The Vintage Watch Terms You Need to Know

From houndstooth to double red, here's everything you need to know before you buy

May 26, 2022 6:00 am
Man holding multiple watches
Would you know where to start with these watches?
Peter Dazeley via Getty

If you’re wondering whether it’s a good thing that the bezel on that vintage watch you’re considering is “ghosted” or whether that means it’s already dead, or whether that “tropical” dial means it’s only suitable for jungle treks or Bali’s beaches, or why it seems a “double red” is so much pricier than a merely “single red,” then welcome to the esoteric world of watch dealer’s lingo.

“Like all trade languages, it started from dealer to dealer, as a way of working out whether a watch was really of any real rarity and over time it’s been adopted by collectors in the know,” explains David Silver, of the Vintage Watch Company, London, and owner of the world’s largest private collection of Rolexes. “The technical aspects of watches can be harder to explain, because so much of what it refers to what you can’t see. But the great thing about most vintage watch dealer terminology is that is so visual — it’s very expressive.”

Indeed, what used to be the insiderish language of a trade has, in no small way thanks to the internet and social media, become the unifying, slightly geeky one of a community of watch fans — and especially fans of Rolex, the brand with which, it seems, a lot of the lingo originated and to which some of it still most readily applies.

It’s not, Silver stresses, all just some kind of smokescreen. “I think there was once a suspicion that, when a dealer used it to a customer, it was sales bullshit,” he says. “But actually it’s a reflection of the fact that a watch has certain minute differences, or a combination of certain dial, bezel and luminescent effects, that genuinely make that watch a one-off. They don’t mean it’s necessarily the rarest watch in the world. They’re a reflection of the life that only that watch has lived — what’s changed in that watch over time as a result of exposure to sunlight, heat, moisture.”

Of course, Silver concedes, when you start using specialist language to throw a spotlight on the finer points of any consumer object — a car, an art work, a piece of jewelry — that can have the effect of making those finer points all the more desirable, and so push up prices. The unofficial if affectionate naming of certain watches, old and new — think of Zenith’s Chronomaster A3818 as the “Superman Blue,” for the color it shares with the Man of Steel’s cape, or various Seiko models being dubbed the Tuna Can, Turtle, Samurai or Arnie — has a similar result. Not for nothing, says Silver, are the watch-crazy Italians notorious for their preponderance for nicknaming certain models. 

“The reality is that a lot of the effects that this language describes in vintage watches are those that the next person might just think look tatty,” Silver says with a laugh, conceding that the visible effects of wear and tear — the watch world’s equal, perhaps, to the “whiskering,” “honeycombing” and “roping” of denim-heads — are not for everybody. “If even Rolex gets hold of a watch with text on the dial that’s bleeding out, it will see that as a fault to be corrected. But the language really helps customers see what you’re referring to — especially when you show a vintage watch alongside a modern counterpart — and then they can decide for themselves whether that is worth the premium.”

So, if your vintage watch dealer points out that lovely “pumpkin” lume or that “Pepsi” bezel, don’t stand there wondering if he’s offering you lunch. If he notes the “roulette” date, he’s not asking you to place your bets. He may, though, be seriously tempting you to part with some serious cash. To help you navigate all the lingo, we’ve put together a guide to some of the terms below.


Any watch with a paint-based dial (as opposed to one made of stone or lacquer, for example) will fade over time, though, Silver stresses, you need to be able to see a distinct shift from the original to count a watch as properly “faded.” Dealers and collectors will, however, sometimes refer to specific shades that an originally red bezel has faded to, specifically “fuchsia” — the Pantone shade that the bezel of a 1960s/70s Rolex GMT makes it way to under certain conditions. Or even “root beer” — yes, a light brown shade.


This references an even more specific fade on dive watch bezels that start out black and end up a distinctive shade of grey to pale grey — often at a cost to the legibility of the numerals, if that matters to you. Again, it’s an effect of light and temperature and, Silver says, “is extremely rare, so this isn’t a term to use liberally.” Other black bezels fade to shades of navy or brown, but the trade has yet to coin words for these. 


“This is my favorite term,” says Silver, “because it reflects a distinctive color change [typically black to a golden brown] that you only get when a watch has been exposed to long periods of intense heat and wet — hence tropical. In a way this reflects a watch that’s had a hard life.” The effect is subtle and varies in different light. But it’s fascinating enough that there are collectors out there who only collect one model/reference of watch “that none the less all look very different because they’re tropical.”


This typically refers to a Rolex sports model bezel in two contrasting shades of blue and red — and very close to those used by the soft drink can. “Teaming one iconic brand with another is great fun — there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to connecting an inexpensive product to a luxury one,” says Silver, “and this is a term recognized by the watch world globally.” Why so? Because Pepsi dials are still being made, unlike — wait for it — the “Coke” bezel, in black and red. Dealers and collectors alike seem to enjoy creating off-beat color references for watches — one with a dial or bezel in a familiar shade of green? That’s a “Starbucks” model, of course.


If anyone was to suggest that the vintage watch world was just a tad anal, this would be all the evidence they needed. Rolex’s first SeaDweller model came with two lines of red text on the dial, as opposed to certain models of (now vintage) Submariner, which had only one — hence the former being dubbed the “double red,” the latter “single red.” Or, for that matter, the “big red” of lettering on certain models of Daytona. “Red is just an iconic color for Rolex,” Silver explains. “Have some red on a Rolex dial and it’s much easier to sell.” 


Love that splash of red on a Rolex dial? How about a “roulette” date display, more commonplace in the brand’s watches of the 1940s and 1950s and revised on the Datejust over the 1970s? “It’s the kind of term the meaning of which you might guess at even if you had no great knowledge of watches,” Silver says. “It’s visually very explanatory.” Yes, a roulette date display is one that alternates between red and black, red for even days, black for odd ones. Quite why it’s that way round is something of a mystery.


A term may long be out-of-date, or culturally limited in its reach (ask most Europeans what color root beer is and they won’t have a clue), but that doesn’t stop the vintage watch market from hanging on to it. Enter, for example, “JPS,” used to describe a color combination of black and gold, often in reference to a Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona. Why “JPS”? That’s a reference to John Player Specials, a long defunct British brand of cigarette, which sponsored a Formula One Lotus team through the 1970s, with the cars in its signature black and gold livery. Well, you did ask.


Some vintage watches have dials made from engraved plates, giving them a textured finish under the paint. The vintage watch trade has, inevitably, named the various effects this engraving gives, much as “sunburst” describes the color on a dial radiating out in increasing richness towards the bezel. A dial with the irregular surface finish that’s somewhat like a certain type of fabric? That’s a “linen” dial, of course.


Ever wondered why watchmakers today sometimes give the luminescent material on the numerals and hands of their watch dials a certain warm sepia tone? That’s to mimic the effects of age on lume — over time it turns a characterful shade of what the watch trade considers pumpkin-like. Silver points out that many makers, Rolex included, would never design a new watch to look artificially old this way. But if a watch happens to look old because, well, it is, then bring on the hungry collectors.

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