The face of a watch, also known as the dial, is arguably the most important aesthetic components of a watch. It’s like a pair of shoes—the right one makes the outfit while the wrong one destroys the overall look. Rolex has been known to stick to the same fundamentals when it comes to case and bracelet designs, but the brand does let its hair down when approaching dial styles. It is in the dials where we see the most variety among Rolex watches. Aside from personal taste, when collecting vintage Rolex watches, dials become even more important. Even when dealing with the same model reference, two different dial options can set the watches apart by thousands of dollars. More than just a pretty face, there’s much to learn when it comes to Rolex dials. So we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to Rolex dials to make choosing the right one a little easier.
How Rolex Dials Are Made
Today, Rolex makes all dials entirely in-house at one of its four factory sites in Switzerland. The Swiss watchmaking giant employs a mix of high-tech machinery and traditional techniques by hand to develop the final product. Most Rolex dials start off as a long strip of brass where circular pieces are cut out to make the dial blank, complete with any necessary holes (for the hands and calendar windows, for example). Then, depending on the design, the dials blanks undergo different processes.
For decorative dials, an automated diamond-tipped tool meticulously carves a pattern into the surface. It may come as a surprise to some, but Rolex uses five vintage engine-turning machines updated with computerized modules to carry out intricate guilloché dial decoration. Rolex uses three distinct techniques to add color to the brass dial blanks depending on the shade it wants to achieve. Lacquering is typically used for black, white, blue, green, and opaque colored dials. Electroplating is used for metallic shades like silver, gold, and rhodium. And finally, Rolex also uses Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) to color some of its dials.
Once the right color is complete, text is then pad printed (also known as tampography) onto the dial and dried for a few hours to get ready for the appliques. The appliques, which include hour markers and the Rolex crown, are always made from gold and sometimes filled with luminescence. They are then hand applied to the dial. Diamond-paved dials are manufactured slightly differently, first using solid gold dial blanks, which are then set with diamonds by hand.
Evolution of Luminescent Materials
A component of the dial that Rolex collectors are particularly interested in is the luminous material. Up until the 1960s, Rolex used radium paint on its dials for legibility in the dark. However, as we now know, radium is highly radioactive and severely dangerous. Rolex radium dials manufactured prior to the early 1960s include the label “SWISS” right under 6 o’clock.
To replace radium, Rolex switched to tritium as the go-to luminescent material for its dials. Like radium, tritium is also self-luminous, however, it is a low-grade radioactive material, therefore not nearly as dangerous. Rolex used tritium on its dials until the mid-1990s. It is important to note that tritium has a half-life around 12 years; as a result, vintage watches with radium on the dial typically do not glow anymore. But tritium does normally develop a lovely patina over the years—a trait that Rolex collectors appreciate. Rolex dials with tritium are marked with “T SWISS T,” “T Swiss Made T” or “Swiss-T <25” beneath 6 o’clock. In the mid-1990s, Rolex adopted yet another luminous material—Luminova. Invented in Japan in 1993 by Nemoto & Co, Luminova is a non-radioactive material that first needs exposure to light to “charge,” after which it will glow green in the dark for a few hours. Rolex only used Luminova for a few years in the 1990s and are labeled “SWISS” under 6 o’clock.
In the 2000s, Rolex changed to SuperLuminova. This is essentially the same material as Luminova but sold by the Swiss company RC Tritec AG under the registered name SuperLumiNova. Rolex dials with SuperLuminova have “SWISS MADE’ under 6 o’clock. Finally, in 2008, Rolex introduced a luminous material it dubbed “Chromalight” on the Deepsea. Rather than green, Chromalight glows blue in the dark. Rolex then rolled out Chromalight to the Submariner Date models and then eventually to all models across its catalog. The brand maintains that compared to SuperLuminova, Chromalight’s afterglow lasts longer in the dark. Rolex dials with Chromalight are also inscribed with “SWISS MADE’ under 6 o’clock.
Rolex Dress Watch Dials
When it comes to its dress watches, Rolex offers up plenty of choice in the dial department by using a variety of materials, colors, textures, and index styles. Some of the most popular Rolex dress watch dials are the colored brass ones, particularly in champagne, silver, white, and black. These can house all sorts of different hour markers, from simple batons to traditional Roman numerals to classic Arabic numerals to precious diamonds. Rolex typically uses straight baton hands on dress watch dials today; however, there are some more decorative styles on some vintage Rolex watches.
There is also a wide assortment of textured dials found on Rolex dress watches. For instance, ones with engine-turned, honeycomb, linen, and even pyramid patterns. Within the ladies’ Rolex watch collection, there are also some dials delicately decorated with flowers and butterflies. The so-called Jubilee dials featuring the repetitive ROLEX pattern are an especially popular choice for textured dials.
In addition to brass dials, Rolex also offers dials made of more exotic materials such as hard stone, mother-of-pearl, meteorite, and once upon a time, even burl wood. Finally, we can’t forget the ultra-lavish gem-set dials featuring mostly diamonds, but sometimes also rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.
Rolex Sports Watch Dials
In general, Rolex sports watches, also known as Oyster Professional watches, follow a similar dial layout—a combination of circular, triangular, and rectangular lume-filled hour markers, a solid dial color (often black), and a pair of Mercedes-style hands at center. The Rolex sports models that feature this type of dial include the Submariner, Sea-Dweller, Deepsea, GMT-Master II, Yacht-Master, and Explorer II. Other sports watches within the Rolex catalog, such as the Explorer, Daytona, and Yacht-Master II, include at least one of these design details.
Gilt Dial vs. Matte Dial vs. Gloss Dial
Naturally, these types of dials have evolved over the years. Early versions of Rolex sports watches, from about the 1950s to the 1960s, have what we refer to as gilt dials. Characterized by golden colored text and markings on a lustrous black dial, these types of dials are popular within the collecting community. Gilt dials can have either radium or tritium for luminescence, and in most cases, these old-school lume accents have developed a warm patina. In the mid-1960s, Rolex replaced gilt dials with what we refer to as matte dials, featuring white text and markings on a matte black background. All Rolex matte dials used tritium paint for luminosity and they were in production until the mid-1980s.
Rolex then opted for a dial style we refer to as gloss dials, which went back to a shinier background color. Text and markings remained in white but the biggest enhancement was the gold surrounds framing the lume-filled hour markers. This is still the style of dial Rolex uses for its current sport watch models. Yellow gold and two-tone vintage GMT-Master and Submariner models had what refer to as nipple dials, nicknamed so for their protruding hour markers filled with tritium luminescence. Rolex eventually discontinued these in the mid-1980s. What’s more, GMT-Master, Submariner, and Yacht-Master dials featuring gem-set hour markers are often referred to as Serti dials.
Paul Newman DialHands down the most important (and most expensive) vintage Rolex dial there is what we refer to as the Paul Newman dial. Found on select vintage Daytona watches, this specific design, featuring highly stylized Art Deco-inspired subsidiary dials, was officially called exotic dials by the brand. But it picked up the celebrity nickname after it was discovered that Paul Newman wore a Daytona with an exotic dial. Paul Newman’s own Daytona “Paul Newman” sold for a record-breaking $17.8 million in 2017.
Rolex Replacement Dials
When looking at older Rolex watches, it is not uncommon to find dial designs that do not match the production date of the watch. Barring any counterfeit doubts, the simple explanation for this is a Rolex replacement dial. When a watch goes in for an overhaul at a Rolex service center, dials are frequently replaced with newer versions, complete with different lume, font styles, and finishes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find vintage Rolex watches with original dials since Rolex replacement dials are so ubiquitous.
Regardless of what style of a Rolex dial you opt for, make sure it is one you love—because that’s the part of the watch you will be looking at the most! On another note, if you've ever wondered why it's so hard to buy a Rolex you want at retail, then don't miss this video from our friends at Theo and Harris.