How to Spot a Refinished Dial

At some point in your watch collecting journey, you may want a holy grail or vintage (read: 30 years or older) watch.

In your search, you’d come across one that’s in immaculate condition, even if it’s a few decades old. Maybe it wasn’t worn at all, maybe the original owner had put it away to be passed down within the family… or maybe the dial has simply been refinished.

With most things, clean and new are preferred, but when it comes to watches, especially vintage watches, most prefer them all-original. In this guide, we explain why originals are preferred, why refinished or restored dials aren’t always bad, and how you can spot them.

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First, let’s define a restored dial: that is a dial that has been re-coated, repainted, re-plated or one that has markers and other details replaced. By now, you’ve probably heard that they should be avoided at all costs, but there are some exceptions.

When the watch has not been cared for properly, and the dial has been seriously damaged, the only way it could be used again is to restore it. When purchasing a vintage watch, there is certainly nothing wrong with a refinished dial, if:

– the restoration was done by a professional
– the restoration is disclosed by the dealer
– the watch is not particularly rare, historical, or a “holy grail”

That said, many collectors still avoid refinished dials because:

– A restored dial may appear to be cleaner and more functional but all-original watches always fetch more at auction.
– Collectors see these watches as part of history and much of that is reflected in the dial. Stripping its original dial away means erasing that past.
– And simply, there are so-called independent dial refinishers who simply don’t care about restoring a watch properly.

If you’d like to avoid the last scenario, here’s what you should watch out for:

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First, we recommend doing lots of research about the particular vintage watch that you want. To be able to spot a restored dial, you need to be familiar with what a genuine dial for a particular watch looks like. The key is to observe lots of original dials.

Do a Google image search for that watch, and look at varieties that may exist from among reliable sources. When you feel familiar with it, look at these four details:

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Rolex Bubbleback 18K Yellow Gold Vintage Watch
TYPOGRAPHY AND PRINTING
Original dials are usually printed in a factory, while re-dials are typically done by hand, which makes them prone to human error. Check for the following:
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– inconsistent font types and spacing, especially in the same area of the watch
– incorrect numbering, un-crisp tracks and indices
– in some cases, missing SWISS / SWISS MADE text at the 6 o’clock. Most regular refinishers will not invest time in putting them back on, as it involves an additional print process.
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Omega Speedmaster Premoon DON Bezel 321 Vintage Watch
LUMINOUS MARKERS
If your watch has luminous hour markers and indices, check whether the lume is consistent. Luminous materials are used on watches to tell time in the dark, so if they are on the indices, they should be on the hands as well – otherwise, they won’t serve their purpose.
Moreover, if your watch uses tritium lume (popular in the ’60s to ’70s) it should no longer glow either too brightly or for too long in the dark, as tritium has a half-life of 12 years. It should also not look too neon or white, but have a yellowish or brownish tint due to age.
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pictured: Omega Speedmaster Premoon DON Bezel 321 Vintage Watch
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Patek Philippe Calatrava Vintage 18k Yellow Gold Scroll Lugs Watch

THE DIAL ITSELF

– Under magnification, check for the proportion and alignment of the details, like the logo, minute tracks, hour and minute markers.
– Check the finish of the dial. A high-gloss finish is a sign that it may have been redone, as original dials will naturally oxidize over time.
– Lastly, compare the overall condition of the watch versus the condition of the dial. If the watch case or bracelet shows significant wear, but the dial looks excellent, that would be a warning sign.
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pictured: Patek Philippe Calatrava Vintage 18k Yellow Gold Scroll Lugs Watch

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Rolex Air King Vintage Steel Yellow Gold Mens Watch
THE LOGO AND CROWN
Finally, check the logo of the watch. You may think this is the easiest way to spot restoration but some watch fonts in the same periods do undergo subtle changes from year to year. Again, look at originals of the watch you want, from the same period or year, and compare the crown and logo fonts closely.
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While the pointers above may help you spot a restored watch from an original, it really is more of an art than an exact science. Err on the side of caution – the best way to score an all-original watch is to buy from a reputable retailer.

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