Serving Up Salmon: Watches With Sublime Salmon-Colored Dials And Why They Remain Rare
by Martin Green
Even seasoned watch connoisseurs will look twice when presented with a men’s watch fitted with what’s known as a “salmon” dial.
If it is a fairly common model, a salmon-colored dial usually elevates a watch to a higher plane. It is hard to pinpoint the exact reason for this, but I do believe that there are several and that they all contribute to the fact that this color dial on a men’s watch is something special – admired by many, but worn by few.
Some refer to the “salmon” dial as “pink,” though to split hairs salmon-colored dials are much less harsh in tone than a genuinely pink dial. A pastel color, salmon has a unique softness to it that makes it acceptable to men in a Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett kind of way. An odd comparison perhaps, but I hope it’s a good way to describe the appeal such a dial holds.
There is no denying that Don Johnson in his epic role as undercover police officer Crockett in the 1980s hit series Miami Vice, could pull this color off as part of his wardrobe – and look cool while doing it.
In part, this both explains the appeal of salmon and why it’s not common. While many men consider Crockett a cool character, perhaps even on the same level as James Bond, not all of them would feel comfortable making his style their own.
It is cool, but not necessarily for everyone. That’s part of the puzzle, and why many watch connoisseurs react in awe when handling a salmon-colored dial watch by an esteemed brand, even if they don’t think about acquiring them comprehensively.
A color-changing salmon
While you would expect salmon hues to have a much narrower range of possibilities than for example blue, there is still a surprisingly large array of subtle differences in the various hues.
Some salmon-colored dials are indeed very much pastel in color, while others have a deeper, richer look to them, giving them more vintage appeal.
The latter is probably the reason Patek Philippe opted for this hue when creating the 5270P Perpetual Calendar Chronograph introduced at Baselworld 2018. And here it becomes apparent what a salmon-colored dial can do for a watch. In silver or black it would have been a delightful, yet fairly common sight; but with the salmon-colored dial it immediately becomes something extra special.
Patek Philippe opted for a matte finish on this dial, which was a wise choice because it gave the designer full control of the color, who chose the perfect hue of salmon – and it stays pretty much that same hue no matter how the ambient light changes.
However, if you want a salmon dial to really open up, apply it to a dial with a sunburst pattern guilloche. Then you get every possible variation exploding, from smoked salmon to very pale pink newborn salmon and everything in between, just by the shifting light on the dial.
With these colors, even the material of the crystal can make a subtle difference: a sapphire crystal results in slightly harsher color tones, while a hesalite crystal gives them more of a softness.
Perfect companions, limited choices
Traditionally a salmon dial is often combined with a platinum case. Like blue, some brands prefer to use salmon-colored dials to accentuate this noble, but understated material. This is what Patek Philippe recently did with the platinum cased 5270P, although the history of combining this color dial with the precious case material goes back much further with the brand and is quite extensive.
It includes, for example, the coveted Reference 5101P with its tourbillon and ten-day power reserve, but also the horologically more modest yet visually more extroverted Reference 5450P annual calendar.
Cartier’s approach is to use a salmon dial for platinum-encased limited editions. The brand introduced a platinum version of the Santos with a salmon-colored dial on at least two occasions during the 1990s, but this case/color combination is also found in limited editions of the Tank Louis Cartier as well as the Tank Cintrée Dual Time Zone.
But it’s not only platinum that makes a watch with a salmon dial look good; any white metal will serve that purpose very admirably.
Cartier proved this with a driver’s watch, for example, made to commemorate the centennial of its flagship boutique on 13 Rue de la Paix in Paris, combining an unusual white gold case with a salmon dial. It also proved a popular combination with stainless steel – and one that also pushed the salmon dial into the realm of more affordable watches.
In general, salmon-colored dials have not fared too well with metals of other colors. Yellow gold results in a far less attractive, and therefore (fortunately) extremely rare, combination.
Pink gold, which might mentally seem like a match made in heaven for a salmon dial, is unfortunately difficult to combine in a pleasing way.
And you would think the same would be true for a bronze case, yet recently Montblanc proved with its 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter limited edition that this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. By selecting just the right tone of salmon, the brand’s designers were able to make an extremely attractive and eye-catching combination.
Salmon-colored dials come with a natural limitation regarding strap colors they can best be matched with. In general, only brown, black, and blue will look good, but since this includes the most popular strap colors among men anyway, it is not such a limiting factor.
Salmon-colored dials on sports watches?
Most of the watches discussed so far have been downright classic dress watches or at least relatively classic in proposition.
On sports watches, salmon hues might seem out of place, yet this is far from the case. The best evidence to make this case comes from IWC.
Known for its no-nonsense sports watches, the Schaffhausen-based brand has offered both a split-seconds chronograph as well as a perpetual calendar chronograph in the GST collection with a salmon dial. With their integrated steel bracelets and beefy cases these were bona fide sports watches and could hardly be mistaken for anything else.
The same can be said for Sinn. Although this brand mostly keeps classically styled watches in its collection, the 356 Flieger II is not among them. A robust chronograph powered by the famed ETA/Valjoux Caliber 7750 even has a matte case.
Sinn describes the Flieger II’s salmon dial color as “copper,” but this was probably merely an adjective selected for having greater acceptance among clients.
While the Rolex Air-King isn’t perhaps a thoroughbred sports watch, it is one of the best-known salmon-dial watches – and even then it is still a rarity.
In its straightforward steel case with steel bracelet, it is an undeniably masculine watch. In older iterations however, it is also a watch that served salmon as the centerpiece of its meal, with no date function to offer any distractions. Combined with its relatively modest size, it might be once again a case in which many men who opted for this model preferred a blue or silver dial.
Famous names served up with salmon
When you start looking for them, you’ll be surprised how many brands have at one point in time featured salmon-colored dials as part of their men’s collections. A trend even becomes evident.
Salmon dials enjoyed increased (yet for me unexplained) popularity in the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, and it is interesting to note that there is not really a vintage precedent for salmon-colored dials, they were as rare in the first 50 years of wristwatches as they are today.
The Royal Oak Jumbo is one of the most loved watches among watch connoisseurs, yet only few people know that Audemars Piguet also made a version with a salmon dial. Made in 1992 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Royal Oak, the stainless steel case and bracelet with this the dial surprisingly complement the iconic design of the watch. The clous de Paris texture of the dial is also perfect to show off the depth of color, much in the same way the guilloche motif on the Cartier models achieve depth.
It also interesting to note the dramatic difference in dial color when we compare the Royal Oak Jumbo with the salmon-dialed Royal Oak Chronograph, which was also offered in the mid-2000s. This chronograph was fitted with a white gold case and bracelet and featured a larger clous de Paris pattern (“Grand Tapisserie” in Audemars Piguet terminology) and a slightly different hue of salmon.
The platinum edition of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar was also available with a salmon-colored dial. This was a more traditional combination in terms of material and color, yet with the same visual appeal as the steel Royal Oak Jumbo (but of course with added complexity). The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar was also offered with a salmon-colored dial without the clous de Paris texture in a two-tone platinum and pink gold case. Here it becomes obvious that the warmth of the pink gold sucks in the power out of the salmon dial, resulting in two colors fighting for dominance with neither one winning – and, in my opinion, both ending up losing.
A salmon-dial Breguet sounds like a superb idea, but such watches are in fact rarities. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that Breguet did issue one of its sportiest watches, the Type XX Transatlantique, in platinum with such a dial.
The result is breathtaking, although the white date window takes slightly away from this. While it has a certain elegance, this is one of those watches that illustrates how a salmon-colored dial can indeed result in a masculine watch, especially fitting if the design has vintage inspiration.
Like Cartier, Piaget no stranger in matching salmon-colored dials with precious metals, but it was surprising when the brand created a limited edition of the Upstream, its steel watch before the Polo S (see more on the Upstream in The Dandy Watches Of Piaget). The result was an unusual yet very appetizing variety of an already rare watch. To add to its rarity, Piaget also opted for a slightly different movement as opposed to the regular versions of the Upstream, forgoing the date function in favor of small seconds and a power reserve indicator.
Younger brands seem to have far less trouble working with salmon-colored dials. Greubel Forsey offered its Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision in 2017 with a salmon-colored dial, which is in fact perhaps the most desirable version of this watch. The same can be said of the Grönefeld Parallax Tourbillon, where the salmon dial results in extensive synergy with both the tourbillon and the overall design of the watch.
Grönefeld also created several salmon-dialed version of its Remontoire in white gold and red gold. While the white-colored metal lets the salmon dial shine, it becomes once again obvious here that any other color of gold tends to sucks the life out of the salmon, making it far more bland looking.
This is even the case when the salmon color is not directly against the rose gold as illustrated by another timepiece, the Quantième Perpétuel by F.P. Journe, in which only the center of the dial offers this hue. This is a breathtaking watch, but again the red gold case takes away from the dial color, which is far more potent in this independent watchmaker’s salmon-dialed creations featuring white metal cases.
Why are salmon dials loved yet not popular?
This is not an easy question to answer. Salmon-colored dials remain rare, but is this because demand is low? Or is demand low because they are rare?
Most brands only release a salmon dial for men as part of a limited edition probably because then it is more likely that they don’t make more than the amount for which there is demand. Others use salmon dials on watches that have a naturally limited production due to a complex movement or precious metal cases.
But even when neither of these factors apply, and retail prices are reasonable, as with Sinn or Rolex, they still do not exactly sell like hotcakes when they are in stock.
I think that the truth may lie in their unconventionality. How many men have something salmon colored as part of their wardrobes? Where men are usually comfortable combining clothes with blue, black and silver, salmon is an odd duck. Even when entirely appropriately combined, it will still stand out. For some, this is part of the appeal; for many others, it is probably a reason to admire them from a distance.
Please note that this post was never intended as a complete overview of all salmon-colored dials, only to highlight how widespread they are despite the fact that the vast majority of these watches spend their lives in relative obscurity.
Quick Facts Patek Philippe Reference 5270P
Case: 41 x 12.4 mm, platinum
Movement: manually wound Caliber CH 29-535 PS Q with 456 components including Gyromax balance, power reserve maximum 65 hours; Patek Philippe Seal; 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; chronograph with instantaneous 30-minute counter; perpetual calendar with date, day, month, leap year, day/night indication, moon phases; tachymeter scale
Quick Facts Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition
Case: 44 x 13.5 mm, bronze with titanium case back
Movement: manually wound Caliber MB M16.29 with monopusher column wheel chronograph, red gold-plated German silver plates and bridges, 2.5 Hz (18,000 vph)
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, monopusher chronograph
Limitation: 100 pieces
Quick Facts Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire
Case: 39.5 x 10.5 mm, red or white gold
Movement: manually wound Caliber G-05 with 8-second remontoire
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Price: €49,500 for red gold and €50,850 for white gold