Gone Fishing: How the salmon dial came to be

By A Collected Man

Pink, rose or golden opaline. All of these dial shades can fall under a seemingly catch-all term which has gained something of a cult following of late. Salmon. From elusive vintage Patek Philippe chronographs, to a small handful of Royal Oaks, this unusual colour has long fascinated collectors on account of its scarcity, charm and aesthetic. In more recent times, this interest seems to have reached a new level, with vintage pieces becoming all the more difficult to find and contemporary watches, from large brands and smaller independents alike, integrating this shade into their designs.

There is something instantly appealing about this salmon hue, which seems to speak to collectors in a way few other colours do. After all, there must be a reason why, for such a long time, Patek Philippe held it back for its closest clients or to mark special occasions. With these dials being close to our heart, and that of many others, we thought it worthwhile to find out a bit more about where they came from and how they’ve evolved over time.

 

Grönefeld 1941 Remontoir with a salmon dial and a Patek Philippe chronograph with a salmon dial for A Collected Man London

 The shades may vary, but the effect is often the same. 

 

As ever, we called on the insights of industry insiders, in an attempt to understand this phenomenon. We spoke to long-standing collectors, dealers and admirer of salmon dials, such as Wulf Schuetz, Teddy Dewitte and Matt Hanson, in order to trace back the evolution of this shade over the past century or so. Aiming to grasp just how the colour is created, we also sought the guidance of Dr. Helmut Crott, an industry veteran who literally wrote the book on watch dials and has handled countless different variants over the last half century.

Moving onto the influence of the colour on contemporary creations, we also spoke to Wilhelm Schmid, the CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, and Bart Grönefeld, of the eponymous independent watchmaking brand. Whilst we might not be able to fully capture the charm of these dials or unpack why they have developed such a dedicated following, we hope to at least go some way towards providing an answer. Let’s go fishing.

 

The origins of salmon


 

Though decorative arts and more unusual colours had already been used in pocket watches and clocks for generations, we start to see something similar to salmon appear more consistently during the art deco period, both on the wrist and in the pocket. Rather intuitively, the first executions of the colour came in the form of tone-on-tone rose gold watches, that also featured rose gold dials.

 

Vacheron Constantin rose gold watch with a rose dial from 1943 and Patek Philippe chronograph rose gold case and rose dial for A Collected Man London

When pink dials were chosen to match the material of the case.

 

Whilst these were never described as salmon by brands or collectors at the time, they do seem to be the point of origin for the shade. After all, it seems only logical that the hue would evolve from a widely used precious metal already present in nature, rather than created by deliberate alchemy. The matching of a rose gold case or bezel, with a similar dial seems like the more  obvious point of origin for the choice. Indeed, many of the earliest rose gold dials are only found within cases which feature the same metal, likely as a way to make the design of the piece feel more coherent. 

 

Patek Philippe 130 salmon dial chronograph close up for A Collected Man London

 The details on a Patek Philippe ref. 130 salmon dial, courtesy of Phillips.

 

That being said, Wulf Schuetz, a long-standing collector of vintage pieces, believes that salmon goes with contrast. As he puts it, “to me, salmon dials really begin when you start to see them contrasting with white metal cases. Tone-on-tone watches, where a rose dial is being used in a rose watch or a two-tone watch, can’t be called salmon in my book.” If you look back, you start to see this contrast come through in the 1930s, as watches begin to be made in a more experimental style. More traditional design codes take a back seat, with designers and watchmakers alike starting to question some of the established design norms, namely the pairing of case and dial colours.

This spirit of experimentation is nowhere more obvious than with the Bubbleback, which Rolex introduced around the time. With a whole range of inventive dial variations, from California, to two-tone, we also start to see the introduction of salmon dials within white metal cases, notably stainless steel. Rumour has it that these rose-coloured dials were often reserved by Rolex for the South American market, where they were particularly popular. Other brands which were also involved in pushing the boundaries of design at the time, such as Jaeger-LeCoultre with the Reverso, also followed the same path of pairing light rose dials with white metal cases.

 

A Rolex Bubbleback and two early chronographs with salmon dials taken on an angle for A Collected Man London

 Three takes on the salmon dial by Rolex during the early 20th century. 

 

What is interesting to note is that even at this time there seems to be quite some variance in the shade used by different manufacturers, going from rather dark to extremely light. Collectors could spend hours disputing what colour actually constitutes salmon and what their preferred tone is. The common variable, however, does appear to be the pairing with a white metal case. It is worth nothing that, though we do refer to this colour as salmon today, we haven’t come across any records which might suggest that watches were called this at the time.

In fact, it is assumed by some that the salmon designation started off as a nickname given to these dials by collectors fairly recently, which has then been adopted more widely, including by some brands producing watches today. However, some, like Patek Philippe, still choose not to use this term, often referring to these dials as “golden opaline” on their archival documents, despite having produced, what many consider, the most desirable salmon dials out there.

 

Vintage Longines anti-magnetic chronograph with a salmon dial for A Collected Man London

 A Longines anti-magnetic chronograph sporting a salmon dial with red and blue scales to contrast, courtesy of Phillips.

 

Schuetz believes that as we approach the mid-20th century, we start to see less innovation in the overall case design of watches, such that dials begin to gain prominence. “Brands had to be more innovative with their dials to keep people interested,” he hypothesises. From this point onwards, the salmon shade seems to have been interpreted by a range of manufacturers, such as Longines, Omega, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Rolex, to name just a few. The significant number of brands which experimented with salmon dials during this period could also be due to the fact that none of them produced their dials themselves, relying instead on specialised dial makers, such as Singer or Stern Frères. Therefore, it may have been that these dial makers contributed to the expansion of the colour tone among various manufacturers, offering similar dials to several of their clients.

 

Pre-Daytona Rolex Chronograph salmon dial loose out of its case for A Collected Man London

A patinated salmon dial, from a Rolex chronograph.

 

In many cases, however, it appears that these unusual dials were special requests by clients, rather than something that brands offered as a standard configuration. This is especially the case for Patek Philippe. For example, in one instance, the watchmaker produced a steel ref. 130 in 1942, which was subsequently sold in November 1943. When it was born, the watch housed a more traditional silver dial. However, a few decades later, the owner decided to approach Patek Philippe and have them replace it with a salmon dial.

This is representative of the place that salmon dials occupy within the vintage Patek Philippe world. Indeed, until relatively recently, they were only ever available to clients through special request, which has certainly contributed to the general enthusiasm which has developed around the colour. From these unusual vintage pieces, to the salmon dial watches later produced for Eric Clapton, the association with Patek Philippe is unshakeable.

 

Patek Philippe ref. 130 chronograph in a rose gold case paired with a rose gold dial for A Collected Man London
Patek Philippe ref 3970 perpetual calendar chronograph with a salmon dial that once belonged with Eric Clapton for A Collected Man London

The evolution of the salmon dials from Patek Philippe, from this early rose gold dial on a ref. 130 to Eric Clapton's specially ordered ref. 3970.

 

In the same way that stainless steel cases from Patek Philippe became the choice for collectors looking for something a little bit different, the same dynamic seems to have been at play with salmon dials. They never became the focus of a whole collection, but rather were the shade of choice for those looking for something a bit more out of the ordinary. Their rising popularity today certainly seems due to the scarcity of watches that house them, but also to the fact that they seem to have been integrated into some of the most desirable pieces from the period.

 

Into modernity


 

Whilst the charm of a pink dial on a vintage piece is hard to deny, the cachet of a salmon dial very much carries through into modern times. In fact, one of our favourite incarnations of the unusual tone comes in the shape of the Royal Oak Jubilee 14802 in steel, with a salmon dial. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the model, Audemars Piguet released an homage to the original design in yellow gold, platinum and stainless steel.

 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 14802 jubilee with the rare salmon dial for A Collected Man Lodnon

One of only 200.

 

While both of the precious metal options came with just one dial variation, the stainless steel variant was offered in two different colours. The first was, of course, the traditional dark blue tapisserie pattern, whilst the other was – you guessed it – a salmon tapisserie dial. With only 200 pieces believed to have been made among the 1,000 Jubilee models sold, this configuration has become particularly sought-after. In fact, these days, the salmon variant trades at more than double the value of its more traditional, blue relative. Audemars Piguet also integrated this shade into their chronograph and perpetual calendar versions of the Royal Oak, as well as their more traditional, round shaped perpetual calendars. Years later, they would also bring back the salmon hue into the "Jumbo" time-only Royal Oak with the white gold reference 15202BC.

Towards the turn of the millennium, several established manufacturers also began to embrace the salmon dial, offering it as one of the more limited, unusual options for some of their models. This coincided with a trend of looking back into the archives at historic models from the past, in order to recreate these for modern consumers. Integrating a salmon dial into these retro-looking designs instantly gave them a certain vintage charm. For example, you can find salmon variants of the Les Historiques chronograph by Vacheron Constantin or the Santos by the Collection Privée Cartier Paris, both of which were heavily inspired by the past.

 

Audemars Piguet QP perpetual calendar with a salmon dial for A Collected Man London
Vacheron Constantin Les Historiques chronograph with a rare salmon dial for A Collected Man Lodnon

Two salmon pieces from different brands, both evoking a vintage feel.

 

Moving forwards, we see Patek Philippe deploying the salmon dial with a similar mindset as in the past. They either reserve it for select clients, or decide to use it for certain limited editions, to mark particularly important moments. Let’s look at the ref. 5970, for example. Produced between 2004 and 2011, it was the last perpetual calendar chronograph from the manufacture to house a Lemania ébauche. The salmon dial made an appearance at the end of the production run as part of a special box set which contained four models, one of each metal type, with the platinum sporting this pink hue on the dial. It’s unclear exactly how many of these were made, but the number is far smaller than the original production run.

 

Patek Philippe 3940 perpetual calendar and 5070 chronograph with a special edition salmon dial from the Saatich Grand Exhibition for A Collected Man London

 A ref. 5070 and ref. 3940 produced for the Grand Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. 

 

A few years later, in 2015, to mark the Watch Art Grand Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, Patek Philippe released a small handful of watches with a salmon dial, notably the reference 5070 and 3940. Using cases left over from these discontinued references, the manufacture chose to pair some of the white metal cases with the unmistakeable pink hue. Believed to have been produced in only five pieces for each of the two references, these have become particularly sought-after by collectors, and only further reinforced the general aura surrounding salmon dials.

Extending the same logic, Patek Philippe recently used the colour for its unique Grandmaster Chime, sold at the Only Watch last year. This watch features two dials to accommodate all of its complications – one dial in black, with the other in salmon. This would go on to sell for an astounding CHF 31 million, becoming the most expensive watch ever sold. More recently, it is also interesting to note that Patek Philippe has gradually integrated the salmon dial into some of their production models, such as the annual calendar ref. 5035 or the perpetual calendar chronograph ref. 5270. In many ways, it appears that these were gradual steps taken by the manufacture, to bring their salmon dials to a greater number of their clients, rather than just those who share a privileged relationship with the brand.

This extension of the salmon dial into modern times isn’t confined to the usual suspects either. Smaller, independent watchmakers have adopted the same path. For example, Philippe Dufour or the Grönefeld Brothers have both experimented with this shade, to varying degrees. Dufour integrated it within a unique Simplicity in stainless steel with Eastern Arabic numerals, whilst the brothers have released multiple watches with the options, including their 1941 Principia and 1941 Remontoir. We’ve also seen these dials coming from the likes of A. Lange & Söhne, who gave their Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon a salmon dial, last year.

 

Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire with blue hands and a salmon dial for A Collected Man London

The standard production 1941 Remontoire from the Grönefeld Brothers.

 

Overall, the salmon dial has experienced a long and colourful history, from its early uses in tone-on-tone models with pink gold cases to its extension into modernity, where it has largely been used sparingly, for limited editions or as an unusual option. Its distinctive appearance, prestigious brand association and general scarcity all combine to explain the desirability which now surrounds it. Now that we have a sense of how it has evolved, let’s look at how it can be made.

 

How they’re made


 

When trying to get a sense of how these dials were produced, we reached out to Dr. Helmut Crott, who has handled countless vintage and modern salmon dials over the last few decades. He in turn reached-out to the former Technical Director of the Stern dial making company, who produced the dials for many of the most noteworthy models from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, among others.

 

Audemars PIguet QP Perpetual Calendar with a salmon dial for A Collected Man London
Audemars Piguet QP Perpetual Calendar with a salmon dial for A Collected Man London

Getting up close with the texture on the Audemars Piguet QP.

 

Having spent twenty years at Stern, one of the first things that this dial-maker pointed out to Crott is that “in watch scholarship, salmon dials are called gilded dials or cadran doré 2N or 3N.” These numbers actually correspond to a specific alloy of gold. They reference the amount of copper which has been added to the pure yellow gold in order to give it this rosy tint.

For those who are unfamiliar with this gold colour scale, it follows a certain pattern, according to Crott: 1N for yellow, 2N for more rose, 3N for salmon, 4N for pink and 5N for red gold. Each number will correspond with an exact percentage of copper in the gold alloy, giving them a unique hue on the yellow to red gold spectrum. This scale is used both to refer to actual gold alloys and to specific types of colour, whatever method may have been used to create them.

 

Different shades of gold from yellow to red for a watch dial containing different amounts of copper for A Collected Man London

The five different shades from 1N to 5N gold, courtesy of Dr. Helmut Crott. 

 

One of the most common techniques used to add any colour to a dial is called galvanoplastie. Through this method, a whole range of colours can be applied to dials by placing them in a charged bath of chemicals. As Crott puts it, “this process is a little like alchemy”, in the way it applies colours in such a rich fashion to blank dial plates. This will have been the technique used on some of the more contemporary salmon dials, such as the Royal Oak Jubilee. By fine tuning the right mix of chemicals, this technique has the advantage that it can be repeated over an extended series.

 

Brass watch dials about to be dipped in a galvanic bath to be coloured silver from Le Cadran by Dr. Helmut Crott for A Collected Man London
Brass watch dials after they have been dipped in a galvanic bath to be coloured silver from Le Cadran by Dr. Helmut Crott for A Collected Man London

Brass watch dials before and after being dipped in a galvanic bath, turning them silver, courtesy of Dr. Helmut Crott. 

 

If you ask Crott, a true salmon dial “only comes from the galvanic process”, as he does not consider untreated rose gold dials, with the 2N or 3N designation, as proper salmon dials. Meanwhile, others still favour the more traditional method of using gold. For example, for their own take on a salmon dial, A. Lange & Söhne chose this approach. Wilhelm Schmid, the CEO of the brand, told us that, “as we strive for authentic materials, we opted against a lacquered or galvanised salmon dial and decided on a solid pink gold dial.” There are, of course, also other methods of achieving a salmon colour, such as using enamel, lacquer, PVD or a range of other modern technique. However, most of salmon dials you will find will have been made through the galvanoplastie method.

 

The rising popularity


 

Something which has been mentioned throughout this article, but which we wanted to concentrate on more explicitly, is the surging demand for salmon dials and how this has evolved over time. The topic has cropped up time and again in the conversations we had while researching this piece, such that the excitement around this shade has almost become synonymous with it.

On purely aesthetic grounds, there is something about the colour which seems to just speak to some collectors. Teddy Dewitte, a French collector who has become particularly enamoured with the salmon Royal Oak 14802, explains how he gradually developed an obsession for the shade. “When I collect, I tend to stick to original references, such as the 3700 for the Nautilus or the 5402 for the Royal Oak. So, I wasn’t expecting to become a true fan of an anniversary edition, even if it fully respected the DNA and dimensions of the original design”, Dewitte tells us.

 Close up of an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 14802 Jubilee salmon dial for A Collected Man London

The unmistakable texture of a ref. 14802 dial. 

 

However, he quickly found himself enamoured with the shade, as many have before and since. As he puts it, “this is when the salmon twist kicked in. This colour brings a true novelty to the eye which accustomed to looking at black, blue, grey, gold or white dials. Installed on my wrist, I was struck and pleasantly surprised that it suited my light skin colour so well.”

This sentiment is shared by Matt Hanson, a dedicated collector and dealer of vintage Longines pieces, who told us that, “when you find an example in excellent condition, you’re rewarded every time the sunlight catches the dial, in a way that you just don’t get with most other dial colours.” When asked about one of his favourite watches, he described his Longines ref. 5030, with a salmon dial, from 1948. As he puts it, “it never fails to put a smile on my face, with its warm tones and beautiful simplicity.” This goes some way towards explaining the popularity of these pieces. Whilst they may not be one’s first choice, there is something about them which appears to captivate collectors once they put them on the wrist.

 

Vintage Longines time only watch with a small seconds and a salmon dial for A Collected Man London
Vintage Longines time only watch with a small seconds and salmon dial for A Collected Man London

A well-preserved Longines piece, courtesy of Matt Hanson, otherwise known as @vintagelongines.

 

Looking back at the world of vintage watches, the lure of salmon dials also seems to have been created through breadth and scarcity. Breadth in that it appeared in many different iconic wristwatches, from many established manufactures. You need look no further than complicated Patek Philippes, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Rolex Day Date, to name just a few. Scarcity in that it was used incredibly sparingly.

This means that there are many different vintage variations to pour over, but very few to actually access or collect. The breadth excites the collector, whilst the scarcity torments him. In combination, these have fuelled the excitement around salmon dials. Dewitte echoes this sentiment when he says, “I like that this salmon dial colour is always quite exclusive, and I really hope brands will not ruin this scarcity so precious in collectors’ hearts by producing them on mass.”

 

Patek Philippe ref. 3970 perpetual calendar chronograph in platinum with salmon dial for A Collected Man London

As good as it gets. A Patek Philippe ref. 3970, with a rich salmon dial and applied Breguet numerals.

 

The exclusiveness of salmon dials is no more apparent than in the world of Patek Philippe. Until very recently, the hue was reserved for clients who had a privileged relationship with the manufacture, such that they could order custom pieces through them. Possibly the most prominent, and certainly the first that comes to mind, is Eric Clapton. The Cream guitarist is known in watch circles for his collecting and affinity for Patek Philippe in particular. He is known to have salmon dialled versions of the 3970, 5004 and 5970 – three of the manufacture’s more modern perpetual calendar chronographs. Others, such as Jason Singer or John Mayer, have also publicly shared their complicated salmon pieces from the brand. 

A prominent collector of Patek Philippe watches, known only as Horology Ancienne, commented on Clapton’s set of 5970 watches – with a salmon, black and white dial – stating that “the dial colours recalled the past, acknowledged the present and looked to the future.” When salmon dials become so closely tied to certain collectors and important pieces such as these, it’s easy to understand their rising popularity.

This has been noticed by those producing watches today, as well. Bart Grönefeld, one of the two brothers behind the eponymous brand, explains the brothers’ foray into salmon dials in the last few years. When they were making a limited edition of their parallax tourbillon, they decided to make five pieces in platinum with a salmon dial. They noticed that “the response was amazing, so we already saw that there was a growing appetite for these, quite early on in the current trend of salmon dials, back in 2014.” As such, they decided to integrate it into their flagship 1941 Remontoire, which they made available with “rhodium, black and salmon dials at the launch. The salmon seemed to be very, very popular.”

 

Roger Dubuis Hommage H40 chronograph with a salmon dial worn by Mike Tay of The Hour Glass for A Collected Man London
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak QP perpetual calendar salmon dial worn by Ben Clymer for A Collected Man London

Modern salmon dials enjoyed by both Mike Tay and Ben Clymer. 

 

The appetite for salmon dials has become so pronounced that in 2019, for April Fool’s day, HODINKEE decided to run a story entitled “Appetite For Salmon Dials Critically Endangering Wild Salmon Population, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Reports.” If that doesn’t capture the (slightly absurd) excitement around salmon dials in recent years, we’re not sure what does.

 

Parting thoughts


 

Looking back, the recent popularity of the salmon dial begins to make sense. As Hanson put it to us, “salmon dials typify why we collect vintage watches; rarity, nuance and beauty.” This particular shade has inhabited some of the most iconic pieces of the last century, from complicated Patek Philippe’s to the angular Royal Oak. From a dark, copper tone to a light pink, the colour has taken endless variations over time, all of them charming in their own ways. 

What started off as an unusual choice for collectors seeking something different has turned into its own phenomenon. In the same way that collectors of vintage pieces have become obsessively focused on Breguet numerals and stainless steel cases, this has extended into the world of salmon dials. The enthusiasm surrounding the shade hasn’t been helped by the fact that the likes of Patek Philippe reserved it for their most important clients.

However much we wish to dissect and analyse it, one thing is certain. The salmon dial would not have reached the cult status it now enjoys if it didn’t create a unique impression while worn on the wrist. Generating a warmth against the white metal case it is usually housed in, there’s nothing quite like it. If you haven’t managed to get your hands on one quite yet, it might be time to go fishing for yours.



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