A Collector’s Guide To Weird And Wonderful Wooden Dials
Even at their height in the 1970s, wooden dials never really made sense. They still don’t! But that only makes them more charming. Here are some of our favorites.
Wooden dial watches fall into a category I like to call “weird design things that happened during the 1970s.”
I have a tendency to over-romanticize the disco decade, much to my French grandmother’s chagrin. She told me over the phone the other night: “Ugh, mais non Malaika, the ’70s was the worst period in fashion. So synthetic, so tacky. Not chic. Quelle horreur!”
Well, Granny, this time we must agree to disagree. I’m all about stacks of gold jewelry, glittery spandex fabric, clunky platform shoes, and enormous bell bottom pants. And wood, plenty of wood.
Wooden accessories belong to the bohemian side of the ’70s. More Mick Jagger in Performance, swathed in fabric, covered in earthy adornments, laid out on a shaggy rug – and less John Travolta dancing under a disco ball in a white three piece suit in Saturday Night Fever. They were a signature look for the great arbiter of bohemian fashion: Yves Saint Laurent muse LouLou de La Falaise. As far as I’m aware, LouLou didn’t wear wooden watches – but she did wear huge wooden earrings, beads, and bangles layered with semi-precious stones, enamel, and rock crystal pendants. She proved how stylish dead trees can be. And when I think of how to wear wood-dial watches today, she’s the inspiration.
Wooden-dial watches fall somewhere in between earthy and bohemian in matière but bold and sometimes outlandish in shape. And yes, the good ones are all made with real wood.
The best wood-dial watches from this time period are retro in every sense of the word, but I suppose it would be cheating if I made this all about the 1970s. There were wacky and also elegant wooden dials created in the 1960s, and some pretty fancy wooden dials that continued being made into the 1980s – and more came after that, too, all the way up to the Patek Philippe marquetry dials that started being made in the 2000s.
But the 1970s stick out as the golden age for experimentation in both form and material, from beautiful stone dials and hammered gold bracelets by Audemars Piguet to triangular shaped “Trinidad” cases and biomorphic Grima designs at Omega. An ideal era for the watch world’s Wood Period.
Although these wacky watches originated in a particular time period and are now a symbol of mid-century to late-’70s design, these products weren’t nostalgic when first produced. They were meant to be futuristic in the same way that MB&F and Urwerk are today.
I’ll be the first to admit that wooden dials don’t exude glamor in the same way that tiger’s eye, lapis, or onyx dials do. Maybe that’s why wood never caught on the way stone did. The totally offbeat 20th-century wooden dial watches listed below – minus burl wood Day-Dates and Datejusts – also lie in stark contrast to the classicism that many brands yearn to achieve today. Classic design cuts through the timeline and transcends the era in which it was created, and if a product is timeless I suppose the logic is that it will sell for longer. But some of us prefer period-perfect idiosyncrasy.
I’m certain that these wood watches will forever remain in the niche collector category, but they’re still fun to look at and evocative of a freewheeling time when creativity ruled.
The eternally beloved Rolex Day-Date was introduced in 1956 as the brand’s “flagship” model, and it went on to be the foundation for a whole host of (now) extremely covetable dial variations. The early ’70s saw the introduction of high gloss enamel Stella dials, as well as the use of semi-precious hardstone dials such as lapis and onyx. But an even more unusual variant came in wooden form.
The earlier wood dial Day-Dates in the four digit references (180x with plastic plexi crystal) are often referred to as Sequoia wood dials. The grain pattern was straight and the finish was matte with poor text quality. The fourth figure of the reference number identifies the pattern of the bezel: ref. 1802 features the smooth bezel, ref. 1803 fluted and ref. 1807 bark. These watches were all produced circa 1973 and housed Caliber 1556.
The bark finish on the bezel and bracelet center link of ref.1807 is a type of finishing first used by Rolex in the early 1970s. This decorative finishing, which mimics the bark of a tree but is not actually made of wood, is particularly effective when paired with a wooden dial.
The wooden dials produced later in the ’70s for five serial number Day-Dates (with sapphire crystal) were made using three different types of wood: birchwood, mahogany, and walnut. They had a layer of lacquer applied on them with the print placed on, which in turn made the text significantly more legible. This series housed Caliber 3055 which featured a quickset function.
This generation of wood dial Day-Date is often referred to as burl wood, which is theoretically correct in that burl is a specific grain characteristic that is present on the later generation of wooden dials. But burl is not to be mistaken as a type of tree (like birch or walnut). Burl is actually a growth that forms on the outside of a tree and in turn affects the grain pattern, producing unique knots in the wood.
The more commonly known burl dials most likely replaced the earlier unlacquered sequoia close-grained variants due to burl’s material density and resistance to splitting. I personally find the burly grain more attractive as it looks richer and more unusual. Burl wood furniture was popular in the Art Deco period and had a resurgence in, you guessed it, the 1970s. I fell down a burl-themed Milo Baughman rabbit hole during my research – I’m now in the market for a burl wood credenza. Oops!
Below are some fun variants on the wood dial Day-Date. The Oysterquartz ref. 19018 also came in a solid wood dial version as well as a diamond pattern variant referred to as “Wooden Roulette.” and Oysterquartz Day-Date ref.19028 with a “Clous de Paris” / pyramid pattern on the bracelet and bezel (not pictured).
You can find Datejust models produced with wooden dials, too, including refs. 16018 and 16019 first produced circa 1979. And Lady Datejust models 6917 and 69278 were also around starting in the late ’70s.
Rolex also made a fair amount of wood dials for its Cellini line. The hexagonal tonneau-shaped ref. 4122 with mahogany dial measures around 28mm x 30 to 35mm, depending on the model, and looks like something a cigar-smoking, backgammon-playing aristocrat would wear to the Groucho Club in London.
The Midas Cellini, which seems to be having a bit of a comeback these days, was also produced with a wooden dial variant. Ref. 4126 (pictured below) features a burled walnut dial inside an 18k yellow gold case with hobnail-textured finishing in the bezel.
There’s also the ref. 4127 with a mahogany burl dial and pyramid motif bezel. This rectangular-shaped case Cellinii measures 33 x 24 mm and was produced circa 1976.
The Genta designed octagonal Cellini ref. 4350 with mahogany dial is a sleeper hit as well as the diamond-set ref. 4651. Both of these variants are lust-worthy for their deliciously chunky yellow gold case and bracelet. These are just about as ’70s as it gets for uniquely shaped dress watches.
The “pre-Must” Cartier Tank Organic refs. 20611 (medium) and 21611( jumbo) were produced in the mid-’70s by both Cartier London and Cartier New York in a rare Brazilian rosewood known as Palissandre De Rio. The watch had wooden side panels and a matching-grained wood dial with a plated yellow gold case, gold Roman numeral hour markers, and gold epée hands.
The Tank Organic is a seriously unconventional design for Cartier; it still sticks out in spite of the highly unusual shapes Cartier (notably made under Jean-Jacques for Cartier London) had made over the years.
According to this very informative forum post, The Cartier Organic line existed for only a short period during c.1975-76, before it was abruptly discontinued in 1976 when the last of the three companies were taken over and Cartier became one big organization as we know it today.
I got the chance to try one on courtesy of London-based watch dealer Alex Stevens @alexstevesvintage, and it was pretty much impossible to take a picture given the glare created by the plastic case.
This watch is thought to have only been made in approximately 3,000 examples. And given the difficulty of maintaining such a fragile design with exposed wood panels and meagerly protected dial – prone to cracking and shrinking or expanding depending on the climate – there are most likely few pristine examples available.
Hamilton, the American watch company founded in Pennsylvania in 1892 – which then moved much of its production to Switzerland in 1969 – was a big player in the left-field style of ’60s and ’70s watch design. The company created countless space-age-inspired cases including the Dateline TM-5903, the Odyssee 2001 (the original prototype created for the seminal Kubrick film famously never went into production), the QED LED, and the Fontainebleau Chrono-matic.
Alongside the futuristic designs of the furniture, fashion, and automotive space, natural materials also featured heavily in mid-century interiors, and it seemingly permeated out into the design briefs for certain watch brands too. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hamilton prototyped the Richard Arbib-designed Flight II & Pacer Electric with wooden dials. This led to a few wooden dial variants being produced later down the line under the Sherwood Automatic collection. The cases were made of 14-karat gold and the dials from Mexican mahogany.
Bulova, also originally an American watch company, produced an Accutron in 1973, (pictured below) featuring inlaid wood on the bezel and metal bracelet. The “Woody” features a Day-Date function and houses an Accutron tuning fork marked Bulova 2182.
This watch is fascinating to me: The contrast of something as space-agey as an Accutron with a material as organic as wood makes absolutely no sense. But then again neither do sunken living rooms and fondue in large metropolitan cities.
The watch almost looks like a piece of retro kitchen decor – the wooden inserts remind me of linoleum flooring. Maybe this would be better without the bracelet, quadrupled in size, and hung up on the kitchen wall?
This double-marked Movado Zenith watch produced in 1970 houses the in-house Zenith Caliber 2572PC automatic. Both Movado and Zenith brands belonged to the same holding company (the Movado-Zenith-Mondia group) when this watch was manufactured. After the 1969 merger between Mondia, Zenith, and Movado, Zenith frequently used Movado movements (notably Caliber 405 and 408) and Movado used Zenith movements, most significantly the El Primero (Zenith Caliber 3019).
At the time Zenith was encountering trademark issues in the US against US-based company Zenith Radio Corporation. In order to sidestep this problem they used the Movado brand name – with both names sometimes appearing on the dial – in order to retail El Primero movements Stateside.
This watch isn’t as space-agey as the Bulova. The Roman numerals feel like an attempt at retaining some degree of classicism. The wood on this dial feels more toned down and natural – more Northern California hippie and less suburban catalog kitchen suite.
Wrapping up with my personal favorite, the above wooden Gucci watch. Okay, so it doesn’t have a wooden dial but it deserves an honorable mention! It’s made from Macassar ebony wood and solid yellow gold with a buckle fastening and houses a manual movement. I heard a rumor on a certain somebody’s instagram page that the case was even made by the same case maker as Cartier. Still on my mission to get to the bottom of that so don’t quote me!