by Martin Green
A discussion with fellow collectors that is bound to elicit interesting responses is two-tone watches. People tend to either love them or hate them.
The lovers consider them the perfect mix between a sporty looking watch and a dress watch. People who don’t care for them may think of them as a weak compromise at best.
The 1990s was the heyday for two-tone watches; they were available before and also after, but this period seems to have produced a significant amount of bi-color metal watches.
What is two tone?
Perhaps I am kicking in an open door when I ask what exactly is a two-tone watch.
Like a surprising amount of terms used in the watch industry (ultra-slim to name an example), there is no exact definition of it.
“Two tone” relates to the coloring. In general, we use this description for steel combined with colored gold, but strictly speaking a great many other combinations can also claim the description.
Piaget, Rolex, and Cartier have combined yellow and white gold in watch designs. Omega has combined titanium with gold on the Seamaster Professional chronograph. And let’s not forget that Audemars Piguet has combined gold and tantalum to create a very attractive Royal Oak.
While many of the high-end Swiss brands use 18-karat gold for their two-tone watches, no law prevents a manufacturer from using gold plating to get the same effect, which is common practice among the more affordable brands.
If there is one thing that these timepieces make clear, it is that the power of two-tone watches can be found in the contrast of color. This is perhaps most evident in the combination of steel and gold: combining a precious metal with a not-so-precious metal changes the look and, yes, perhaps also the status of the watch.
Keeping up appearances?
Obviously, two-tone watches are priced higher than steel watches and lower than full gold varieties. They offer watch connoisseurs a middle ground, a dressier version of a favorite watch without having to pay the steep price for a gold model. Our editor-in-chief also relates that when she bought her first good watch in the early 1990s, she chose a stainless steel model with a pink gold bezel because from the top the steel was hardly discernible, but there was an enormous price difference; two-tone was at its height at the time.
For manufacturers this is also interesting as the premium one needs to pay for two-tone watches is often more than the addition of precious metal warrants. In return, the models get a distinct look. And as the watches in the segments we are discussing here are more purchases of passion, the not-so-major price increase also doesn’t make much of a difference to the consumer.
Those familiar with the hilarious comedy “Keeping up Appearances,” in which the middle-class Hyacinth Bucket tries to join the British upper crust, insisting that her last name is pronounced “bouquet,” might think that the same goes for two-tone watches. To an extent, there is truth in that thought.
From a design perspective, though, the two-tone elements need to work for the watch and not against it. It is almost the same as with cars: some cars are stunning as a coupe, but the convertible version looks like somebody took a chainsaw to it. The other way around (such as with the Aston Martin DB11 Volante) can also be the case, but is much rarer.
The two-tone great: 1990s Omega Constellation
Perhaps the best example of this is the Omega Constellation from the 1990s. While it was a beautiful watch in steel, it was in the two-tone version that this watch after its post-quartz redesign that showed off its distinct design features best with its distinctive claws, bezel engraved with Roman numerals, and of course the bracelet that alternated between brushed links and gold cylinders connecting them.
While it is not everyone’s taste, this watch is a benchmark in how a well designed two-tone watch should look, displaying true synergy between the gold and the steel and making it look more impressive than the sum of its parts would typically warrant.
Another watch that can serve as a benchmark for two-tone watches is the Rolex Datejust. With its gold fluted bezel and Jubilee bracelet, it remains among the most popular two-tone watches, maintaining said popularity with ease for more than half a century.
Its design set the standard formula for many brands on how to create a two-tone watch: craft the inner links of the bracelet, the bezel, and the crown of the watch in gold and leave the rest in steel and you are good to go. For Rolex, this works not only with the Datejust (with either Jubilee or Oyster bracelet), but with its professional models such as the Submariner and the GMT-Master.
Two-tone watches became an important part of Cartier’s collection after Richemont transformed it from a family firm of three boutiques into a worldwide luxury sensation. Granted, many of La Maison’s designs were a near natural fit to be crafted in steel and gold.
Take, for example, the Santos: making the screws in its bracelet in yellow gold made the watch even more expressive than it already was. The same can be said of the Panthère, which was highly popular in the 1980s. Clients could even pick how many rows of the bracelet they wanted in gold.
Ironically, not all designs work as well in two tone as they do in full steel or all gold. The Pasha de Cartier was very popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but not in two-tone variations. The reason for this is evident as using the two colors almost seems to dilute the power of the design.
Omega also offered the Seamaster in two-tone in those days, and although very well executed the watch seemed to have to work too hard to pull off the color combination and it looks nowhere near as harmonious as the dual-color Constellation.
Faded, but far from forgotten
The popularity of two-tone watches has somewhat faded as we have moved further into the new millennium. Changes in style and fashion are evidently major influences on this.
At the same time, two-tone watches are also a part of the watch world that will always remain.
Cartier, Omega, and Rolex still offer two-tone models in their collections – and Audemars Piguet even reintroduced a two-tone Royal Oak in 2015. Rolex surprised everyone at 2017’s Baselworld by not only introducing the Sky-Dweller in steel but also in a steel-gold constellation.
This is evidence that the category still carries some weight, but to like or not to like it, that remains a very personal question.
Quick Facts Rolex Sky-Dweller steel/gold
Case: Rolesor yellow gold and steel, 42 x 14.1 mm, rotating Ring Command bezel for function selection
Movement: automatic Caliber 9001, 33 x 8 mm, Parachrom hairspring, Paraflex shock absorption, C.O.S.C. certification
Functions: hours, minutes, sweep seconds; second time zone, annual calendar with date and month
Pricing: 16,300 Swiss francs
* This article was first published on November 15, 2017 at For The Love Of Two-Tone Watches.