The Surprising Mistakes of Watchmaking
It can sometimes be easy to forget that behind many of the watches we admire, however impressive, sit simple humans. Whilst we often focus on the quest for perfection and precision in horology, mistakes are an integral part of this human element. From misspelling the Patek Philippe name on a buckle, to the wrong numerals being applied on a Rolex dial, mistakes crop up from time to time, sometimes in the most surprising places.
We wanted to look back at the times that mishaps accidentally slipped through the quality-control net and made it into circulation. Many of these remind us of a time when watchmaking was far less precise and controlled than it is today, where modern manufacturing has narrowed the room for error. In some cases, the mistakes are surprisingly recent. If you’ve ever felt remorse about sending an email out with a typo, this might just make you feel better.
Before we dive in, we wanted to outline just what we mean by a mistake. We will only be looking at manufacturing errors that have taken place whilst the watch was being made and not defaults that appeared after it was sold. We won’t be covering paint that turns tropical or markers that drop off when the watch receives a shock, though these could certainly be considered imperfections. We’re dealing with the glaringly obvious ones here. Many of the mistakes featured have occurred on a small batch of watches, having been quickly corrected once the anomaly was spotted. There are also a few one-offs along the way...
The Rolex Mishaps
Let’s start with the brand which possibly has the largest number of documented manufacturing errors. It’s not because they’re the worst at quality control by any stretch. Rather, it’s a by-product of the sheer volume of watches that they’ve produced and the intense focus which the brand receives. When collectors pour over the details of different dials with magnifying loupes, mistakes are bound to be identified.
It’s precisely because Rolex has such high production standards that the anomalies along the way are so interesting. Possibly the most well-known error of recent times comes from an Air King 116900, spotted by Watchfinder. It’s a rather glaring mistake once noticed; however, it still manages to fly under the radar. So well, in fact, that the person who first bought it didn’t even realise it was there, until someone else pointed it out to him.
This managed to slip past everyone at Rolex, and even the AD that sold it, courtesy of WatchFinder.
If you haven’t already found the mistake, don’t worry, it took us a moment too. A clue lies in this watch’s nickname, the “Double 9” Air King. This model accidentally features a number “9” hour marker at 3 o’clock. It’s not the most obvious of mistakes, since the three and nine have an almost identical silhouette in this Rolex typeface. It seems almost impossible that something this obvious would have slipped past the extensive quality control that modern Rolex watches go through. However, it did happen.
This mistake appears to be unique, as this watch is the only example to have appeared publicly with a repeated number. The original owner reported this to the authorised retailer where he had bought it, who asked if they could buy it back from him, to send to Rolex. Luckily, he was advised to keep hold of this seemingly unique watch, which documents the story. It is still believed to be in the original owner’s collection.
A dial misprint on a Rolex can’t go unnoticed today.
While this seems rather unusual, there are a few more examples that show that Rolex have occasionally dropped the ball. One that often gets brought up, whenever this topic is discussed, is the “APH” Daytona. It holds this nickname because the “Cosmograph” signature on the dial features a gap between the “Cosmogr” and “aph” portions of the word. Though this appears to be more of a slight manufacturing anomaly than a fully-fledged mistake, it’s still interesting that collectors have taken note of it. However, more significant anomalies have also appeared within the Daytona family. There is a well-known example of a one-off Zenith Daytona ref. 16520 nicknamed the “No Daytona”. Assumed to have been made around the year 2000, this unusual piece slipped through the cracks at Rolex without the classic red Daytona stamp curving over the bottom sub-dial. Believed to be correct after being sent to Rolex and examined, this has become somewhat of a white whale among Daytona collectors.
Rolex enthusiasts might also point to the “Flat Four” Kermit Submariner as being a mistake, since after the flat design of the four was introduced on the bezel, it quickly transitioned back to the more pointed version. However, calling this a mistake seems inaccurate. Brands often experimented with small changes to their existing design, which sometimes only appear on a small handful of watches. This certainly makes these details unusual and rare, but not necessarily mistakes.
The slight change can make all the difference, courtesy of Watch Club.
Another classic example of this generational change, which ends-up being identified as more attractive by some, appears in the Rolex GMT Master II 16710. This was the last version of the GMT Master II before the introduction of ceramic bezel inserts. The variation appears on the dial, specifically the style in which the “II” is written. The early models all have this written in classic Roman numerals, with tops and bottoms to both connecting them. However, these serif lines seem to disappear in the later models, often referred to as “Stick dials”. Some people view this as an error, simply because Rolex went back to using serifs in the reference 116710. However, it seems more like a design choice that was introduced, and then reversed.
A Milgauss dial with something missing, courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Another rare Rolex variation, which is often interpreted as some sort of anomaly in production, appears on a handful of 1958 Milgauss 6541 watches, that were sold in the United Kingdom. These have the model name missing on the dial, while all other Milgausses have this clearly printed. This must be a mistake, surely? Not quite, actually. This one was pointed out to us by Wulf Schütz, a notable collector and dealer of vintage pieces, who has been studying the reference closely and is set to publish an in-depth book on the model soon. Schütz managed to find a handwritten note, which was buried in the Rolex archives, that asked for the dials to be altered in order to help push sales in Britain, which were suffering at the time. When people first come across these pieces, they thought they were some sort of mistake or perhaps even watches assembled from unfinished parts. However, Schütz assures us that this was all a conscious decision made by Rolex. This goes to show how thin the line between conscious choice, brief experimental design and genuine mistake can really be.
A mishap on a Tudor dial.
Finally, we wanted to quickly look at a mistake from Rolex’s sister company, Tudor. In this case, we’re dealing with an obvious error in manufacturing. In 2017, Tudor made a Black Bay Bronze with a missing letter on the dial. Instead of stating that the movement inside – the MT5601 – was “Officially Certified” as a chronometer, the dial reads “Offically Certified”, missing the second “i” in officially. The amusing irony of a label supposed to indicate precision, being imprecise certainly isn’t lost on us. If you look closely, you can spy a slight mark where the “i” should have been, suggesting that there may have been an attempt to print it on, but the process was slightly off. Whilst this sort of mistake might not be as rare as you think, it’s rather unusual that it would make it past quality control at Tudor.
The Omega Omissions
Again, Omega is another brand that many see as impervious to mistakes and slip-ups. However, with the sheer number of pieces created over the years, their reliance on a range of external suppliers and the close scrutiny of collectors, this has inevitably resulted in anomalies being identified. For example, Omega has been known to accidentally fit parts destined for one watch, onto another, such as using a Speedmaster caseback, on a Seamaster. Jack Wong, a collector of vintage and modern pieces, owns a Seamaster 300 ref. 165.024 with one of these erroneous Speedmaster casebacks, which appears to have been originally fitted to the watch.
In the hope of finding out why, he sent the Seamaster back to Omega for inspection. Omega issued him with an Extract from the Archives which confirmed that his watch was part of a small batch of Seamasters produced in 1967 that had Speedmaster stamped on the outside of the caseback, but with the correct reference number, 165.024, printed on the inside. Wong said that he has seen a few other examples with this mysterious caseback and that a contact of his at the Omega archives estimates that around 50 were made at the time, through observing serial number ranges. It’s likely that Omega fitted a small batch of spare Speedmaster casebacks onto these Seamasters without much thought, at a time when these things seemed to matter much less.
A misprint on the Speedmaster bezel, courtesy of Bukowskis.
The next mistake from Omega is another one which appears on a small batch of pieces, before the error was noticed and rectified. This time we’re looking at a small selection of Speedmasters made in 1970, with the ref. 145.022-69. The tachymeter bezel – one of the standout features of the Speedmaster – displays a typo around the 3:30 position. It should read “200”, but instead, it shows “220”. This is not an intentional change in the design, as it essentially renders the tachymeter scale inaccurate if the chronograph hand stops in that position. Good thing this one wasn’t sent into space.
Patek Philippe’s imperfections
While mistakes from the other two might have been understandable, due to their high level of output, errors from Patek Philippe seem a little harder to fathom. The pursuit of perfection and precision has been at the heart of the Swiss manufacturer’s identity since its founding, in 1839. However, like nearly all watch brands of a certain era, they relied heavily on suppliers for many of their components. While the final quality inspection was up to Patek Philippe, things can always fall through the cracks.
A typo that has turned into a collectable, courtesy of Christies.
One prime example of supplier mistakes can be found on the most unassuming part of a watch. The buckle. Collectors and experts such as Wulf Schütz or John Reardon have studied these details closely, coming across a few inconsistencies. The manufacture had a supplier in the United States who produced buckles for watches sold to the domestic market; devoid of the hallmarks that Swiss-made precious metal products needed, these buckles were simple stamped with the company name on the inside. Seems rather straightforward, no?
However, as these were being made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was no spell-check around to help. Instead of saying “PATEK PHILIPPE, they were printed “PATEK PHILLIPE”, swapping the double P for a double L. A mishap that Adrien Philippe might not have been too pleased about if he’d been around at the time. It was assumed for a number of years that these were just poorly-made, fake buckles, but through research, the story has been confirmed, and these buckles now act as a good indicator that your watch was originally sold in the United States between the 1950s and ‘60s.
The Lucky Thirteen wasn’t a mistake, courtesy of Phillips.
A slightly more recent example of a watch that some believed to have been a mistake was an anomalous Nautilus ref. 3710. The watch is known as the “Lucky Thirteen”, on account of the fact that at the 8 o'clock position it does not feature the roman numeral VIII, but instead XIII. Whereas this might seem like an error, it appears that this was actually a special request from a client who believed in the superstitious power of the number and wanted it on the dial of his watch. Replacing a V for an X kept the original balance and design of the dial, without need to add an extra I at the end of the XII. This also makes the change hard to spot unless you know what you’re looking for.
Other Manufacturers’ Mistakes
Whilst we’ve looked at the mistakes made by Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe, that far from covers it. Errors pop up in all sorts of places, from all kinds of brands. One such mistake came from François-Paul Journe, the independent watchmaker who has been producing pieces under his eponymous brand since 1999. One of his centrepiece models is the Chronomètre à Résonance, a wristwatch which places two balance wheels extremely close to each other, in a way that they feed off each other’s energy, thus regulating one another and gaining precision.
An error Journe is unlikely to repeat, courtesy of The Journe Guy.
Honing the concept took years of work and the first prototype wristwatch took months of adjustments. However, despite all the work that went into developing the watch, Journe got a small detail wrong when he designed a dial and cased it up. As Journe shared in a talk at the Horological Society of New York, the dial of the prototype features a mistake on the word Resonance, which is spelt “Resonnance.” As Journe himself put it, “this dial proves that I was not very diligent in school, because there is a big spelling mistake.”
Misbranding is never a good idea with collaborations.
Audemars Piguet has become synonymous with the Royal Oak over the last few decades. In 1993, they took their octagonal design one step further with the Royal Oak Offshore, making it bulkier and more rugged. Like many brands at the time, they were beginning to collaborate with various sports teams, in order to associate their product with sporting achievement. A key aspect to any brand partnership, is ensuring that your partnering brand is properly represented on your product. On one occasion, Audemars Piguet collaborated with Team Alinghi, a sailing team competing in the America’s Cup. Unfortunately, they placed a slightly incorrect logo on the dial of their limited edition Offshore. The red circular logo was printed on the dial at three o’clock and was erroneously given a white outline. A small batch was made with this error, before it was spotted and rectified on the remaining examples.
A rather public error that luckily didn’t make it into a shop display, courtesy of Monochrome.
Finally, we wanted to take a quick look at a mistake that was doing the rounds on social media recently, when Zenith delivered a new model to Monochrome, for the purpose of a review. The watch in question was a Chronomaster Sport in stainless steel. The only problem was that the hour marker at four o’clock had been applied upside down, as was spotted by a few readers. While some thought this could have been a deliberate stylistic choice, a quick scout around the other publications that had released images of the watch revealed that none of them had this inverted marker. Perhaps not the best watch to make a mistake on, when it is due to be photographed and published for the world to see. Unlike the “Double 9” Air King, it is believed that this watch was returned to Zenith, as it was simply a press sample. This means that it’s likely that the watch has been corrected by the brand and the only record of this unusual mistake will be the online trace it leaves behind.
Whilst the topic of this article is ultimately quite light-hearted, we hope that pointing out some the mistakes that have come-up, also highlights how difficult the watchmaking profession can be. For a long time, brands relied on a network of external suppliers and, though they were ultimately responsible for the final quality check, a range of mistakes slipped through the cracks. Manufacturers were also much less meticulous about certain details, often using spare, left-over parts or making experimental changes to their designs. These have only been picked-apart in more recent times, when enthusiasts have spent hours scrutinising every detail of desirable watches with a magnifying loupe. We doubt anyone would have noticed the space between letters on a Rolex dial otherwise.
In many ways, these errors remind us that we’re ultimately dealing with things whose manufacture involve a human element. All the way from François-Paul Journe making a typo on his prototype Résonance, to Omega misprinting their Speedmaster bezel, human error can often be spotted. Though these examples certainly cover a wide spectrum of human intervention, it’s a welcome reminder that we’re not dealing with entirely machine-made creations. In many ways, these mistakes make horology all the more intriguing.