March 2021 8 Min Read

The Colourful World of Rolex Stella Dials

By Russell Sheldrake

More so than anyone else, Rolex seems to sit above the watch industry. Omnipotent, omnipresent and more instantly recognisable than any other brand in the luxury market. Their watches permeate our culture and seep-out into so many aspects of our lives, making it difficult to talk about watches, without talking about Rolex.

The image that is quickly conjured-up when this brand name is mentioned is one of enduring sports watches. However, as you’ve probably guessed by now, we’re not going to be looking at these professional watches in this article, nor are we going to be studying the ever popular, classically designed pieces such as the Datejust. These watches have been discussed and dissected countless times, and their style copied even more.

Instead, we’re going to be looking at the slightly wilder, perhaps freer, side of Rolex. The colourful world of Stella dials. In the early 1970s, as an era of exuberance and norm breaking was about to settle in around the Western world, Rolex decided to adorn their most complicated watch at the time, the Day-Date, in a rainbow of different colours. These watches became the bright disruptors to the brand that had established itself as making tough, reliable and somewhat conservative watches for nearly seventy years.

A row of Rolex Stella dials in red, green, and light pink

A rainbow of coloured Stella dials.

This is precisely why, years later, they remain some of the most sought-after pieces Rolex has ever produced, chased by fanatic collectors. It is also an area of collecting which lends itself to constant discovery and intrigue. Ever heard of a Stella Daytona, for example? Stay with us and we’ll share some more.

To get a better understanding of these colourful timepieces and their history, we spoke to a few experts in the field. Among them is none other than Dr. Helmut Crott, the industry veteran and eponymous auction house founder, who has gone so far as to unmount these dials in an attempt to understand them and how they’re made. We also spoke with Wulf Schütz, the man behind Rare & Fine Vintage watches, as well as a notable collector who has had hundreds of Stella dials pass through his hands over the years, with a collection numbering close to eighty pieces at one point. 

With help from these two, paired with the knowledge already out there through auction listings and pre-existing research, we hope we've been able to shine a light on the entire spectrum of Rolex Stella dials. Even unearthing some watches that are believed to be previously unknown to the wider collecting community. Let’s embark on this colourful path.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Before diving into the minutiae, it’s worth asking the most basic, but primary of questions. Why should we care about Stella dials? And, by extension, why do some seem so fascinated by them? In our view, beyond the obvious element of rarity, there is a paradox intrinsic to Stella dials which makes them so appealing. In the same way an all-gold sports watch doesn’t make sense, and therefore ends up being alluring for precisely this reason, such is the way for Stella dials.

Rolex is commonly associated with rugged, utilitarian sports watches. Be it the Daytona or the Submariner, it is Rolex’s no fuss and no thrills approach to watchmaking which has partially contributed to its success. Even the Day-Date, which has historically been its most precious and high-end model, hasn’t varied much from its original formula over the several decades it’s been in production. Even there, there is a predictability and control to the design which feels very Rolex.

And then we have Stella dials. Not only did Rolex choose to introduce some colour into possibly their most conservative watches, which was already an unusual choice, but they went as bold as they could. From bright yellow to a rich purple, Rolex introduced a series of whimsical, playful colours into their Day-Date line, in a way that was unprecedented.

The contrast between these bright colours, the precious metals of the case and Rolex’s approach and reputation in watchmaking all combine to make Stella Day-Dates rather unusual. It is not only the rarity in numbers that matters, but the rarity of the thought behind these watches that makes them so captivating. 

What to Expect

There are quite a few misconceptions and misunderstandings around Stella dials. Mainly surrounding their name. While some believe that the label came from the dial shades being similar to the work of artist Frank Stella, others thought that the Italian market gave them this nickname due to their bright, “star-like” quality. Neither of these are in fact correct.

The name actually came from a company called Stella, based in Châtelaine and Geneva, which supplied Rolex’s dial makers with the special lacquer and bright pigment used. The first person to discover and disclose this publicly was Dr. Helmut Crott, the industry veteran and eponymous auction house founder, who published this in his referential book Le Cadran.

From one colour to another. 

The obvious place to begin when breaking down these dials is the colours that you can expect to find. Due to the lacquer being mixed by hand and these dials being produced over a number of decades, there is a large variation in the shades you can find. However, we have managed to find a Rolex dealer catalogue for special dials from 1986 that lists the lacquered Stella colours simply as blue, green, red and yellow. Obviously, more colours outside of these four were made.

According to Schütz, the rarest colour is a light purple, or mauve, followed by yellow, then a light pink or coral and then the light blue which some refer to as turquoise. It should be noted that this list of colours from 1986 was by no means complete, with a common colour that was not on the list being oxblood, which we see in very early models.

Breaking down the four different Stella dial series. 

According to Schütz there are four distinct series when it comes to Stella dials. The first can be spotted by the “pie pan” shape, where you see a clear step down from the centre-section of the dial to the minute track. This only appeared on Rolex Day Dates that had 180X reference numbers from the early to late 1970s.

The second series can be identified by the flat dial, so no more pie pan edge running around the minute track and the text at the very bottom of the dial should read “T Swiss T”. You will find these dials on watches numbered 180X and 1803X. This series went up to the late 1970s, though an exact year is hard to ascertain.

The third series appears at the same time as the second, but the text at 6 o’clock changes to “T Swiss Made T” and appears up until the late 1980s. These dials were fitted on watches with five-digit codes, 180XX, which also had a quick set function.

Finally, we have the fourth series that appears similar to the previous, but the minute track shifts from short and long dashes to a train track with roman numerals signalling every five minutes. The “T Swiss Made T” text stays unchanged. Schütz points out that there can be some discrepancies in this, with examples appearing from the 1990s with “T Swiss T” at 6 o’clock for example. The reason for this is unknown and could possibly vary from case to case, but should not be a cause for concern when judging the legitimacy of the dial.

 Up close with a yellow Stella dial with applied diamond indexes. Courtesy of Pucci Papaleo.

Throughout all four series we see a variety of markers used, from thin coffin-shaped batons to diamond indexes which is where we see a large amount of creativity in design. The amount of diamonds seems to increase later into the production run. Some examples show diamonds circling the whole way around the dial, with the hour markers signified by additional stones set inside. More commonly, you will find just individual diamond markers, either brilliant or emerald cut.

We should also point out that while the Stella dial does most commonly appear on the Day Date, it was also made for a selection of Datejust models. While it can be found on a couple of different sized Datejusts, it was most often seen on the ladies sized versions.

 From yellow to bright blue, and everything in between 

Schütz says that one of the key things to look for when judging the legitimacy of a Stella dial can be the colour. “Some colours were just never produced. For me, a really orange dial should be carefully analysed.”

Another area to focus on can be the text; often a great place to look to spot any fake Rolex. The Stella dials should always have a clear serif on the typeface and on the five-minute markers. If the lettering appears to be a bit too bold, or the spacing is at all off, this can be a real cause for concern.

How They're Made

The only place to begin to find out how Stella dials are produced is Dr Crott’s book, Le Cadran. It only dedicates a couple of pages to the topic, but to inform himself, Crott spoke to those who were in charge of the lacquering departments at Stern Frères, one of two companies who are supposed to have produced these dials for Rolex.

The other was Lemrich, which went out of business in the 1980s when Stern took over full production of these dials according to Crott. Although, if you ask Schütz, he believes that also Singer could have made Stella dials throughout the years. There are no dial maker codes imprinted on the back of Stella dials so their origin can be a little hard to pin down. If you ask Rolex, they will often say it was done “in-house”.

The giclage technique used to coat Stella dials in lacquer. Courtesy of Dr. Helmut Crott.

To get the result that Rolex wanted on these watches, they went to Stern and asked for, as Crott put it, “something that had never been done before.” So, to achieve the desired effect Stern went to their supplier of varnishes and lacquer, Stella, and asked for their most colourful pigment. They gave them a sample and asked how many dials they could coat. Only 100. This wasn’t even close enough for Stern and Rolex, who needed enough for 10,000 watches, not that Rolex would ever tell you their production numbers.

Such a demand might seem outrageous for a single dial maker, but “what you have to remember”, Crott reminds us, “is that Stern was the biggest dial maker at that time. They were able to meet such big demands that no one else could.” Once the materials had arrived from Stella, the dial makers were able to get to work with the tricky and long process of coating the dial in the lacquer.

The thickness of the dial, resulting from several layers of lacquer, becomes obvious when you look at the towards slope of the day aperture. Courtesy of Pucci Papaleo and captured by Fabio Santinelli.

The varnisher, who has had to go through a long period of training to get to this point, begins by using a spray gun to add layers of lacquer to a dial. After each layer is applied, the dial spends a short time in the oven to dry off. Crott points out that this is not like an enamelling process where the oven is heated to a very high temperature. This part of the process is just to dry and harden the layer that has just been applied before the next layer goes on. Once all of the coloured layers have dried, a clear layer of varnish is then applied and polished by hand.

This is what gives the deep brilliance to these dials, which can only be achieved through this technique. While many people group it with enamelling, it is in fact a different process entirely, providing a high-shine, glossy finish that had never been seen on a watch dial before; a complete departure from the matte black dials of Rolex’s sports range that Stern was used to producing.

 A vignette dial, created through the same techniques used for Stella dials, with some signs of 'spidering' resulting from cracks in the lacquer. Courtesy of Pucci Papaleo and captured by Fabio Santinelli.

Another similar type of dial that is often called a Vignette or Degradé is produced in a very similar way, according to Crott. Though most collectors won't refer to these as Stella, it is worth pointing out that the same technique is used to make them. The only difference is that the dial is on a rotating platform when the lacquer is applied. The varnisher then has to very carefully apply more coloured lacquer to the outer edge, thus darkening it. This leaves a gradient that goes from the original, vivid colour in the middle, to an almost black around the edge.

Once the colour, varnish and polish has been completed the text is then applied. This is applied by décalque, where a large silicone pad is used to stamp the text and minute track onto the freshly polished surface. This leaves the text raised from the dial and thanks to the layer of clear varnish on top, it gives it a slight floating effect.

Once this is on, all that is left to do is mount the dial onto the movement and case it. This is where, especially during a service, it is very easy for the lacquer to crack and show what some refer to as “spidering”.

In a white metal case, a Stella dial becomes all the more distinctive. Courtesy of Pucci Papaleo and captured by Fabio Santinelli.

Unusual and Unique Models

We should start this section off by stating the first thing we are about to address; we cannot show you any images of. We have seen images that confirm it, but have not been granted permission to publish them. Such is the sensitivity, and therefore intrigue, of this piece.

In 2013, a well-known senior non-executive of Rolex asked to place a very special order: He requested a limited series of coloured Stella dials for manual-wind Daytonas that had already been discontinued. Alongside this there was also a set of coloured Stella dials for the Day-Date collection with sapphire crystals. You might instantly think that such a thing couldn’t be done. The Stella company had disappeared long before 2013 and, while Rolex released a collection of coloured dial Day-Dates in the same year, these were not Stellas.

While the Day-Date dials have not been manufactured specifically for a particular reference, the gold Daytonas were made in less than twenty pieces, four colours, two of which were assigned to each of the two references, 6263 and 6265. Turquoise and green dials with gold subsidiary dials were designated for the reference 6265, and red and yellow dials with black subsidiary dials, for the reference 6263.

None of these Daytonas have made it to the open market, yet. They all still reside in private collections and it is assumed that they haven’t changed hands since they were first purchased. This would mean that they still belong to this former important senior non-executive at Rolex and special clients or friends of Rolex who were also able to get one.

The special 2013 Stella Day-Date.

The day-date with yellow Stella diamond-set dial, presented here, is one of the few images from this special order that is known to the public. Furthermore, bearing a rare Latin day disc and a very personal engraving of the owner saying 'Errare humanum est, in errore perseverare stultum' on the back. (To err is human, to continue foolish). Again, this has never made it to the open market, but it is safe to assume that this the only modern Day-Date to be fitted with a genuine Stella dial, by Rolex.

Another, possibly unique Stella dial is one that Schütz knows of – double signed with a Tiffany stamp. This is the only one that Schütz has come across and we were unable to find any others either.

The closest thing to another double signed Stella dial is those with Khanjar and Eastern Arabic signatures on them. Some of the Khanjar signed examples have Asprey signatures on the back as well, supporting what we laid out in our Double Signed article about the strong connection between the Sultan of Oman, William Asprey and Rolex. The others, which are signed with Easter Arabic script, were mainly ordered by Sheikh Mohammad Ben Zayed al Nahyyan. The Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi had his name stamped on a number of Stella dials in both Western and Arabic lettering.

The inimitable charm of a Khanjar dial is also found on a select few Stella dials, courtesy of Pucci Papaleo and captured by Fabio Santinelli.

As we mentioned earlier, one of the rarest colours that has been observed is the purple, or mauve. This shade is particularly hard to come by, but the production figures, as with everything that Rolex makes, are equally difficult to figure out. We also see some elusive white dials starting to appear later in the production run.

The problem with figuring out the quantities of the different Stella dials that exist, is that they are often not produced in a traditional series. As we observed in the dealers’ catalogue from 1986, it was possible to order one separately to a watch, and then have it applied to an already existing model. You also had retailers adding dials to watches that were never supposed to belong together. For example, there is a Stella Day Date that holds a second series dial, with “T Swiss T” at 6 o’clock, but was made in 1999. It is all believed to be correct and original, but the dial in question went out of production about 20 years prior.

The Legacy

Anyone who follows the market for these watches will know that the interest, and therefore the value, has been climbing over the last 10 to 15 years. Typical of many similar areas in watch collecting, the more collective knowledge is gained about a specific area, the more people begin to appreciate it. The release of the book Day-Date: The Presidential Rolex in 2015 showcased a fantastic depth to these pieces. It highlighted the wide variety of designs and how these lacquer dials sit alongside the rest of the Presidential family. 

These coloured dials were fairly ground-breaking, at the time, for Rolex. They introduced a completely new, and wild, look to what many thought of as one of their most conservative models. After all, the leader of the free world wouldn’t be seen wearing a watch with a bright yellow dial, would he? Not only was it a radical move, but it was done in a way that was true to their brand DNA. Hoping to attain a level of colour, brilliance and depth that no one else had been able to achieve in watches, they perfected a new technique that moved away from the traditional enamel painting and engraved dials of the past.

The inspiration and the modern take, this year's yellow lacquer dial Oyster Perpetual next to a classic yellow dial Stella. 

While the core production of these dials seems to have stopped by the late ‘80s, there are still examples that can be found from much later, well into the ‘90s, with seemingly correct configurations. After that, the next time we see colour from Rolex was in 2013 when they launched a new look for the Day-Date, with coloured dials and matching coloured leather traps. 

This was, according to Ben Clymer’s article on them at the time, in response to a trend among vintage Stella owners for matching their straps to their dials. In fact, Schütz says, “my wife has a blue dialled Stella and she will often wear it with a blue leather strap. It makes it so much lighter and more casual to wear.” This also lowered the price point of the Presidential, making it more accessible.

This was the last splash of colour we saw from Rolex until this year, when, in their very recent delayed release, they gave us an entire new look to the Oyster Perpetual range. This continued the trend of adding colour to an accessible line, opening up the brand to a new section of the market. These new lacquer dials seem to have been crafted in some of the most desirable Stella colours, including yellow and “candy pink”.

Two special Stella dials, including a blue Vignette and one with a woven style bracelet, courtesy of Pucci Papaleo and captured by Fabio Santinelli.

Though they were likely not made according to the same technique used for the Stella Day Dates, these new Oyster Perpetual models inherited the appeal of the historic Stella. These watches feel too colourful, playful and whimsical to be a Rolex. Yet, that forms part of their very appeal. Precisely because a Rolex can often be perceived as something which is so serious and often used to signal status within a modern context, this juxtaposition of the crown and bright colours is so appealing.

One thing is for sure, Stella dials offer one of the most fun collecting opportunities going. As Schütz puts it, “it will be a lifetime challenge to collect every type of Stella dial, if that is possible at all.” Although some have tried, attempting to amass every shade seems to be a never-ending task. Regardless, you only need one in order to add some colour to your life.

We would like to thank both Dr. Helmut Crott and Wulf Schütz for being so generous with their time and knowledge on this colourful topic. We would also like to thank Pucci Papaleo for sharing the wonderful images from the book Day-Date: The Presidential Rolex