Posted on January 07 2021
Among affordable watches, there isn’t a great deal of choice, with only a handful of brands utilising this unorthodox dial arrangement. However, if it is a style that appeals to you, you’ll be happy to know that there are some great inexpensive watches out there. I’ve done the research for you and have compiled a list of the six best affordable Cali dial watches.
But first, let’s try and clarify the style and its origin. And importantly, the name.
What is a California Dial Watch?
The Cali dial, as it’s known, is an uncommon design that combines both Roman numerals and Arabic numbers in one ring around the dial.
In most cases that means that the upper half of the dial, from 10 on the left to 2 on the right, are Roman numerals. The lower half, from 8 on the left to 4 on the right, are plain Arabic numbers.
The 12 o’clock position is usually reserved for an inverted triangle marker and the middle numbers at 9 and 3 are replaced with simple markers.
The History of the California Dial
There’s not a great deal of history to the design, although of the history that there is, it does feature some big brands. Namely, Rolex and Panerai.
In the 1930s Rolex had experimented with this dial and when Panerai was contracted to make a dive watch for the Italian Navy, the two companies worked together to produce the timepiece. The final watch, delivered in 1936, was recognisable as the now-classic Panerai Radiomir style. More than one dial layout was used - all were bold with large lumed markers - and some of these featured the new unconventional design.
Rolex thought it was worth protecting and was subsequently granted a patent for the half-Roman, half-Arabic layout.
How Did the California Dial get its Name?
As noted here, there’s no real agreed-upon theory of where the name actually comes from - let’s also ignore the lack of a reason to actually create the odd design in the first place (let me know your theories below).
There are three main theories that the watch community have come up with to explain how the Swiss Rolex company, working with Italian Panerai, designed a dial that decades later would be associated with California.
The first possible explanation references the nick-naming of watches. It’s common in the watch world and we have everything from the Seiko Arnie to the Rolex Hulk and Kermit. The theory is that this style of dial was popular among Californian’s and people in the watch trade began referring to that particular dial as a California variation. I guess this is a plausible explanation.
Alternatively, the name is said to have come from Californian dealers who were cashing in on this popularity by trying to source the early Rolex’s with this quirky dial.
Finally, probably the most likely explanation is that California-based dial finisher Kirk Rich specialised in working on these dials in the 1970s. He’d receive watches to work on from around the world - it was easy for customers to just refer to these specific dials being sent to California as Californian dials.
So there you have it.
The dials originated with Rolex in the 1930s, were popular with Californians decades later and are still produced by a small number of manufacturers now.
The Best Current Cali Dial Watches
Panerai still make watches with this style of dial. Indeed, it is a feature that they’re known for. But they aren’t very affordable. Others, like German luxury brand Nomos do their own variations, but again, they’re not accessible to all watch fans.
Apple makes a smartwatch version, but the least said about that the better.
If you’re familiar with my blog you’ll know that I’m really passionate about the affordable end of the market. So with this list, I’ve selected my favourite six watches from the sub-£1000 price-point. I’m sure you’ll agree that there are some genuinely great watches featured here.
Undone sent me a complimentary code that I used to make a vintage styled chronograph. My review of the process is here.
The concept, if not revolutionary, is at least distinctive.
They believe that customisation - the production of bespoke products - is the sign of luxury. Not price or brand name. Luxury is the process of having a product personalised.
What I concentrated on in that piece was the doing. The steps it took to create the watch. So much of the fun of this process was the afternoon I spent with a friend designing it. It was reasonably straightforward. In a nutshell, Undone allows you to choose the main parts of your watch - case, dial, hands and strap. And then they put it together for you.
They also have their own pre-made designs, and as I stressed in my review, I’d be careful in modifying the models that they have already designed. The Basecamp Cali Green is a great example. Would your tinkering with the design actually improve the watch?
This is Undone’s dive watch and comes in a variety of options, all of which can be further customised. The variation features a green textured California dial with a complimentary deep green bezel. It’s an attractive Rolex-inspired piece that comes in a 40mm case with an exhibition back.
Through that clear back you can see Seiko’s reliable NH35A automatic movement - the same as I use in my Northwind watches.
This is a great place to start if you’re after a contemporary Cali dial watch.
Undone Basecamp Cali Green
The Spinnaker range initially began as a series of designs based around maritime themes. They’ve expanded that somewhat, but the majority of their watches are still focused on this niche.
The Hull collection features a cushion case design reminiscent of a Panerai. It’s a style that I like and I recently featured cushion case dive watches here.
There are a number of variations of the Hull watch, all housed in a cushion case, but with different dials, straps and complications. Of the couple that feature the California dial, this is my preference.
Although marketed as a dive watch, the water resistance is only 100M. Other than that, Spinnaker has done a good job of recreating the vintage Italian diving watch aesthetic.
Like the Basecamp, the Hull sports an attractive textured dial and is powered by the same Seiko movement. It’s a little cheaper than the Undone, but I see them competing in the same space. I prefer the colouring of the Basecamp, but think that the leather strap of the Hull is a better choice than the Nato of the previous watch.
It’s another entry-level watch - good if you want to try out a Cali dial in the flesh.
Spinnaker Hull SP-5071-02
As you discover new brands you tend to forget about the bigger, more obvious names. As I’ve argued recently, using Rotary and Bulova as examples, these popular high street brands continue to release interesting watches.
I, along with many others, really took to Timex’s reissues, specifically the 1970s Q models. The Marlin collection is another line that has repeatedly drawn my interest. It’s a reworking of the 1960s watches that the brand describes as iconic.
Bear in mind that during the 1960s a third of all American watch sales were Timex. Not bad for a brand that can trace its roots back to the late Victorian period.
The current Marlin - an automatic version - updates the original design to cater to modern tastes. So the case diameter is a comfortable 40mm. The crystal, however, is acrylic and adds an element of authenticity to the watch.
Of interest to us is the dial. There’s a plain version, the fun Peanuts collaboration, and this California dial. I’m tempted to suggest that the simplicity of this model makes the watch a real winner.
The dial, the hands and the case - they’re all straightforward, functional and together, very attractive. I don’t think that there is anything that I’d change on this watch. Even the pared-down leather strap seems to be a perfect match for this spartan and highly legible watch.
The Japanese Miyota movement, with its signed Timex rotor, can be seen through the exhibition back. As for the price? It’s positioned in between the Undone and the Spinnaker.
Timex Marlin California TW2U832007U
You can see where I’m going with this. Lew and Huey was a unique brand that owner Chris Vail used to channel his creative and somewhat argumentative personality. But as Chris states, “I felt a need to find the “spiritual center” for myself and my business, a refuge of purity, removed from the controversy which had always swirled around the Lew & Huey brand”.
So he created a new watch brand. NTH - a Nod to History.
The brand has a slight vintage aesthetic, without being a homage brand, and the NTH Subs are their most successful watches.
The Nazario is another classically sized dive watch with that slight vintage design. The white variant is particularly attractive and even more so with the distinctive California dial. Where NTH really come into their own, is the small attention to detail - the recessed crown with a lumed logo springs to mind. There has been a lot of thought and testing involved in the Sub range and that explains a large part of the watches success.
It’s the most expensive on the list so far, but it also technically a superior watch.
NTH Nazario Sauro
I really need to address that, as they’re an interesting brand with some notable watches.
Founded in the early 1990s, the company is now owned by Vollmer, a German strap and bracelet manufacturer that has been involved with Arito since 1927. The new company, Aristo-Vollmer, still makes straps and watches and now owns a number of other brand names including Messerschmitt.
Most Aristo designs are recognisably German, with pilot and Bauhaus designs being the most prominent. The California dial watch is a good example of this. Other than the dial, this is a very typical German aviation piece.
It’s as we’d expect. The dial is black with bold white numbers - in this case, we have the California style layout - rather than the standard Flieger markers. It has the almost compulsory onion crown and a distressed leather strap. There’s not a great deal to mark this watch out among this list - but it does have a couple of big selling points.
Firstly, this is a German-made watch. What is more, the Vollmer factory in Pforzheim avoided the worst of the bombing WW2. The factory is, therefore, an intact old-school watchmaking facility that handmakes these watches.
The second point to take into consideration is the movement. Aristo uses Swiss mechanical movements and in this model that means an ETA engine. So we have a 40mm German-made pilots watch, an uncommon dial with a Swiss automatic movement. In addition, there is also a German-made strap.
That all definitely makes this a watch for further consideration.
Aristo California 3H193
In a sense, the Incursore is easy to overlook as it doesn’t have the history of the Airman or the popular appeal of the Combat Sub. It’s a relatively simple 44mm watch with a Swiss automatic movement.
The design obviously aims to be highly legible and uncomplicated. It works for me and allows the quirky dial layout to come to the fore. This white variation is stunning and the bold numerals really grab your attention and both the case and strap compliment the dial rather than distract you.
Some of my favourite watches are unassuming and deceptively simple designs and the Incursore fits those two descriptions. All of the different components come together perfectly so that all you really notice is the time.
Glycine Incursore GL0042
Serica 4512 California
American brand Serica is worth an honourable mention. The 4512 is a great looking military-styled watch that utilises the Californian dial in a slightly different way to some of the others.
Ralf Tech Academie
The Ralf Tech Academie would have made my list had it not been for the price-tag. It’s well over the £1000 mark, so worth a look, but not really what I would class as affordable.
As we’ve seen, California dials originated with Rolex in the 1930s, were popular with Californians decades later and are still produced by a small number of manufacturers now.
The design concept is fairly simple. The upper half of the dial uses Roman numerals and the lower half Arabic numbers. It’s a bold style, vintage-inspired and not particularly common among modern watches.
When shopping for affordable watches there isn’t a great deal of choice. With only a handful of brands utilising this unorthodox dial arrangement, your options are quite limited. However, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that there are some affordable California dial watches out there. I believe I have gone further and shown you watches that are not only affordable but also very good quality.
Please add your own thoughts below.