Dial R For RolexBy Ross Povey
Have you ever seen a watch without the dial fitted? Apart from maybe a passing resemblance to an ultra skeletonized piece, there really is nothing quite as horologically haunting when you see it. It is almost as if the watch’s soul has been taken away.
The dial is the first thing you see and the memory that you take away when you hold a watch. It’s no surprise then that Rolex goes to such extents to ensure that the dial of each of its watches is as perfect and as special as possible. The brand’s mastery of dial making has been at the forefront of its innovations for the past century and this year, 2021, is no different with a new range of dials to die for from the venerable Swiss watchmaker.
The Rolex Oyster case is one of the most aesthetically perfect designs of the 20th century. The case shape and form of the crown and pushers have evolved over the past decades but the DNA and essence remains the same. Hold an Oyster Perpetual Datejust from the first year of the line from 1945 next to the brand’s most recent examples and the resemblance is uncanny. Uncanny maybe, but entirely deliberate as there is the old English saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The classic elegance of the Datejust dial is simple and is a perfect example of form following function. The applied baton hour makers and clear legible hands have been a staple of the Datejust since its inception.
When it comes to functional time telling, it doesn’t get any more important than when it comes to professional use. Rolex has a storied track record of producing watches that have taken explorers to the deepest depths and highest peaks of our planet. Legibility and accuracy are both critical and the features on which a watch is judged. The need to quickly and accurately tell the time at a glance can be the difference between life and death. Whether racing around a motorsport circuit or working at the bottom of the ocean, clear legible dials are vital.
The Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona, since its introduction in 1963, has been the most successful sports chronograph and has been available in a number of iterations in Oystersteel, 18 ct gold and platinum. One of the key elements of the Cosmograph Daytona is the dial. Whether an exotic dial presented in the past or a modern meteorite dial, the dial has always made the difference for collectors.
In motor racing, timing is literally everything. The Cosmograph Daytona has always had the reputation of being a perfectly designed tool for timing speed over distance as well as elapsed time measurements. Rolex has mastered the art of dial creation for the Cosmograph Daytona over the years, and it was evidenced early on with so-called “panda” and “reverse-panda” dials, where either the black or silver dials were presented with contrasting subdials that afforded the wearer a clear and uncompromised view of the dial that was legible at a glance. Can you imagine having to screw your eyes up and scrutinize the dial as you are careering along at 200mph in your sports car? No, best not to even imagine it. Earlier chronographs that pre-date the Cosmograph Daytona were less easy to read, due to the tachymeter scales often being printed on the dial and the dials being of a single color. The Cosmograph Daytona’s genius was rooted in its simplicity — a minimalist design and the moving of the tachymeter to the bezel gave the wearer a very clean view of the dial. Each subdial was fitted with a small hand that was contrasting to the dial, so a black hand on a white dial and vice versa.
This formula continued to be employed until the end of the 1980s when in 1988 Rolex unveiled its then-latest Cosmograph Daytona. It was with this automatic Cosmograph Daytona that the Swiss manufacture’s mastery in dial-making truly came to the fore. With the exception of the manual wind references 6269 and 6270, the Cosmograph Daytona had always been a true utilitarian sports watch. With the advent of this new collection, Rolex began using different materials for the dials and adorning them with precious gemstones. Never before used in Oystersteel models, gem-set dials were the preserve of both the 18 ct yellow gold and Rolesor versions. However, in the early ’90s Rolex introduced versions of the Cosmograph Daytona crafted from precious metals and on leather straps. The case was essentially the same as the bracelet watches, but with slightly reworked lugs. The watches had fixed short end links and were fitted with leather straps that had a new matching gold deployment clasp with Fliplock. There were versions in 18 ct yellow gold and white gold, and the watches continue to be in production today.
The bold & the colorful
In the 1970s, Rolex began offering their most prestigious watch, the Day-Date, with vibrant colored dials. The dials were available in a kaleidoscope of colors that had a highly polished deep lacquered finish. These dials were surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these dials were completely distinct from the classic dials Rolex is widely known for. Secondly, at the beginning of the 1970s, the watch industry was in the midst of the Quartz Crisis. Whilst most brands were in freefall panic about the future of the industry, Rolex chose instead to focus on developing new ideas and innovations. The “Stella” dials got their name from the company that provided the pigment and lacquer that was used in these dials. The dials were used from the early 1970s until the 1990s, but remain incredibly desirable till this day.
The very first lacquered “Stella” dials in red, blue, green and oxblood began appearing at the very end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. The dials were fitted to Rolex’s most prestigious watch, the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date, in either 18 ct yellow gold or 18 ct white gold watches. In line with Rolex’s attention to detail, each dial was fitted with matching coronet, indices and hands in the same material as the case. The new Oyster Perpetual collection unveiled in 2020 arrested everyone’s attention with opaque lacquer dials presented in eye-catching and vibrant colors, including coral red, candy pink, turquoise blue, green and yellow. These colors have so much more than a passing resemblance to the “Stella” dials and really demonstrate Rolex’s attention to detail when it comes to beautifully executed dials. Each of the dials is lacquer finished, with hour markers and hands in 18 ct white gold, filled with highly legible Chromalight which emits a long-lasting blue glow in dark conditions. The overall impression is stunning!
Rolex is often regarded as the best watch manufacturer at gem-setting. Like all other areas of watchmaking at the Swiss manufacturer, gem-setting has its own dedicated department that does all the work in-house. Rolex uses only the very finest stones and whilst tiny inclusions are common in naturally occurring stones, Rolex only uses the most translucent examples that must have no visible inclusions when magnified up to 10 times. Qualitative analysis is applied on diamonds and colored gemstones, such as the way in which gemstones are cut — the symmetry and shape of the facets — that accentuate the intensity and number of reflections, which can even result in rainbow hues. For paved dials, the diamonds are secured using the bead setting technique, where up to five pieces of gold from the dial surface are made into beads to hold the stone in place.
The diamond-paved dial is another Rolex classic. This year, Rolex unveiled the latest line of Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36 watches that have been given an exceptionally sparkling makeover. Rolex takes gem-setting very seriously, much like everything else that they do. They only employ the very best artisans who can flawlessly carry out the work and insist on the highest possible quality of stones for use on their watches. Each stone is checked by eye and compared with master stones to ensure only the finest examples make it onto watches — Rolex even has its own proprietary tools to ensure each stone is of uniform shape. This was showcased extensively in the new Day-Date 36 in 18 ct yellow gold with a fully paved dial set with 450 diamonds and coral enamel filled hour markers, fitted with a matching coral alligator strap. The 18 ct white gold version was similarly executed and fitted with a matching turquoise alligator strap.
On the subject of the Day-Date collection, natural elements have always been a key component of Rolex dials. Rolex has mastered the use of semi-precious stones, ancient organic materials, wood and other naturally occurring resources when creating the faces of some of its most iconic models. There are two models that have arguably received more natural dials than any other and that is the Cosmograph Daytona and Day-Date.
One of the most challenging manufacturing processes for watch brands is the production of stone dials. Working with stone is difficult as it is incredibly hard and the resulting finished piece is very thin. This leads to a large failure rate with the brittle stone slivers being very prone to cracking. Rolex is the undisputed king of working with stone and has, over the years, used a plethora of different types of stone in its watches. One of the appealing aspects of stone dials is the unique nature of each one due to the natural element and the individual ways in which the rocks, minerals and fossils have formed. Taking these materials and creating a dial from them, however, is a very nuanced art form and requires very specialist craftsmanship.
A to Z of Rolex Day-date stone dials
What follows is a list of dials that have been featured over the years, many of which are no longer available:
Rolex eisenkiesel dials 2021
In 2021, Rolex unveiled the latest chapter in its stone dial story with eisenkiesel. Never heard of it? Neither had I until Rolex announced its use of the stone earlier this year, being the first brand to use it on a watch. Available exclusively in 18 ct Everose gold, both Day-Date 36 and 40 have diamond-set applied hour markers or baguette hours respectively. For those that require a little more sparkle (don’t we all?), both watches can also be ordered with brilliant-cut diamond-set bezels.
Eisenkiesel literally translates to “iron pebble” in German. It is a quartz that predominantly is found in yellow, red or brown hues with iron inclusions. The eisenkiesel used by Rolex is dark brown and the iron inclusions are a lighter brown shade. The main sources for the quartz are Germany, Namibia, Russia and Spain. It has also been discovered in Cumbria in the north of England. The dark chocolate hue on the eisenkiesel dial also pairs beautifully with the rich, warm hues of the 18 ct Everose gold case and bracelet. I’ve always loved the 36mm Oyster case and feel it is the sweet spot for Rolex watches. The Day-Date 36 dial features hour markers in 18 ct gold, set with 32 diamonds, and a Roman VI and IX in 18 ct gold, set with 24 diamonds.
The production of stone dials is one of the most challenging manufacturing processes for watch brands. Like other stone and mineral dials, working with eisenkiesel is challenging as the required finished piece has to be very thin. This results in a dial that is incredibly fragile and brittle and can be very prone to cracking. Thanks to the experience, knowledge and incredible skill of its artisans, Rolex has perfected the art.
Enthralling dial designs are also a key element of Rolex’s dial strategy as demonstrated in 2021’s Oyster Perpetual Datejust 36 in the new “palm” and “fluted” design. Both striking and vibrant, they truly highlight the brand’s ability to keep all the aesthetically key elements that make the watches instantly recognizable, but with new and fresh touches. The palm motif evokes lush, vibrant tropical forests, while the fluted motif showcases the pattern found on a range of Rolex bezels that has become one of the brand’s signature aesthetic styles.
The Datejust has always been a firm favorite with collectors due to the sheer number of dial variations that Rolex has produced over the years. Plain and simple dials, stone dials, gem-set dials and dials with distinctive textures and patterns are all part of this iconic collection’s legacy and are testament to the brand’s commitment to making each watch as unique and timeless as possible, a feat often distinguished through stunning mastery of both dial design and creation. As far back as the 1950s, the Datejust collections have been manufactured with interesting textured dials. Collectors refer to these as waffle dials or guilloché dials and they required a high level of expertise to print the text onto the textured surfaces.
Rolex meteorite dials 2021
For 2021, Rolex is reintroducing meteorite, a natural extraterrestrial material that gives each Cosmograph Daytona a face of its own. Each piece of meteorite in these watches originated in an asteroid that exploded millions of years ago. This natural substance, predominantly made of iron and nickel, cools by a few degrees Celsius every million years, creating unique, distinctive crystallization within the material that is impossible to recreate on Earth. Rolex engages highly skilled specialists who work with the meteorite, cutting it into very thin sections and chemically treating it to bring out the Widmanstätten patterns that can be seen on the finished dial.
This isn’t the first time that meteorite has been used by Rolex. In 2020, the Swiss manufacturer unveiled an 18 ct white gold Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master II with meteorite dial. The new meteorite dials in the Cosmograph Daytona are available across all three hues of 18 ct gold — white, yellow and Everose. The 18 ct white gold version features a monobloc Cerachrom bezel in black ceramic with a tachymetric scale and is fitted with a black Oysterflex bracelet. The innovative Oysterflex bracelet, developed and patented by Rolex is truly one of the most comfortable elastomer straps that combines the robustness and reliability of a metal bracelet.
The 18 ct yellow gold and Everose gold versions are both fitted with the robust Oyster bracelet. As an ardent Cosmograph Daytona fan, I really love these watches. The contrasting black chronograph counters at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock perfected the aesthetic of these new pieces. Every piece of Cosmograph Daytona with a meteorite dial is exceptional, and truly one of a kind.
Indeed, Rolex are modern-day alchemists when it comes to dial making. The art of taking different materials and substances and combining them with precious metals and stones is a transformational process that is a hallmark of the Swiss manufacturer. Each dial is its own miniature masterpiece that the owner can take with them anywhere, safely stowed within the hermetically sealed Oyster case. Whether crafted from ancient meteorite or eisenkiesel, richly lacquered in breathtaking hues, printed with tropical or classic motifs with or without gemstone embellishment, each Rolex dial is an exquisite work of art.