How a Factory Flaw Created the Watch World's Most Sought-After Screwups

The "tropical" dial is a stylish mistake we can all get behind.
IMAGE Albert Chiu

Provenance still reigns supreme in watch collecting (why else do you think Paul Newman’s “Paul Newman Daytona” Rolex fetched a record $17.8 million last year?), but visible wear now commands a premium as well. Even more valued are timepieces that left the factory with a flaw. Enter the “tropical” dial Rolexes, some of the most prized models of all.  

For a few decades in the midcentury, Rolex applied a sun-protective chemical finish to its black dials. But instead of preventing fading, that coating accelerated discoloration. Over the years, the faces have turned a complex chocolate brown, an error compounded by the intense equatorial sun of certain regions.


They’re covetable to a small but devoted group of collectors, and because the “flawed” dials were often replaced when brought in for service, the few that remain untouched are rarer than rare. (Such dials aren’t limited to Rolex; many Omegas suffered the same beautiful fate.) 


Today, “tropical” examples of iconic watches can return more than three times what their perfect counterparts bring. Think of these sun-addled dials as unique works of art. For certain collectors, that singular quality means everything. 

According to renowned vintage-watch dealer Robert Maron, in 35 years of selling he has “never seen two identical ‘tropical’ dials.” He adds, “I remember them all and wish I had each and every one of them back.”

This story originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.f

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