Rolex produces such a massive variety of dials for their portfolio of watches that it can almost feel like a surprise that you ever see two the same. Certain dials such as the Paul Newman dial in the Rolex Daytona have become legends within the world of watches, reaching stratospheric levels of value and collectability.
The component of the watch more responsible for portraying the character of a model than any other, getting the face right is absolutely vital. Incredibly, Rolex – known as the most vertically integrated manufacturer of luxury timepieces in the world – only brought the creation of their dials in-house in 2000. That was the year they finally purchased Beyeler, the Geneva-based cadranier (dial maker) who had been supplying them for many years.
Throughout their history, Rolex has also outsourced from other legendary names in the industry such as Stern (the owners of Patek Philippe), Lemrich and, perhaps most famously, Singer.
Now housed in their Chêne-Bourg facility in the Swiss capital, the brand’s dials are made mostly by hand, and it can take as many as 60 separate procedures to complete each one. The range of different dials Rolex has, and still does, make is immense, so below we have picked out some of the best-known, as well as a few you may not be aware of.
Current Selection Rolex Dials
The Standard Dial
The most common type of dial, found across every model in the modern collection, starts with a brass blank. A perfect metal for the job, it is easily machinable, strong, and hardwearing. From there, color is added using one of three different processes; the standard opaque examples are created with a lacquer application, while electroplating is used for the metallic shades like gold and silver. Finally, certain special examples require PVD, or Physical Vapor Deposition.
The Stone Dial
Rolex has long used a variety of precious and semiprecious stones for their dials. As well as the obvious aesthetic qualities of materials such as mother-of-pearl, marble, lapis lazuli or onyx (among others), one of the major draws for wearers is that each dial becomes absolutely unique. Similarly, the brand was able to acquire sections of the Gibeon meteorite, which was discovered in the 19th century in Namibia, and has used it extensively for a number of its models – most recently the GMT-Master II.
The Gem Set Dial
Rolex houses its own gemological department in the same facility as their dial-making division, employing legions of traditional jewelers to carefully select and handset only the most flawless stones. A gem set dial (also known as a “Serti” dial) can take the form of subtle accents on hour markers all the way through to a full pave finish covering the entire face. The brand makes use of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and especially diamonds in their designs, which are often fitted to the sports collection, such as the Submariner, GMT-Master, and Daytona, as well as the more dressy pieces like the Day-Date and the Pearlmaster series. Of the latest editions, the Rainbow Daytona has made headlines with its stunning arrangement of kaleidoscopic gemstones on the indexes mirrored around the bezel.
The Jubilee Dial
Nobody enjoys a birthday more than Rolex, and when the Datejust turned 40 in 1985, the brand celebrated with a special dial to mark the occasion. Featuring a repeated ‘ROLEX’ monogram throughout the surface, it adds an attractive 3D quality, as well as leaving no one in any doubt exactly who made the watch. Still available in the current range, the Jubilee dial has also been added to the Day-Date and Lady-Datejust collections.
Vintage Rolex Dials
Rolex has been making watches for well over a century now, and as times and fashions have changed, certain dial types have come and gone. Below is a list of vintage examples which have since disappeared from the lineup.
The Wood Dial
Wood dials were used, relatively sparingly, during the 1970s on Datejust and Day-Date models. Much like the stone dials, the fact that no two could be identical was an important factor, along with the attractive warmth they add to the overall appearance. Thin slivers of burl wood taken from birch, mahogany, and walnut trees would be fused to the underlying brass plate, creating an utterly unique look. In some instances, a tree bark-like pattern would be added to the bezel and even the bracelet center links to carry on the theme.
The Pie-Pan Dial
Typified by the outer edge of the dial being sloped down and recessed slightly (like an upside-down plate), Rolex pie-pan dials were discontinued in the 1980s in favor of a uniformly flat face. The sunken border gave the impression the dial, and the watch as a whole, was smaller than it actually was, which was likely the cause of them being discontinued; however, they are still adored by many vintage watch fans.
The Nipple Dial
In use from the end of the 1960s to the 1980s, the nipple dials were found on certain precious metal versions of the GMT-Master and the Submariner. So named for their protruding, rounded hour indexes which looked like, well, you know.
The Logo Dial
Not to be confused with the Jubilee dial, the logo dial included the insignia of a partner of some kind, most often a high-end jeweler through which the piece was sold. Particularly rare and often extremely valuable, you will find watches with the logos of Tiffany & Co. or Cartier above the six o’clock index. Other than that, specially made examples for Middle Eastern royalty might carry various crests, such as the those belonging to the Sultan of Brunei. But perhaps the most well-known are the COMEX dials, the French saturation diving specialists and long-time Rolex collaborators. Their brand name can be found (if you are very lucky) both on a small handful of early Sea-Dweller and Submariner watches.
The California Dial
Rolex was the first to patent it in the 1940s, but it’s probably Panerai who are best known for this particular type of dial. The California dial is one with a mix of Roman numerals at the top, Arabic numerals at the bottom, batons for the 3, 6, and 9 and an inverted triangle at the 12. It might sound like a mess, but the Art-Deco-esque styling of California dials has a true vintage allure and has become a real fan favorite.
The Panda Dial
A Rolex Panda dial reference is one with a white, or light-colored, base color that contains elements, such as sub-dials, in black (or at least in a much darker shade). Originating in the 1960s, it was most commonly used on chronographs, with the chronograph counters picked out in the contrasting tone. You will also come across what is known as the ‘Reverse Panda’ which, as you can probably guess, has a dark base and light sub-features.
The Exotic Dial (a.k.a. The Paul Newman)
And speaking of Panda dial chronographs…
Ending with what is undoubtedly the most famous vintage Rolex dial of them all; in the 1960s, Rolex outfitted their underperforming Daytona with a new “Exotic” dial made for them by Singer. Characterized by a white background and black sub-dials, (or vice versa with the Reverse Pandas), frequently finished with red accents on the minute track and ‘Daytona’ signature, these “Exotic” dials had even more Art-Deco touches, this time on the sub-dial numerals. If anything, it managed to make an already disliked watch even less popular, and they were only produced in very limited numbers. (It’s estimated that 20 standard Daytona dials were made for every one Exotic).
However, one photograph of Hollywood legend and motor racing superstar Paul Newman wearing his “Exotic” dial Daytona on the cover of an Italian magazine transported the watch to grail status almost overnight. Now better known as the Paul Newman Daytona, prices on the preowned market have exploded well into six figures. Furthermore, the actor’s own model, the very one he wore in that photo, sold at a 2017 auction for $17.8 million, making it the most expensive watch ever sold.