6 minutes

The 80s trend is back: two-tone watches. Are they too flashy or perfectly vintage?

By Pascal Gehrlein
The 80s trend is back: two-tone watches. Are they too flashy or perfectly vintage?
The 80s trend is back: two-tone watches. Are they too flashy or perfectly vintage?

What do you associate with gold and steel watches?

For me, the first image that comes to mind is Patrick Bateman from the film “American Psycho,” and his legendary quote: “Don’t touch the watch.” The New York investment banker portrayed by Christian Bale fittingly wears a two-tone Datejust with the reference 16013.

Bateman desperately wants to belong to the 1980s Wall Street elite. The film centers around this subcultural with their penchant for extravagance and materialism. What should we make of the fact that more and more watch models are now available in a new or redesigned two-tone version?

The 80s: The Antithesis of Understatement

Before I begin, I must admit that my impressions of the 80s aren’t based on first-hand experience. They’re mainly drawn from music, magazine covers, and films, but not just Dirty Dancing and Miami Vice! Please bear with me if your experiences deviate greatly from what’s to come.

The first watch models featuring a mix of steel and gold case materials was brought to the market by Rolex around 1930. However, the extravagant 80s was when more bicolor watches appeared on wrists, because the 80s were not a decade of understatement. After the disco style of the 70s, the early 80s were marked by a fitness boom as well as hip-hop and pop culture. In addition to style icons like RUN DMC and LL Cool J, the classic preppy look was also in fashion, including Ralph Lauren Oxford shirts, boat shoes, and V-neck sweaters. Later, Miami Vice popularized pastel linen suits in combination with colorful T-shirts. In case you don’t have a clear image of the fashion and vibe of this decade yet, let me add one more iconic look: Hawaiian shirts.

If people weren’t rocking a colorful Swatch, then they were likely showing off a gold watch. After all, it was all about making a splash about what they had, even when it came to accessories.

What does bicolor, or two-tone, actually mean?

There are many terms in the world of watches that aren’t clearly defined; for example, vintage, patina, or gilt dial. What about bicolor and two-tone? While these two terms are somewhat less vague, there are still no concrete definitions as far as I know. Essentially, a two-tone watch is one where the case is made of two different materials and colors. Often, this mix carries over to the bracelet. We generally see a mix of yellow gold and stainless steel. For example, Rolex uses 904L stainless steel and 18k yellow gold in various models such as the Submariner, the Datejust, and the Daytona. Other combinations are also possible, such as stainless steel and 18k Sedna gold, as is the case with the Omega Seamaster 300 M. What every two-tone watch has in common is that its case features a striking contrast of non-precious and precious metals.

How much do two-tone watches cost?

Prices for two-tone models often fall between those for stainless steel watches and precious metal watches. Whether that speaks for or against this type of watch is up for debate. It’s also debatable whether the amount of gold present in a two-tone watch justifies the price mark-up purely due to its material value. To be honest, vintage two-tone models often sell for less than their stainless steel counterparts. Some examples of this are the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the aforementioned Rolex Daytona. This is most likely due to the fact that the steel versions are more popular in this price range and potentially have a higher resale value – just one more indication that the watch world isn’t always rational. Of course, this phenomenon doesn’t apply to all models; for example, it’s not the case with the Rolex Datejust.

How popular are two-tone models?

It’s undisputed that bicolor watches are a touch more elegant than pure stainless steel versions. Consider, for example, the Rolex Daytona and the Omega Seamaster. The two-tone versions make a completely different impression, in my opinion. One of the most famous two-tone watches, if not the most famous, is the Rolex Datejust. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the facts:

In 2018, the Rolex Datejust was the best-selling two-tone watch on Chrono24 across all markets. Moreover, the majority of bicolor watches were sold in Germany, followed by the United States and Great Britain. I would have expected Italy to come in third, based on personal experience, but that’s neither here nor there. Back to the best-selling models: The two-tone Rolex Submariner took second place, followed by the Rolex Daytona. The best-selling non-Rolex two-tone watch was the Breitling Chronomat.

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Famous Two-Tone Watch Fans

In addition to the aforementioned Datejust 16013 worn by Christian Bale, a.k.a. Patrick Bateman, Richard Gere also wore a Rolex Datejust in Pretty Woman. Although the movie came out in 1990, it’s still representative of the 80s bicolor trend. After all, filming started in July of 1989.

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A watch that I’m personally quite fond of is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 5402SA. The most famous wearer of this two-tone Royal Oak is Prince Michael of Kent. The extremely rare two-tone version of the Royal Oak Jumbo is perfectly befitting of this British gentleman with a penchant for fine Savile Row suits. Of course, the classic Royal Oak in stainless steel would match his style as well, but the two-tone variant is less subtle. It’s provocative, elegant, and has a touch of nonchalance that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a member of the Royal Family. Two-tone is simply bolder!

Current Two-Tone Models

Another British gentleman seen wearing a two-tone watch is David Beckham. He hasn’t only been making tattoo artists and hairdressers richer, he’s also a style icon for many when it comes to fashion and accessories. It’s no wonder that Tudor made “Becks” an official brand ambassador. The Black Bay Heritage S&G was one of the first Tudor watches that David Beckham wore in public. While some watch aficionados find two-tone about as charming as red velvet loafers, it can’t be denied that a remarkable number of new two-tone watches have been introduced recently, particularly in the past three years.

Examples include the aforementioned Tudor Black Bay S&G (Baselworld 2017), as well as the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller 126603 (Baselworld 2019) and the Omega Seamaster 300 M (Baselworld 2018). Of course, there are many more bicolor models worth looking at. I can’t say for sure why this combination of materials seems to be trending again, but there are some plausible theories:

Vintage Vibe at Its Best

There is no end in sight for the trend towards vintage timepieces in general and vintage-inspired designs. Compared to purely stainless steel models, two-tone versions convey a clear vintage vibe, giving them added appeal for vintage fans.

A Provocative Statement

Two-tone watches are provocative and a bit more flashy. They represent an end to the minimalist trend (whereby most people wouldn’t consider any Rolex to be minimalist). Anyone can pull off stainless steel, and many millennials strive to stand out.

Social Media

The Instagram generation seems to be quite comfortable showing off luxurious item. Whether it’s Supreme suitcases, Yeezys, or Balenciaga sweaters, influencers on social media like to share their newest purchases. Two-tone watches fit nicely into this culture and are increasingly appearing on the wrists of hip-hop artists and athletes.

Rolex Daytona Two Tone
Rolex Daytona Two Tone

My Personal Takeaway

For me, the appeal of two-tone watches is primarily based on the vintage charm inherent in the mix of stainless steel and precious metal. While bicolor is flashy and may be harder to wear every day, I personally like the warm tone in the yellow gold of the Datejust, for example. Two-tone watches are also less common, making them a underdog, which appeals to me as well. A two-tone Jubilee bracelet worn in the summer months has a real nostalgia factor, reminiscent of the Côte d’Azur, linen shirts, wine, and more. With so many things in life, balance is key; since my style and watch collection are otherwise relatively modest, a two-tone watch would be a welcome addition. In fact, I already have my eye on a two-tone Daytona reference 16523. For a Daytona, it’s still relatively affordable – time will tell how long that will be the case.

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About the Author

Pascal Gehrlein

Hi, I'm Pascal. After spending many hours searching for my first luxury watch on Chrono24, I ended up visiting their "Legal details" page and saw their headquarters …

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