3 minutes

Watches With Tropical Dials: Beautiful or busted?

By Thomas Hendricks
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Watches with tropical dials raise the question, can something that’s damaged actually be better? Now, if you’ve seen the term “tropical dial” floating around, you may be wondering what it means or why people care. In this article, we’ll break down what it all means, I’ll show you a couple of tropical dials from my personal collection, and we’ll discuss the competing opinions on the subject.   

A vintage Rolex GMT-Master with a tropical dial

What is a tropical dial or tropical watch?

First up, the basics: What is a tropical dial? The term refers to watch dials that have experienced enough sun fading to alter their color or appearance, often shifting a black dial to something browner – like a suntan for your watch.   

For a visual example, I brought two watches from my personal collection that feature tropical dials. The first is a Cartier Santos Ronde from the 1980s. Some collectors affectionately call this model the “CartiOak” due to its resemblance to an AP Royal Oak. The dial here started out as slate gray, but has taken on more of an oil slick effect over time with purple, green, and rust tones coming through.  

Lighter colored dials can also turn tropical, as we see with this Jaeger-LeCoultre Powermatic from the 1950s. This one has gained little spots over time and has grown darker compared to the original champagne. That’s the cool thing about it – each tropical dial is unique. If you click around, you’ll see other styles with nicknames like spider dials, stardust dials, or leopard dials. Each pattern is the result of a unique combination of materials, sunlight, and time.  

The Jaeger-LeCoultre Powermatic: a watch with patina

Why do dials turn tropical?   

Now, why does this happen? Well ironically, the paints used for much of the twentieth century were designed to prevent this fading process, but they actually had the opposite effect. I have a feeling that somewhere, someone might’ve gotten fired for that miscalculation. However, this effect is quite popular among collectors, and they’ve even asked brands to reintroduce watches with dials made of this material.  

Are vintage watches with tropical dials a good investment?   

Of course, not everyone prefers their watches to look this way. A tropical dial is technically a damaged dial, a compromised dial, and if you’re someone who likes a clean, untouched look, then this will likely be a dealbreaker for you. Thankfully, there are a lot of vintage watches that have maintained their original colors, so much like roasting a marshmallow over a fire, everyone can find their perfect level of toastiness.   

Those who do like this look will often pay more money for a watch with a tropical dial. In November 2021, Phillips sold an Omega Speedmaster CK2915-1 for approximately $3.4 million, the highest price ever for a Speedmaster at auction. The same model sold at auction in 2018 for roughly $400,000, but the excitement around the multi-million dollar Speedy is due in large part to that beautiful, milk chocolatey, tropical dial.   

It’s a similar story if you look at the Rolex Daytona. At the moment, a standard “Zenith” Daytona ref. 16520 with a black dial will cost you roughly $35-40K on average, but a “Patrizzi” version of that same watch – with tropical subdial rings – will set you back roughly $50-60K.   

What makes some tropical dials worth more than other tropical dials? A lot of it comes down to how evenly the dial has aged. A uniform fade looks artistic, sophisticated, and matured like a fine whiskey. Ones that are splotchy and uneven just look dirty.   

For better or for worse, tropical dials are a thing of the past now, and brands have corrected the underlying issue. Modern dials and modern Super-LumiNova will look consistent throughout the life of the watch.   

What do you all think? Do you like tropical dials? Are they worth the extra money? Should modern brands bring them back?  

About the Author

Thomas Hendricks

I didn’t grow up a watch guy, but a few years after graduating from university, I landed a job at the online publication Watchonista as a writer and marketer. “Welcome to the watch world,” my colleagues told me half-jokingly, “no one ever leaves!” Now at Chrono24, I work as a private client advisor, helping people find the perfect watch for major life moments.

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