The Curious Case of California-Dial Watches

panerai radiomir california
The Curious Case of California-Dial WatchesNicole Mason

Nobody gets to choose their own nickname. Think George Ruth called himself “Babe”? Certainly not. Similarly, Rolex never used the term “California dial” to describe the watch faces it designed almost a century ago with a combination of Arabic and Roman numerals. But that’s what everyone in the watch game calls them.

This story originally appeared in Volume 23 of Road & Track.

In 1934, Rolex started making experimental versions of its Oyster Perpetual “Bubbleback” watch, with numbers 10 through 2 along the top in Roman numerals and 4 through 8 below in Arabic numerals. Its large, luminous indicators were more legible underwater and in the dark than basic stick-style markers. Rolex chose the Roman and Arabic numerals so that each is optimized for legibility, with the top and bottom halves of the watch being clearly divided. This the company creatively dubbed the “error-proof” dial. Boring!


In the Eighties, as the popularity of vintage watches increased, people sought to have theirs restored. Local repair shops could clean and service old movements, but the dials had to be sent out. Sent where? To the Kirk Rich Dial Corporation in California.

For a time, Kirk Rich would restore dials with custom touches based on a client’s desires, sometimes “up-badging” Tudor watches with Rolex logos or fancier lugs. Or the refinishing shop would turn stand­ard dials into more valuable half-­Arabic, half-Roman versions.

panerai radiomir california
Panerai Radiomir California, $12,300, panerai.comNicole Mason

Doctored watches hit the market in such quantities that collectors began referring to modified vintage dials in general as “California,” implying fake. Eventually, Kirk Rich stopped altering vintage dials to look like pricier editions, and in watch circles, the association of the word “California” shifted away from nefariousness and ended up being a description that’s catchier than “half-­Arabic, half-Roman.”

It’s easy to see why Rolex never embraced California as an official name for its designs. But another company, Panerai, has.

Unlike Rolex, Panerai didn’t always make watches. Its first branded products were military-­grade instruments featuring markers illuminated with the radium-­based powder Radiomir. ­Panerai’s first wristwatches were commissioned by the Royal Italian Navy for its divers. That’s where Rolex comes back into the picture.

panerai radiomir california
Nicole Mason

The first watches Panerai ever issued to the navy, reference 3436, were constructed by Rolex. Late in production, around 1944, some were fitted with hand-painted half-Arabic, half-Roman dials. These watches are among the most collectible of all Panerai models, selling into the six figures today.

Vintage Panerai watches were not known to have been sent to Kirk Rich Dial for modification to the degree that Rolex and Tudor examples were. But when Panerai issued reference PAM01349 in 2023, it embraced the sketchy nickname, calling the new model Radiomir California. The handsome big-face watch features a hand-wound movement visible through a display caseback, an eight-day power reserve, and the traditional mix of Arabic and Roman numerals on a beautiful green-­gradient dial.

A few other companies, including Nomos Glashütte and Omologato, have also released California-­dial watches, but none match the simple beauty of the Panerai.

And what of Kirk Rich Dial? It’s still going, restoring dials in Rancho Cucamonga, California, not far from some of the best driving roads.

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