Friday, April 18, 2014

The Complete History Of the "California Dial"


...California Dreaming...

The Complete History Of The

 "California Dial"

Rolex Myth Buster


On The Curious Case Of The California Dial

Rolex used to make watches with Art-Deco styled dials that were really distinct. These dials featured an upside down triangle for the 12 indices, and rectangular indices at 3, 6, and 9. The 1, 2, 10 & 11 markers used Roman numerals, and the 4, 5, 7, and 8 markers used Arabic numerals.


For years, people have referred to these unusual dials as "California dials" and people ask me all the time why the California Dial is called, "The California Dial." In other words, what does it have to do with California? The photo below was taken by Harsam of his 1943 Rolex Bubbleback, which has an original Art Deco "California" dial.




The photo below shows a beautiful Rolex Art-Deco poster which features a "California Dial" with Radium Innovation. Radium was the first type of luminescent material used to make dials glow in the dark.



In the photo below we see another two Rolex Art-Deco bubble-backs, and the one on the left has a white California dial.



Rolex "Bubble-Back" models are called this, because Rolex used to try and make watch cases look as thin as possible to try to hide the large, rounded case backs which concealed the large automatic winding rotor, and they achieved this by giving the watches convexed backs, which made them sit up proud on the wrist. 



Today, most Rolex watches have completely flat-backs, which I would argue make them lay flatter and fit better on the wrist.



Pictured below, we see yet another Rolex Advertisement which is probably from the late 1930s or early 1940s.




The Rolex magazine pictured above reads:

Fitted with our "patented" ERROR-PROOF RADIUM DIAL. ERROR-PROOF RADIUM HANDS

The figures and divisional signs are deeply recessed and filled with stong luminous compound.

Fully winds itself automatically and silently by 6 hours normal wear on the wrist. If wanted it can also be wound by hand in case of illness. No shocks nor vibration disturb its precision. Superlative finish of every detail. In addition to constant and even tension of mainspring-power, contribute and facilitate the obtaining of almost unbelievable regularity in precision timekeeping. Every one of these self-winding chronometer wrist-watches is now supplied exclusively with a Swiss Official Timing certificate, and impartial document of quality and highest precision. Montres Rolex


Panerai "California" Dial
In the entire course of history, Rolex never made any watches for any brand in the world, with one exception, and this was for an Italian manufacture named Panerai. The vintage Panerai watches were never made available to the public, because Panerai made them at the time exclusively for the Royal Italian Navy. The very first Panerai production models, which were made between 1936 and 1938 featured the Art-Decom masterpiece "California" Dial as seen in the photo below. The Rolex made Reference 3646 pictured below is a highly collectible watch today, and it is unusual in the sense it has no brand designation on the dial. 

Not only was this the first Rolex made diving watch in history, but it also was the basis of what would go onto become the most iconic watch ever made in history, which was the Rolex Submariner. You can always learn more about the Rolex/Panerai connection on Jake's Panerai World.




The "California" Dial Nomenclature

I think I might have recently figured it out, but I am not certain. I came across the image below which shows what appears to be a patent or trademark application filed by Rolex in 1941 for the dial design. The application does not refer to it as a "California" dial.

The person who showcased this image shared it on the Paneristi forum, and their name is Vincent Yeh. Vincent also said it is called a California dial because a California based dial company named Kirk Rich used to refinish a number of these art-deco dials in the 1980s. Vincent also pointed out that he believed that nobody beside Rolex sold a dial with mixed Roman numerals with Arabic numerals.

I don't know how much of this is true, but it is a good starting point. I will look into it and as I learn more, I will update this story. If you have anything to add to the history of the California Dial, please send me an email.

(Update: It appears the patent number for the Rolex watch dial is 221.643, and it was originally filed on April 30, 1941).





1941 Art-Deco Rolex Viceroy

This is a World War II circa Rolex Viceroy with an Art-Deco California Dial. The California dial has Roman numerals on the top and Arabic numerals on the bottom.


Photo Credit: Padi56



The "Semi-California" Dial

So where exactly did the Rolex "California Dial" design come from? Nobody knows for certain, but we can study the history of the design language. 




The Semi-California (seen above and below) has the upside-down triangle at 12 o'clock, coupled with the triangle markers at 3, 6, and 9, along with the 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11 markers in Arabic. 



Adam took the photo below of three Rolex Speedking bubble-back models that were made between 1944 and 1945, and on the far left we see an model with a standard Arabic numeral dial, next we see what is commonly referred to in Rolex collector parlance as the Rolex "Semi-California Dial."  Then on the far right we see a standard California Dial with the Roman Numerals on the top with Arabic Numerals on the bottom.


When carefully studying the visual differences between the three Rolex SpeedKing models pictured above, I could not help but notice that the "California Dial" version on the right is the most stylized, and it is the only one with the closed "train track" chapter ring that runs around the outer perimeter of the dial, and it is also the only one with the blued and highly stylized hands which include the "Mercedes" logo on the hour hand, coupled with the hour hand that has a pyramid on the end. In other words, the California dial version has the boldest Art-Deco style details, which make it really pop!


Update #1


A reader named Tommy wrote in response to this and said:



Jake,

I think the "California" dial may have it's origins with the Melrose Avenue shops in L.A.

The dials became very popular during the bubbleback craze of the 80's.  Many of the refinished dials being done for watches that these shops sold were half-and-half dials because they were so "deco" and were so popular with the people buying bubblebacks. 

I think L.A. dealers were seeking those dials ON bubblebacks that they were buying and selling in their shops and so they became known as "California" dials because the California dealers were looking for them at shows elsewhere in the country.  The people at the shows began referring to them as "California" because it's what the guys from California were looking for.

All is speculation but of course the term is only showing after the 80's.

The dial is really a half-Roman and half-Arabic dial, and that is how I have always referred to it. I never liked the term "California" because it was really irrelevant.

Another interesting variant is the all arabic with the triangle 12 marker. This is often referred to as...of all things  "semi California".

Cheers,

Tommy



Update #2

I came across somebody who quoted James Dowling as saying:


"The dial was patented by Rolex in 1941 and used by them on manual and automatic watches for about 7 or 8 years. It was known by Rolex as the 'High visibility" dial, as it used quite large luminous numbers. 

In the 1970s, when the vintage watch boom started, a LA based dial refinisher, Kirk Rich, did some dials with this design. They became popular & many vintage watch stores in California sent their dials to KR. So dealers in the rest of the US & the rest of the world began to call them the 'California' dial."





Update #3

I came across somebody who said:


Rolex created the “Cali Dial” for it's various distributors and it became a fashion icon of high demand in California in the 30's-40's – hence the name. 

2 comments:

Dan McGuan said...

I was in my local Panerai AD and asked the same question. Seems like everyone's idea is the same - a guy in CA started refurbishing them and the name stuck. However, the style itself - with mixed Roman and Arabic numerals - is a function of cost savings. Rather than make two separate watches to compare their aesthetics with one vs. the other, they simply put both Roman and Arabic numerals on the same watch. Eventually, someone thought that the style of having both on the same face was distinguishing and decided to ship the watch with both types of numerals and voila - the style was born.

There is also a story of sorts that implies the initial watches were made available to a select few and their rarity in general circulation was what made Rolex decide to issue time pieces with the dual-numeral face... but I can't back that up.

chris smith said...

Can you tell me anything about my California dial?

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