I salute the vintage watch industry for its imagination and the breadth of its vocabulary.
When it comes to selling things, they really know what they are doing. Normally when a piece of merchandise is a little tired or distressed and has seen better days, the inclination is to haggle about the price, demand a discount and generally access your inner forecourt-haunting, tyre-kicking self. But one man’s shop soiling is another man’s patina.
Antique dealers and specialists in old cars have long talked about patina, and of course patina is a part of vintage watch collecting. For those of us who prize originality, it is a comfort to know that the watch case has never been polished, the edges are crisp, the hallmarks are clear and the dial has not been restored or replaced. When looking at an old watch, my mind wanders towards Martial’s Epigrams, especially On Thais and Laecania:
Thais habet nigros, niveos Laecania dentes.
quae ratio est? emptos haec habet, illa suos.
Which, according to Bohn’s Classical Library, translates as:
Thais has black, Laecania white teeth; what is the reason?Thais has her own, Laecania bought ones.
Given this line of deduction, I reckon that Marcus Valerius Martialis would have made rather a good watch collector, and his skills as a poet would have come in handy when devising new names for the variety of dials that you and I might otherwise mistakenly view as damaged or faded.
Nomenclature is complicated enough as it is. As well as movie stars (Newman et al), panda, Pepsi, root beer, tapestry, linen, nipple, Papa Smurf, Hulk and Kermit (although not yet Miss Piggy) find themselves pressed into service to describe particular models. Such is the fecundity of descriptions that there is usually a dial to suit the occasion – for instance, if you are feeling peckish, there is a Domino’s Pizza Rolex.
However, where it gets interesting is when thesauri are scoured for ever more imaginative ways to describe those dials with a particular patina. Tropical is by now a well-established term to describe a dial that has faded in the sun, often to an attractive soft shade of tobacco or violet. Panna (as in panna cotta) denotes the dial of a Rolex Explorer that has aged to a creamy eggshell or a cream-dialled Daytona.
Of late, the similes are becoming ever more abstruse. For instance, spider dial translates as a dial that has cracked and split in a manner that suggests a spider’s web. I have also heard of a snake dial – apparently the dial mimicked the appearance of snakeskin, although one of my more plain-speaking contacts in the trade said that the dial just looked really knackered to him. However, my favourite so far is the volcano dial – and I quote a recent catalogue description of a Rolex GMT-Master root beer dial that “displays a fascinating lava red discoloration process around its hour markers, from where its nickname ‘volcano’ dial stems”.
The entry of geophysical phenomena into the horological lexicon opens up great new possibilities. I can easily see the term tidal being used to describe a watch dial that has been water damaged, while a canyon dial might well refer to a watch with a great big scratch on it.
And for those watches that do not suggest any immediate meteorological or geographical term, or are just so patinated as to beggar all attempts at description, the word hurricane might be used to describe a dial that leaves all who see it simply blown away.