Tropical Watches: How a Faded Rolex Can Be Worth $145,000

Tropical Watches: How a Faded Rolex Can Be Worth $145,000

Watch dealers tend to be a pretty philosophical group. It’s just what happens when you consider the nature of time day in and day out. And there are none more so than my friend Jacek Kozubek, who owns the web store Tropical Watch and specializes in the type of watches you see here—Rolexes and Omegas that bear the burns and blisters of decades of sun exposure, or “tropical” watches. “When you’re a younger guy,” Kozubek says, “you look at these watches and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re faded.’ ” And then you get older, and your joints begin to hurt, and degradation takes on a new meaning. “That’s when you start appreciating them,” he says. “You accept the fact that they are aging, just like you accept the fact that you are aging.”

The watches you see here are all from the ’60s, when Rolex, Omega, and several other brands sourced dials from manufacturers that used faulty black paint. Decades later, supposedly starting in tropical latitudes, the flaw was discovered when those black dials began turning chocolate brown.

At first, the brown dials were considered undesirable. Rolex and Omega would swap them out during servicing. But then the vintage-watch market boomed and collectors on the hunt for soulful watches with stories behind them started snapping up any of the tropical watches that survived. And guys like Kozubek, who owns the pieces you see here, began celebrating these strange and beautiful objects, building businesses, like his own, in part on selling watches that are, in the eyes of the brands that manufactured them, defective.

“I was tired of looking at the same perfect stuff all the time,” says Kozubek, who has turned plenty of major collectors into tropical-watch aficionados. It’s easy to see why. “The tones of tropical watches feel really organic,” Kozubek says. “They almost look soft. That feeling of comfort makes them really attractive.”

There will always be more vintage watches, but there will probably never be more tropical watches, because modern dials are unlikely to fade. Which is why a Rolex Submariner with a brown tropical dial can run about twice as much as a regular one. A unique provenance and a bonkers color can send the price even higher.

One such watch, a Sub with an acid-yellow dial, was discovered at a market in Cairo, where the harsh desert sun produced an intensely dramatic fade. Kozubek is selling it for $145,000, and if I had the money I wouldn’t hesitate. If you ask me, perfection looks like a tropical watch, a flawed piece of history and a one-of-one treasure that nobody else could ever have.

After 17 issues, this is the final installment of “Wes Lang on Watches.” Thanks, Wes! Readers, keep your eyes on this space: Next month we’ll debut a new watch columnist.

A version of this story originally appears in the September 2020 issue with the title “Here Comes the Sun.”

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