Discontinued in January 2021 and now strictly available through secondary channels, the steel sport model, which traditionally sold for a premium of $20,000 to $30,000 over the white dial version, currently fetches “in the low $100,000s,” according to Mike Manjos, chief trading officer at the pre-owned watch e-tailer Watchbox.
While that’s a slight dip from the start of this year, when pre-owned steel sport references from the “Big Three” makers—Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe—reached a high point, it’s still an eye-popping price for a watch that retailed for approximately $30,000.
Now consider the Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A-014 with the olive green sunburst dial. Introduced in April 2021 for a retail price of $34,890, the model trades for “close to $500,000,” Manjos tells Robb Report.
“You think that’s bad?” he adds. “Go to a Tiffany dial and there are a couple being offered in the low 3 millions.”
For newbies to the watch market, the Tiffany Blue dial version of the Ref. 5711, introduced in December, has become the poster child for the Swiss watch industry’s gilded age. Made in a limited edition of 170 pieces, to honor the 170th anniversary of Patek Phillipe’s relationship with Tiffany & Co., the grail-like reference “is the ultimate statement watch,” Manjos says.
And what, exactly, does it say? For one thing, it screams that watch collectors are mad about hue. And since the early days of the pandemic, their madness for color—on dials, primarily—has only intensified.
“It started as a trickle and, like everything else in our industry, once one brand does it, everyone seems to jump on a color,” Manjos explains. “Go back to the 1970s and 80s, when there were a few dial makers who made dials for everybody. Every few years they’d come out with a hot color and try to sell it to everyone. I don’t think we’ve gotten away from that. Three to four years ago, it was blue. A few years before that, it was browns. And now we’re in a sea of green.”
From turquoise to olive-green, the range of greenish colors now appearing on watch dials from brands as disparate as Grand Seiko, Glashütte Original and Omega is evidence that the mania for colorful dials—and green ones, in particular—has leached into the wider market, beyond just the Big Three.
How did we get here? According to many watch insiders, simply follow the bread crumbs back to Rolex.
“Regarding the colored dial ‘craze,’ the first watch with a multitude of color variations was the ‘Stella dial’ Rolex Day-Dates,” Eric Ku, co-founder of the online watch auction platform Loupe This, wrote in an email to Robb Report. “Originating in the late ’60s and early ’70s, these colored dials can be found in nearly every color of the rainbow. Although they didn’t become popular and collectible until the late 1990s, they are the forefathers of the current generation of coveted Rolex color dial Oyster Perpetuals (which are super collectible and $$$ in their own right).”
In September 2020, when the Geneva-based maker unveiled its newest collection of Oyster Perpetual watches—the brand’s most accessibly priced pieces—the quintet of references, available in 36 mm and 41 mm steel cases, featured a bevy of brightly colored dials: coral, yellow, light pink, dark green and powder blue.
“Everybody started chasing all the colors and in a very short time Rolex discontinued the most popular reference [blue],” Manjos says. “It was kind of genius. They created a frenzy over their cheapest watch.”
The frenzy only truly makes sense if you place it in the context of the evolving luxury watch market. Beginning around 2017, demand for the most sought-after brands and timepieces began to outpace supply, as more buyers entered the watch market, driven in large part by social media. Secondary prices started to increase, at a rate of about 15 percent year over year. At the same time, it became much harder to find the most coveted models at retail.
The pandemic supercharged that scenario, as watch lovers, stuck at home with plenty of time and liquidity to fuel their passion, emptied retail stocks, driving secondary prices ever higher.
“Rarity and dial distinctions have always been a part of our business,” Manjos says. “What people forget is that, yes, Rolex makes a million watches per year and there are so many dial and bracelet variants, that among them are certain rarities.”
He cited the Rolex Datejust with the green palm frond dial, introduced in 2021, and currently fetching a $4,000 to $5,000 premium over the silver dial version.
But the phenomenon is hardly limited to Rolex. Audemars Piguet has seen a spike in demand for recent novelties, including the 15202 platinum Royal Oak with the green dial and the 15202 white gold Royal Oak with the salmon dial.
“Both are highly coveted and desirable (not just because of the dial colors, but of their rarity and case materials as well, but I think the color plays a big part!),” says Ku.
“In the 1990s, AP made a bunch of colorful Offshore chronos,” he adds. “They are collectible, but not crazy in price… yet.”