Patina: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...
Patina is something that splits the watch collecting community into two camps, those that find it highly desirable, and those who would take off patina'd hands and indices and replace them in order to get their submariner looking 'as good as new'. This trend for patina has seen a rise in premiums being charged for custard tritium, chocolate dials and 'ghost' bezels to name a few. But what is patina all about? And is it worth the hype that now surrounds it? I think it is about time that we find out.
The origin of patina on wrist watches is something that is all but impossible to trace back to the source. A lot of people credit Japan with being the ones to put it on the map. The Japanese have a phrase 'Wabi-Sabi' which describes a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting the natural cycle of decay. The Japanese have, as a result, always had an interest in aged objectes, and the wear and tear associated with that. When you consider that this mantra was established long before the invention of the wristwatch, it does seem logical to credit the Japanese with being the originators for the admiration of patina to watches, but ultimately no one really knows exactly where the trend started.
The patina trend has been a fairly recent phenomenon. If we go back to 20 or so years ago, desirability and the notion of buying what you liked far outweighed the appeal of a chocolate brown dial on a watch, for example. Collectors would actually swap out chocolate patina'd dials in favour of new ones because the damage to the dial was considered undesirable at the time. However, if you look at the trend now, Patina is king.
Patina on watches is confined to three main components of a watch. The hands and indices and then the dial. Whilst not technically patina, collectors and aficionado's put faded bezels and spider dials in the same category, but I will not be touching on those today.
Dials, being one of the main focal points of a watch, are one of the components that attract patina. White dials turn to a creamy parchment and black dials sometimes fade to a shade of chocolate. This discolouring is as a result of heavy exposure to sunlight. There is research carried out by the co-founder of UNDONE, Michael Young, that says that the reason for some watch dials fading is due to a manufacturing defect. Simply put, a dial paint was utlised which was not as UV-resistant as it was thought to be at the time. This left those watches with a much higher susceptibility to fading, which has left us with the dials we have on some vintage pieces today.
Dial patina can be split into two main camps, full dials on watches such as Submariners and Sea-Dwellers, and sub-dial patina such as that found on an Omega Speedmaster. Below are some examples of what is considered desirable patina. As you can see the dials have patina'd evenly, leaving a uniform chocolate brown colour, almost looking intentional! Apart from the Submariner on the left, which has a gorgeous light caramel that fades into a deep, rich chocolate. This uniformity is incredibly rare, and is the result of UV exposure, but also careful wear in the subsequent years. The premiums for these sort of damaged dials is huge, with some tropical subs fetching 25% more than examples without it.
However, there are also examples of patina'd dials that have aged for the worst, and are not so desirable. These examples are where the dial has not patina'd evenly, and like the examples below, has either manifested itself in parts of the dial falling off, or the dial turning to a unappealing colour. Ultimately, dial patina is subjective, considering it is all damage. It really comes down to taste as to whether it is attractive to you or not. But even with that in mind, I would be very surprised if there is anyone out there who finds the below example attractive, but as is quite often the case, I could well be wrong...
Hands & Indices
The other big area where patina is rife in vintage watch collecting is hands and indices. This can be found on watches that used tritium and radium as the luminous material to allow the hands and indices to be legible in the dark. Radium was the first material used to give watches 'glow-in-the-dark' hands and indices. Radium is naturally self-luminous. When it is (was) applied to watch dials, it required no external source, such as a UV light, to make it glow. This is because the Radium paint is actually self-luminous – when freshly applied, it requires no external energy source, because the required energy to create the glow is ingrained in the build up of the radium itself. Back in the 50's and 60's when the use of radium was at its peak, this was a home run. Being able to offer watches that could be read in the dark was nothing short of ground breaking. Unfortunately, as we now know, there are quite a few downfalls to the use of radium. One of the main problems is that it is of course radioactive. With time, Radium decays into radon gas, which is a powerful carcinogen, not something you would want strapped to your wrist day in day out. The other problem is that radium on dials does not have a long shelf life, meaning that the ability to glow is usually lost after anywhere from a few years to several decades if you are lucky. However, at some point, the glow will be lost for ever. The problem is that whilst the dial will stop glowing after a period of time, the radium will remain radioactive (to a certain extent) for thousands of years, and whilst in most cases that will not be to a level that is going to cause problems for the weather, it is another downfall of Radium use on watches. However, for this conversation, radium does have a benefit, as it creates stunning hands and indices like the ones shown below:
After the deadly effects of using radium on watches, and the subsequent realisation that is probably not a sensible thing to be applying to an objective that is strapped to peoples wrists, Tritium was chosen as the successor. Tritium, whilst still radioactive, has a relatively short half-life of 12.32 years, making the long term effects significantly shorter. As tritium is a much weaker source of radiation that radium, it will take a lot longer to decay. This makes it a much better material to use on a watch dial, as the luminous effect will be much more long lasting. The other brilliant feature of tritium is that it discolours. Whilst when it was orignally applied to watch dials it was applied as a crisp white, over time in a lot of cases it turns a gorgeous custard colour. When the effects of this are evenly distributed across dial markers and hands, it makes for just stunning dials. Custard tritium has the ability to take a run of the mill 5513 and make it into a characterful and frankly stunning watch, as you can see below:
Tritium, having been used for a much longer period of time than radium, has as a result commanded much more desirability. Whilst it is still damage, like all patina, it is particularly hard to argue with the beauty that can be found in watches that have these gorgeous custard coloured accents.
The rise of 'fauxtina'
The popularity of Tritium patina has resulted in modern watch companies recreating patina and applying it to modern watches. I am not sure who coined the term, but in the modern watch sphere this is playfully referred to as 'fauxtina'. Fauxtina is part of the wider trend of companies releasing modern watches that look like vintage. The reasoning behind this is that you get the best of both worlds. You get the robustness and reliability of a modern watch and movement, whilst also getting the charming and characterful vintage cues of old watches, like patina.
'fauxtina' has been used widely by both affordable and luxury brands, to varying levels of success. Whilst researching this article, I came across a piece from Jack Forster from Hodinkee, who wrote an in-depth and thoroughly interesting article on the topic. He says that whilst the very first watch to use 'fauxtina' is all but impossible to determine, the one that he found to be widely considered the first is this, the Memovox Tribute to Polaris from Jaegar-LeCoultre, which was released at Baselworld 2008. This is an example for me of a perfect execution of 'fauxtina'. The colour has been applied evenly, but not too evenly. The slightly different shade between the hands and the markers, and even between the 12 o'clock marker and the other markers, gives an authenticity to this piece that would lead people to question whether this is a tritium dial.
Photo Credit: Hodinkee
For me, non-uniformity is crucial for an authentic application of 'fauxtina'. If it is to perfect and neat looking, it looses its authenticity. Part of the charm of genuine patina is that it is not always neat or consistent, as it adds to the character. That being said there are instances of 'fauxtina' that are uniform, and are also gorgeous, as you can see below. Personally, I love 'fauxtina'. Whilst there are some instances where companies miss the mark, when it is done right it gives so much character to modern watches. Being able to have the reliability of modern watch construction with vintage character is the perfect mixture for me. And whilst it is used more widely on hands, I would love for more companies to follow in the footsteps of UNDONE and start producing dials featuring 'fauxtina'. The only recent watch that springs to mind which uses an aged dial is this, the Breguet Type 20 for OnlyWatch 2020. It gives the effect of a black dial which has turned chocolate, and I think this is something that more companies should definitely be looking to do. Imagine if Omega came out with an Ed White tribute with a chocolate dial!
Four examples of 'fauxtina' on watches. Ultimately it is completely subjective as to whether you like them or not! For me these are four that really hit the mark for me. There are of course countless others that I love, the Tribute to 1931 Reverso for example, but if I spoke about all of them this article would be a book! This is the same for the other side of the coin. There are countless examples that really do not do it for me. Whether it be watches that only apply the effect to hands or indices but not both, or watches where the colour of the hands, whilst aged, is completely different to the hands. Whilst I struggled to think of as many examples of ones that I do not like compared to once that I do, one that sprung to mind is this, the Omega Seamaster Railmaster. Whilst I will not get into a rant about it, what a stupid name... its like Rolex coming out with a Datejust Submariner, surely it is either a Seamaster or a Railmaster? But that is a conversation for another day... For me, and of course this is completely subjective, the colour just isn't quite right. It is a bit too close to a rich tea biscuit, as opposed to a creamy custard colour.
Photo Credit: Hodinkee
So there we have it! A brief history of Patina! Whether you are pro or against, it is certainly something that sparks serious debate within the watch industry, with some outrageous premiums being lorded for watches with creamy tritium or chocolate dials. It will be very interesting to see how the trend develops over the coming years. Will we see a rise in brands following in the footsteps of UNDONE and starting to experiment with faux aged dials? Who knows. But I am very excited to see brands developing the use of pre-aging and experimenting with spider dials and bezels as well in years to come.
Editor and Co-Founder
The Young Horologist