There was a moment around 2015 when rose gold seemed to be everywhere. Apple cast its phones and laptops in a shimmering petal hue. Samsung designed its Gear S2 smartwatch with a tawny dial. Walls and furniture were covered in shades of tepid pink (better known today as “millennial pink”). The color was inescapable. It felt both overtly trendy and surprisingly fresh given this variety of random new applications.
And yet, to watch collectors, this color trend was old news. Horologists have long had their own infatuation with the warm shade of gold-pink, more commonly referred to as “salmon” in the watch world. Salmon dials have been a big catch (sorry) for high-end collectors, as they often grace the brands’ most distinguished vintage (and vintage-inspired) models. Take, for example, Patek Philippe’s recent launches. Both the Perpetual Calendar 5320 and Chronograph 5172 are offered in Patek’s particularly attractive shade of blush. The watches will run you $94,624 and $80,431, respectively. And one need only take a cursory glance through the archives to see such heavy-hitters as A. Lange & Söhne’s classic Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon or Oris’ peachy Big Crown ProPilot X Calibre 400 Salmon Dial.
Patek is one of the more enthusiastic deployers of the high-end salmon dial, but nearly every big brand has dabbled with the color over the years. Rolex has a long history of using the shade on its dials, starting in the 1940s with the Bubbleback. In more recent history, its Air King came in two shades of salmon – a pinkier hue and a burnt copper. And of course, all manner of fashion watches have jumped on the salmon bandwagon to take advantage of consumers’ love for the color.
I come to watches from a design standpoint, and I think I know why salmon abides. It’s neither exactly this or exactly that – and in its in-betweenness, it becomes a mirror to every enthusiast’s taste. It’s a statement color without making too much of a statement. It has historic significance (and collectors love nothing more than that), but it also has the benefit of recent trendiness. It’s both masculine and feminine. It can look expensive even when it’s not. Watch people are highly particular, and there’s always somebody out there who can’t wait to be the exception to a rule, but salmon is one dial hue that almost everyone can agree upon.
Across the spectrum, shades of salmon can feel metallic (like a sparkly rose gold) or neutral (like sepia-toned paper) or intimately human (it’s also a color that complements many skin tones). This knee-jerk physiological quality explains a lot about its appeal – particularly in jewelry. “Salmon shades display a humanizing quality that is instantly pleasing and engaging,” says Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute. “In our quest for comfort, we are turning to these warming shades that both welcome and reassure.”
Pressman’s theory echoes one that is often cited by the technology companies that use the shade to bring a softer touch to their gadgets. Pink, and in particular this warm family of pink, evokes physicality in a way that most colors do not. It feels as if it comes from the Earth, if not your body. This could be because rose gold is actually born from the elements (even if manufactured versions of it are not). The warm alloy is created by adding copper to a gold base – the more copper you add, the rosier your shade of rose gold.
History has it that the color first came to attention during the Roman Empire when impurities found in gold coins gave them a coppery tint. This wasn’t an intentional use of the alloy, but centuries later, rose gold became a fashionable choice in France’s quatre couleur jewelry and later a common material used by Carl Fabergé in his Fabergé eggs. Luxury and fashion trends have a way of making their way around the globe, and eventually the material could be found in Queen Victoria’s jewelry and Cartier’s Trinity Ring, which weaved rose gold with white and yellow gold in the 1920s.
Watches are jewelry, but they’re a form of technology, too, and perhaps that’s at play here. In fact, according to Narayan Khandekar, curator of Harvard’s Forbes Pigment Collection, channeling that machine-age aesthetic is likely what many watchmakers were going for when salmon dials first came to prominence in the 1930s and ’40s. “Salmon dials seemed to have come at a time when decorative arts were really changing, as we moved into the machine age and Art Deco,” he says. “During that time there were a lot of bare metal surfaces.” This period was a celebration of the intertwining of industry and art. Art Deco, with its intricate geometries and liberal use of metalwork, was a way to showcase how burgeoning industrialization could be harnessed for beauty (see my personal favorite example – my home state’s capitol building, the Nebraska State Capitol, built in 1932 with a gleaming pinkish golden dome).
Salmon dials, which can be manufactured with lacquer, through galvanization, or with rose gold, channel a similar elementality. Though they’re not made from bare metal typically, they tap into the beauty of fresh copper, which has throughout the ages been a material that captivated humans. When first mined, copper is a brilliant shade of deep burnt pink. But it’s also a highly reactive metal, prone to oxidation and rust. Once exposed to air or water, its warm shine dulls to a reddish brown and later to green. Though watch dials are rarely made of pure copper, a salmon dial evokes copper at its best and freshest, Khandekar says. “It makes me think about stopping time with a watch.”
A poetic explanation to be sure, but our current love affair with salmon is more straightforward than that. Wearing a salmon dial today is an evocation of the past. Even the most modern of salmon dials have a vintage quality to them, as if the watch has been sitting in a drawer while its dial acquires a rich patina over decades. This sentiment stems from the salmon dial’s history, which began in earnest in the 1930s and ’40s, though rose gold as a material has been used in jewelry far earlier than that. Search for the earliest versions of salmon dial watches, and you’ll find a variety of styles and price points – including this $305,000 Patek Perpetual Calendar Chronograph and this 1940s Rolex Oyster 2280 with a stainless steel case for $3,150.
Mid-century, salmon dial watches were a rarity, designed for watchmakers’ most discerning clientele, as noted in A Collected Man‘s deep dive into the history of salmon dials. They rose in popularity over the following decades, but never quite reached beyond the status of a special-occasion watch. The exclusivity of a salmon dial in those days lent it a mystique – not just everyone wore one on their wrist. That same sentiment, though shattered by the ease with which the color can now be reproduced through mass production, remains true today.
That vintage charm can be seen in the new Patek Perpetual Calendar 5320OG, which takes its form from a 1940s-era timepiece. Patek’s approach to salmon has a worn quality to it. It’s neither bright nor dull. It has the warmth of the desert terrain or a blushing cheek. This color is achieved by adding a layer of rose gold over a brass plate. The color found on more contemporary-styled versions of the salmon dial (for example, Hublot’s Big Bang Millennial Pink watch) is often less complex – more pink, less subtle. It’s a case of high-end vintage turned accessible fashion, which is, of course, the natural trajectory of almost any trend. “It’s like putting racing stripes on a car – it doesn’t make it a race car,” says notable Patek collector Philip Khinda, whose favorite piece is a Patek reference 1578R rose on rose. “It has the feel of something, but it’s not quite that.”
You can find a salmon dial at almost any point on the price spectrum, which is great news for those of us who can’t afford a vintage Patek. Mid-range brands like Baltic and NOMOS have their own versions of the salmon dial, only at a far more accessible price point. And you know what? Their salmon dials are beautiful, too. They have the same earthy quality that makes many salmon dials, as vintage watch dealer Eric Wind puts it, “weirdly neutral.” Wind says he’s seen that demand for salmon dials has been steady in the many years he’s been at it, which isn’t all that surprising. It’s an eternally beautiful color. “It’s like looking at the world through rose-colored glasses,” Wind says. “A pop of color that brings a little joy and optimism.”
Liz Stinson is the executive editor of Eye on Design, published by AIGA. Her writing on design has also appeared in Wired, Curbed, Gizmodo, Architectural Digest, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine. To read her complete HODINKEE archive, click here.
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The HODINKEE Shop is an authorized dealer for Baltic and NOMOS, and also feature a variety of pre-owned and vintage Patek Philippe and Rolex watches.