern watches today, and it easily capable of keeping time within COSC standards.
With a stainless steel and 18k gold construction topped off with Rolex’s iconic fluted bezel, the ref. 16233 Datejust could be mistaken for a more delicate dress watch; however with 100 meters of water resistance, a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal, and the proven reliability of the Caliber 3135 movement, the Datejust 16233 is a classy watch that can be worn all day, every day.
At 36mm in diameter, the reference 16233 is a highly versatile package, and looks at home on most wrists, regardless of size or gender. Additionally the ref. 16233 Datejust pre-dates the arrival of Rolex’s “Super Case” that features thicker lugs, so this version of the Datejust retains the classic proportions that served as the backbone of Rolex’s catalog for decades.
Given modern prices for many stainless steel models, two-tone Rolex watches are becoming increasingly more attractive value propositions, and slightly older models like the ref. 16233 Datejust represent some of the best buys in the world of luxury watches.