Why brown watches are all the beige
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This autumn the new Louis Vuitton Tambour will be going on sale in selected Louis Vuitton stores. It is the most significant thing to happen to Vuitton’s watch offer since the brand entered the timepiece market 20 years ago.
The introduction of the new sports-elegant bracelet watch has been accompanied by an Augean Stables level of cleaning out of LV’s men’s watches: 130 models have been discontinued to be replaced by just five – which makes the fact that one of these watches, the rose-gold version, is offered with a brown dial (from 23 October) a focus for attention. “The brown we have chosen is the shade of the traditional monogram,” says Jean Arnault, Louis Vuitton’s head of watchmaking. “We had a few choices when it came to doing the rose-gold case version, and I think brown was the most interesting one.”
Brown was once something of an outlier, a recondite choice for a sophisticated cadre of collectors who saw beauty in such watches as wood-dial Rolex Day-Dates and early examples of the gold GMT References 6542 and 1675, which were made with brown dials and brown-toned 24-hour rotating bezels. And, overused as the term “grail” is, it does perfectly describe contemporary brown-dial watches from elite makers such as FP Journe, whose Chronomètre Souverain Havana features a warm brown dial made from a combination of gold and ruthenium, the latter a favourite Journe metal. Meanwhile, some of the most desirable modern-era Patek Philippes are the brown-dial References 5070 and 5970: they were made in tiny numbers and have acquired an almost mythological appeal among collectors.
Indeed, auction houses have, indirectly, been responsible for the change in customer tastes that has seen brown emerge as a mainstream dial colour. Rémi Guillemin, head of watches at Christie’s Europe, explains: “Collectors have developed a great interest in watches with dials that aged naturally due to time, especially to unified shades of brown. As the colour changes naturally, each dial will evolve in an unpredictable manner. As a result, dials that have switched to a unified brown colour are excessively rare and will attract the most exigent collectors due to their beauty and rarity. Among the most desirable examples are vintage Rolex timepieces, such as the Daytona, Explorer, or Submariner models; Patek Philippe Reference 3700 Nautilus wristwatches; and Breguet Type XX.” In other words, a flaw has bred extreme desirability.
As a result, historic brands have found that a brown dial unlocks a lot of the latent power of a classic heritage design; and it is hard to think of a brand for which this is truer than Panerai. “Brown dials are a quintessential Panerai element that pays tribute to the maison’s heritage and to archival pieces that naturally assumed this singular patina effect, due to the anodisation of aluminium,” says CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué. “The Radiomir Otto Giorni PAM01347 is the embodiment of this concept: the shaded dial with its grainy effect, further enriched by the usage of beige SuperLuminova and engraved decal, gives a vintage look to the timepiece.”
Guillaume Laidet, CEO of the recently revived Nivada Grenchen, agrees: “The idea [behind our Super Antarctic 3.6.9 watch] was to reinterpret the style of vintage watches. The dial, originally black, underwent many ageing processes to obtain the characteristic ‘tropical’ tone where warm oranges and browns blend with the indexes and hands, which have also been aged, to create a creamy latte effect.”
For the Bulgari watch designer Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, it is versatility that is at the heart of the watch industry’s love affair with brown. “It is an important colour for Bulgari because it evokes the warmth of gold and all the shades of it,” he says, citing the gold Octo Finissimo. “Brown has an incredible number of variations; it could be rosy like the ‘salmon dial’ or burnt like the colours of a cigar. This gives designers an opportunity to play with different colours for a range of clients and products.”
Given the boom in 1970s-era design, the brown trend is also receiving a fillip from tribute models directly evoking the time when brown dials were last a mainstream choice. “The Chronomaster Revival A385 is a true reproduction of the original model from 1969,” says Romain Marietta, product development and heritage director at Zenith. “What made it truly stand out was its smoked-brown gradient dial with a vignette effect.”
There are even those who believe that brown dials have a spiritual significance. Among them is Yvan Arpa, founder and CEO of independent brand ArtyA, who says that the rising popularity of brown dials is symptomatic of a “return to simple, raw, and natural things. Brown is a protective, neutral, reassuring colour. By choosing it, clients may be subconsciously looking for connection with Pachamama [the mother earth goddess of Inca mythology].”
Then again, it could just be, as Omega’s Raynald Aeschlimann says, “that it’s perfect to wear all year round. And it works particularly well with gold.”