Collector Guide – Understanding Patina on Vintage Varnished Metal Dials

I bought my Zenith Victorious when longing for a Patek Philippe Calatrava, of which the Victorious is basically a copy. I found one for under $200 on eBay, so I bought it. When it arrived, the damage to the dial was far worse than the auction photos had indicated. It was some moisture-related residue on top of the dial, entirely asymmetrical, and flat out ugly. A case of “patina” gone wrong.

Allen’s Zenith Before Dial Cleaning.

I asked a few watchmakers if they could clean up my Zenith’s dial, and they all declined. “It’s water damage, man. Game over,” was the basic message. So I put it away for about four years, pulling it out now and again to admire the design, if not the condition.

Recently, I brought my ugly Zenith Victorious to the watchmaker James Im uses in Greenwich, CT. To my surprise, he took the watch back to his bench, and in 7 minutes had totally cleaned the dial. I was floored. He explained that he had formulated his own dial cleaning paste. You can check out Danielle Watchmaker here.

To be clear, this clean up is not perfect by any means. There are some spots that lightened up a little bit, and there’s some remaining residue around the markers and applied Star logo. But what’s gone are residual stains that weren’t ever part of the watch, and what remains are the original metal dial and the varnish that have changed over time.

The distinction between foreign materials and aged original materials should drive decisions about how – or whether – to restore a watch dial.

Now I can see the lovely golden hues of the aged varnish, and though the dial isn’t perfect, it’s patina is commensurate with the condition of the hands, markers and case. It all fits together into a cohesive vintage condition, a cohesion that a perfectly refinished dial would have interrupted.

The ways a varnished metal dial can change are rather vast. This guide will explain some of the more common “patinations” you’ll encounter while out hunting vintage.

Understanding Nitrocellulose Varnish

A layer of varnish is very common on vintage metal wrist watch dials. Varnish is not enamel (which is melted glass, basically) and it is not lacquer (in the traditional sense of Asian tree-sap-derived finishes). The terms ‘varnish’ and ‘lacquer’ are often used interchangeably, so be aware of that out in the wild. For clarity’s sake, I will refer to the clear coating found on countless vintage dials as ‘varnish’.

The composition of individual dial varnishes is a rather obscure topic around which little information exists, but from around the 1920s through the 1970s, most clear finishes were nitrocellulose, an organic material derived chemically by combining nitrates and sulfates. Beyond that I’d just be copying the Wikipedia entry.

Note the golden hue of the dial. That’s “aged” varnish on the dial.

Nitrocellulose varnish is likely what’s on most vintage varnished metal dials, and nitrocellulose “ages” in interesting ways, creating what most people call “patina.” Though ‘patina’ is technically only meant to indicate oxidizing metals, people in the watch space use it to mean just about any state change of materials on a watch.

Nitrocellulose varnish is porous, which means that oxygen and moisture can get through to the metal beneath and begin oxidization of the dial beneath the varnish. Modern varnishes, like polyurethane, are nearly impenetrable, and don’t allow oxygen and moisture to interact with the dial’s surface.

Distinguishing Blisters, Mold, Rust & Sunburn on Varnished Dials

There are essentially three areas that can experience material changes on a varnished vintage metal dial, and sometimes they happen in tandem or all at once:

  1. residue can accumulate on top of the varnish (as happened with my Zenith above)
  2. the varnish itself can yellow, peal, or blister
  3. the metal beneath the varnish can change in various ways, usually due to oxidization due to exposure to oxygen and water (nitrocellulose varnish is porous)

1. Residue Atop The Dial – Damage or Patina?

Typically due to water having entered the case (which is bad news for the movement), mold and water can leave stains on top of the varnish. In some cases, a good watchmaker can get the residue off without hurting the varnish. But there is always the risk of damaging or even pulling up the varnish, so work closely with your watchmaker to determine the risk level and then make your decision about whether to proceed.

Assuming the risk of cleaning the residue is low, the choice to remove the residue is one of personal taste. Some folks enjoy the weird patterns residue makes. However, because these stains are typically not happening all over the dial, the patterns that residue forms tend to be asymmetrical, not uniform in color, and are generally considered “damage” rather than patina.

Yuck. But it came right off.

I’d assume that cleaning up ugly spotted dials to reveal the warm hues of “aged” vintage varnish beneath would be all the rage. But somehow attitudes about “original condition” have become so orthodox among horological nerds that even mold spots are bought and sold as hip signs of age – especially if the spots are symmetrical and/or evenly distributed. Most reputable dealers know better that to try to pull the wool over their customers’ eyes, but less established private sellers will sometimes try to sell you mold as wonderful patina; and if that’s your cup of tea, great.

There are no hard rules to follow, but I consider patina to be a state change to original materials, and damage as the introduction of foreign materials (like water and mold) into the watch case. For me, personally, any low-risk removal of residue/damage from the top of the dial is a no-brainer – though admittedly some dials are too far gone for such a cleanup.

2. Typical Changes to Varnish Itself

Yellowing – Long exposure to UV light will cause nitrocellulose varnish to turn a yellow/amber color. I call it “sunburn.”

Evident here is yellowing of the varnish and blistering likely due to corrosion of the dial beneath. Image: Table Top Watches.

The yellow neck and creamy white on David Gilmour of Pink Floyd’s Strat from 1954 makes yellowing obvious. Yellowing is a coveted form of patina among guitar players, and I happen to find yellowing to be the best look from vintage varnished dials, too. Because it’s inherent to the material, once a varnish has yellowed, there’s no going back.

live and loud: 0001 Stratocaster
David Gilmour’s 1954 Strat, Serial Number 0001. You’ve heard it, we’re sure.

Pealing and Scratches – Sometimes the varnish will lift off the dial in pieces, revealing bare metal beneath. This sounds bad, but it’s not the worst result. There’s a pretty good scratch in my Zenith’s varnish at 4-o’clock that I can live with. Peals and scratches make yellowing obvious.

"Homer" - 1960s Tissot Lemania 871 Manual Wind Chronograph
This watch’s lacquer is pealing a little around the markers, which is common. You can see the yellowing of the varnish very clearly on this dial. Image: Table Top Watches.

Blisters – These are usually small bumps that form in the varnish. Some say sunlight causes this, some say oxidization of the metal underneath, but blisters form for any number of reasons, or combinations thereof. To see blisters, hold the dial sideways, and you’ll make out the topology. Requires refinishing to remove.

Blistering can be quite compelling. Image: Table Top Watches.

Not all blistering is the same, and you will find some blisters that look as if they’re forming due to oxidization of the metal dial below. Blisters that form from beneath the varnish can cause cracks in the varnish as well.

"Freckles" - 1960s 18KYG Longines Conquest 9001
Blisters likely emerging from oxidization of the dial beneath the varnish, thus the dark color of the spots. Spiderweb cracks are beginning outward from the nodes of corrosion. Image: Table Top Watches.

All Together Now! – Sometimes you’ll find a watch with a bit of everything happening to it’s dial, and for some collectors this is as beautiful as – and more exciting than – a perfectly new dial.

"Patches" - 1950s Rado Green Horse Alarm
Blisters, cracks, residue, and more on this Rado make for quite a beautiful texture. Image: Table Top Watches

Changes to The Metal Dial

I’ve already mentioned that sometimes the oxidization of the dial beneath the varnish can crack and blister that varnish. But sometimes it seems the varnish is just along for the ride, and remains a relatively clear coating over whatever happens underneath it.

This Seiko Actus dial has oxidized from the edges inward, leaving the varnish on to yellow. The effect is close to at fume dial, the kind of thing that watch collectors are starting to value.

I’m speaking simply as one who has looked at thousands of vintage watch dials, and I don’t believe there are any predictions to be made about how oxidization will impact your watch’s dial. Sometimes oxidization of the metal becomes a horrible demolition job, and other times it seems like an exquisite example of Wabi-Sabi aesthetics in action.

Amber Waves of Aged Nitrocellulose

I don’t go for blisters and spots myself. But I do want beautiful hues of sunburnt nitro varnish on my watch dials, for sure. It’s one of the main reasons I love certain vintage watches. The subtler the better.

This Hamilton alarm watch has aged varnish is just slightly yellowed, and it gives the watch an ineffable depth I’ve never seen on a brand new dial. Much better in person!
Allen’s 1972 Rolex 1603 Datejust has a very subtly yellowed varnished dial. In person, this dial has depth and dimension that is lacking when the varnish isn’t aged.

We might question whether vintage dealers have created the appeal of spotty dials because there are only so many clean watches out there. Buying low and selling high is a lot easier if you can tell your source that the dial is shit and your customer that it’s awesome. It’s wroth noting that spots do obscure some of the more lovely mellow yellows.

Some Tips From Exerience

The scratch at 4-o’clock shows the bare metal beneath the varnish.

Always ask watchmakers for second and third and fourth opinions. Sometimes they’re just lazy, unequipped, overbooked, or otherwise incentivised to say that what you wan’t can’t be done.

Assess carefully what kind of damage is in the varnish on the dial. This is not rocket science. A loupe and general sense of what to look for will indicate what type of patina you’re looking at, or whether it’s just residue. This guide should help you.

Sometimes there’s a great value underneath some stains or water marks. Ask your watchmaker if you’ve got a chance at having your dial clean up nicely without taking the lovely vintage varnish straight off.

Cheaper watches are mentally easier to take risks with. And most watchmakers will agree. The risk with cleaning varnished dials is that the varnish will “lift.”

There are still great values out there, but you may need to engage in some restoration in order to get good vintage value these days. Perhaps asking your watchmaker if they can clean a dial you’re considering can be part of your decision to buy or not.

Collecting watches is so different for everyone, but for some the restoration of a dial can be the difference between keeping it in a drawer and wearing it proudly. The satisfaction of taking something a little messed up and making it better can be addictive.