The best watches always have a story. It’s why we love watches, like the ref.1655 McQueen Explorer, that sold in tiny numbers but carries a rich narrative with it. Collectors sometimes argue, a little self-deprecatingly, that they’re strange or a little mad to like watches with faults and mistakes - like tropical dials - but really, it’s not about errors, it’s all about the story.
Take tropical dial Rolexes and Omegas, for example.
The phrase "Tropical dial" conjures images of James Bond reclining on a sun-blasted Nassau beach with Dominetta Derval at his side, ref. 6538 Submariner on his wrist. And what collector doesn’t want, deep down, to be Bond (or, for that matter, Dominetta)? Even if you’re no Bond fan, there’s an allure to sundowners on the terrace, the chirp of cicadas and white, No1 tropical rig.
There’s plenty of debate around tropicals, but it seems that from the mid 1950s to the late ‘60s, manufacturers used a protective coating on their dials. Rather than protecting, the coating reacted with the dial surface over time, turning the dial anywhere from a uniform, milk-chocolate brown to a slight dulling of the more usual black. Many of these watches had seen service in the tropics, hence the name, but plenty have simply sat in safes or drawers.
And that’s the thing with tropicals. No-one quite knows what, why or how. But plenty of collectors are very happy indeed to pay a significant premium for a tropical dialled watch.
It’s not only Speedies though. These two early 1970s Omega de Ville cal.930 ref.146.017s both began life with the same rich, dark blue dial you see on the watch on the left. Now, nearly fifty years later, the dial of the watch on the right has taken on a golden, light chocolate patina - a properly tropical dial. Even better - look at the original pre-tropical deep blue around the centre of the dial.
Factor in the Rolex name and a rare model and prices get even more spectacular. Had you owned the 1969 ref. 6253 Paul Newman “Sotto” Daytona that Phillips’ sold in their Geneva sale in 2016, you’d have been delighted to see the $1.5m reserve smashed with a $2,036,002 sale price. And all because it was one of only two Daytonas found (so far) with a completely tropical dial. Phillips called it “one of, if not, the world’s most important Rolex Paul Newman Daytona ever offered for auction.”
“Sotto” (Italian for ‘underneath’) simply refers to placement of the “Oyster” name under the the word “Cosmograph” at the dial’s 12 o’clock.
Clearly, with price premiums like this, less unscrupulous dealers are ‘discovering’ tropical-a-like dialled Rolexes and Omegas on a daily basis. Some are water-damaged, rather than true tropicals. You can sometimes spot these by the irregular colour and fading, but not always.
Look at the irregular dial colour on this late 1950s ref. 5512 Sub to see that patterning isn’t necessarily indicative of a duff dial. The dial looks less tropical and more like semi-precious tiger’s eye (https://www.rolexforums.com/showthread.php?t=181636)
Others are resorting to using artificial ageing to lighten dial surfaces, so it can be hard indeed to tell a true tropical from a fake.
As ever, the answer is to check out the watch as a whole and in context. Is it from the right period? A mid ‘80s Sub is unlikely to be looking tropical. Check out the case; is it shiny and new-looking? If the case appears boxfresh and the dial is supposedly tropical, ask why. If you can see the movement, does it look water-damaged? Do the lume plots look as though they’ve been re-applied? If the hands are rusty, it’s time to ask more questions about water damage.
If buying vintage Rolex is sometimes like swimming with sharks, collecting tropical dials is like doing the same thing wearing a steak diving suit. Check the watch, check its provenance and, as always, check the seller. But, above all, enjoy the quest!