It might sound like a paradox, but small production mistakes can actually send the value of a luxury watch sky-high. By mistakes, I mean visual imperfections that have zero influence on the watch’s functionality, but still give the timepiece a certain level of exclusivity. In this article, we’re taking a look at some mishaps that have turned ordinary watches into sought-after collector’s items.
Tropical Dials, Ghost Bezels, and More
Discoloration of the dial, bezel, or luminous material is without a doubt the most popular defect a watch can have. The most common type is known as a tropical dial, a designation reserved for dials that gradually change color over time. The general consensus is that chemicals that react to environmental influences such as UV radiation, temperature, or humidity were accidentally (or unknowingly) used in the production of the dials. Although it’s never been proven, the name has stuck.
Watch enthusiasts mostly associate tropical dials with those that were originally black when they left the manufacturer’s production halls, but gradually changed to brown. That’s not to say that other shifts in color aren’t possible: white dials have been known to transform into a cream hue, while gold and silver tend to take on gray or green tones. You might be surprised to hear that there are even pink and purple tropical dials out there.
Not all tropical dials are created equal. The main deciding factor on whether a tropical dial is considered a sought-after asset is the way in which its color transforms. Collectors flock to dials that have completely changed color, i.e., what was once a black dial is now chocolate brown. That being said, color gradients or color changes that create a distinct pattern on the dial can also prove valuable. In any case, it’s important that the color change is as even as possible. Blotchy dials can just look dirty, so they don’t score the same points.
When a dial changes color, the luminous material usually changes with it. This is easy to spot on older watches with tritium. While this material is actually white to begin with, luminescent markers and hands will slowly but surely assume a beige hue, or a lume patina. For collectors, the best examples of this phenomenon have fully intact indices, that are preferably all the same shade.
Tropical dials aren’t the only curiosity to be found under a watch’s crystal. Spider dials are another peculiarity caused by environmental influences, but they don’t manifest in color changes, rather in hairline cracks. They create a structure that is somewhat reminiscent of a spider’s web, hence the name. Once again, the more consistent the pattern is, the most interesting it will be for potential collectors.
And color changes aren’t just reserved for dials; in fact, bezels can also show the same qualities (provided they have a colorful inlay, of course). One pretty common example is the ghost bezels found on vintage diving watches with aluminum bezel inserts. Again, over time, the color fades and changes. Popular examples include the Rolex Submariner and GMT-Master. On the Sub, the black bezel often transforms into a light grayish blue. The deep blue and red of the GMT-Master’s Pepsi bezel, on the other hand, tend to melt into a combination of light blue and dusky pink.
Misprints and Other Production Mistakes
Alongside watches with “natural” mistakes, there are also timepieces out there that really should never have left the manufacturer’s facilities. Similar to how printing errors turn stamps into hot commodities, these watches are extremely rare and collectors are always fast on their tails.
There is a surprising number of watches with production errors on the market. Take the Daytona ref. 116520: on some copies, Rolex forgot the famous Daytona inscription that usually sits above the subdial at 6 o’clock. Collectors christened this version the “No Daytona” and have boosted its popularity to make it one of the most coveted editions of the Rolex chronograph.
There are also some copies of the Rolex Milgauss 6541 in circulation that are missing their inscription, but this time, it seems to have been a conscious decision. Records kept in the Swiss manufacture’s archives show that these watches were made specifically for the British market in 1958 to boost flagging sales.
Turning now to Omega, there were instances in the 1950s and 60s where components from one of their collections found their way into others. For example, in the late 1960s, after running out of steel case backs for the Seamaster, Omega fitted one production run of the Seamaster 300 ref. 165.024 with the case backs found on the Speedmaster. We can safely say that this was a deliberate decision, as the correct Seamaster references are stamped on the inside of the lid of the case back.
The next example isn’t that far back in the history books. In 2017, a few Black Bay Bronze models slipped right through the cracks of Tudor’s quality control with a pretty serious typo. The “Officially Certified” inscription is missing the second “i” in officially, leaving a gaping hole in its place. Looking closely at the dial, it definitely looks like there was a blip in the printing process. In any case, these watches are “Offic ally Certified” as chronometers.
How valuable are the Rolex Daytona “No Daytona” and other mishap watches?
The watch misfits described above all have one thing in common: they are extremely rare. Not only that, but tropical and spider dials are truly one-of-a-kind. It is this exclusivity and unique quality that arouses the interest of watch collectors and enthusiasts. And, in line with the principle of supply and demand, these watches fetch high prices on the secondary market.
A Rolex Daytona 116520 “No Daytona” can easily break $100,000, and let’s not forget that the standard version is valued at around $36,000. The Rolex Submariner ref. 1680 “Red Sub” is already popular because of its red Submariner inscription, and costs around $27,000. The same model, but with a tropical dial and ghost bezel, demands at least double that. It’s a similar story for “flawed” watches from Omega, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. Even when it comes to smaller brands such as Tissot, Eterna, and Certina, prices for timepieces with tropical dials are usually significantly higher than those of run-of-the-mill versions.
But a word of caution: only buy such watches with the necessary papers. You’ll then have some degree of certainty that it’s a real copy. There’s nothing worse than forking out a large sum for a dream watch, only to find out that it’s a “Frankenwatch.” These watches are a mishmash of parts from different watches to create the impression that it’s a real vintage model. In some cases, artificially aged or completely fake dials are used to deceive potential buyers. So check the watch carefully before buying and if in doubt, stay away.
So, are watches with production mistakes a good investment?
Watches with visual imperfections are no ugly ducklings; they can be extremely valuable to collectors. They are rare and oftentimes a one-off copy, and as always, exclusivity comes at a price. Depending on the brand and type of mistake, these timepieces always cost a good deal more than their picture-perfect siblings, and particularly rare models are known to reach astronomical sums. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to make a sizable investment in one of these timepieces.