A Guide to Modern California Dials

The watch industry is rife with examples of watch brands turning to the past for new releases. The interest in vintage designs has led to some fun and unique long-forgotten or long-inaccessible designs finding a new audience. Consider the Timex World Time 1972 Reissue bringing some 70s funk to the 2020s. Or the Tudor Black Bay 54 giving Rolex Submariner fans the closest thing you can get to an original Sub without spending tens of thousands of dollars. And now, in the last few years watch brands have seen fit to revisit one of the most interesting and obscure vintage designs out there: the California dial.

The California dial is the nickname given to watches that have Roman numerals on the upper half of the watch and Arabic on the lower half, typically with lines at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock spots and a triangle at the 12. This unique dial has a strong association with Panerai, which has featured watches with the dial in its catalog for some time now, but, like many developments in watchmaking, it was actually created by Rolex. Patented in 1942, the dial was originally known as the “error-proof” dial, designed to be more easily read because the different style numerals “clearly distinguishes these two halves” of the watch and “the Roman numerals chosen are those which are the simplest to perform and the easiest to read.” (Seems unnecessary, but it certainly wound up looking cool.)

The modern PAM01349

The error-proof dial picked up the “California” moniker when the error-proof dial experienced a resurgence in popularity that exceeded market availability. California became known for being the home of “dial refurbishers” who would put the desired dial on basically any watch you wanted. After a while, “California dial” replaced “error-proof dial” in common parlance.

Rolex stopped making watches with the dial decades ago, but enough other brands have joined Paneri to pick up Rolex’s slack that we can safely call this a trend.

With at least a nominal intended purpose of dial clarity, the California dial lends itself well to pilot watches, where dial readability is the name of the game. Farer released one of the best entries in this genre: 2020’s Farer Pilot Cayley. With a stunning blue dial, large numerals, and a dial that takes up almost the entire watch face, the Cayley looks significantly larger than its 39mm diameter would suggest. The color and size make the numerals pop even more, making this an incredibly distinctive and eye-catching watch.

Laco gave one of their pilot watches the California dial treatment as well. With a white numeral on white dial aesthetic and art deco font, the Laco Napa has a clean, minimalist look that makes the numerals the star of the watch.

But the California dial isn’t reserved just for pilot watches: one of the best watches to utilize it in the last few years is the Bremont x Bamford S500. A blacked out dial with blue numerals and hands makes it an attractive watch. The California layout elevates it further and the sandwich dial—which features numerals cut into the top layer, showing the color beneath—makes it truly spectacular. With water resistance to 500 meters and a ceramic bezel, the S500 is as rugged as it looks.

Isotope put out its own rugged diver with a California dial this past September: the Hydrium California. The watch features a grained texture and faux patinated numerals on both the dial and bezel, giving it a fun, vintage inspired look with a modern twist.

Other tool watch options include the Unimatic Modello Due U2-H, a steely gray field watch collaboration with Hodinkee. Serica also produced a California dial watch in 2020 in the field watch mold, with a black dial and stainless steel case on a unique Bonklip bracelet. 

As a dressier option, Timex introduced two California dial versions of its Marlin in 2021. With a salmon colored version and a black and bronze version, the Timex Marlin California dials manage to be both some of the most attractive and affordable options out there.

Also on the dressier front: the Armoury and Paulin released a fun variation of the California dial recently: the Hong Kong dial, which pays tribute to The Armoury’s roots in both the East and the West with the classic Roman numerals on the top half and Chinese numerals on the bottom instead of the traditional Arabic numerals. With four color variants, the Hong Kong dial is a quirky and colorful bit of fun, and with a suede strap or steel mesh bracelet, it can be dressed up or down with ease.

British brand Fears has also released its own colorful collection of California dial watches in tribute to northern California and in collaboration with California-based Topper Jewelers. The four watches all feature California dials, each with a different color to represent a different aspect of California culture. The “Winter Lake,” for example, is meant to evoke the deep blue of Lake Tahoe in the winter. All four editions are gorgeous—and extremely limited at only 25 examples each—and the ties to California give them a fun backstory.

These are just some of the brands that have released California dial watches in the last few years. Many other examples can be found. But the greatest sign of the California dial’s new popularity might be this: Apple introduced a California dial screen for its Apple Watch. And you don’t even have to send your Apple Watch to California to get it on there.

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Alec is a writer and editor based out of Washington, DC, currently working as a congressional reporter. His love for wristwatches started at age 10 when he received a Timex Expedition as a birthday present. A film buff and tennis fan, Cary Grant and Roger Federer played influential roles in continuing to develop his interest and taste in watches.