A crash course on panda dials

What does this black-and-white bear have to do with watches?

BY Celine Yap | Apr 16, 2018 | Feature

Luxury watch trend-spotters would have been blind to not have noticed the explosion of panda dial chronographs all over the industry. These watches with their characteristic black-and-white aesthetics are impossible to miss and people love them for that.

A panda dial watch is essentially a chronograph that has black sub-dials over a white dial. This high-contrast effect literally resembles the face of a panda bear—you can see where the two eyes and a mouth would go—and was so nicknamed thusly. 

But panda dials are not exactly a new trend. They had been resurrected from the early 1960s thanks to the industry-wide (make that worldwide) obsession with all things vintage. They began as a way for watchmakers to make chronograph dials more legible, since the timekeeping function has been clearly marked out against the time-telling one.

Who would’ve thought that something so purely practical would end up being a major trend in 2018.

Arguably, though, panda dials never really went away. They’ve just never been so popular as they are now. 

There are a few main styles with panda dials: the classic panda with three black sub-dials at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock on white; the semi-panda which has sub-dials in other colours than black or white; the vertical panda with sub-dials at 6, 9 and 12 o’clock or 6 and 12; and finally the reverse panda with white sub-dials on black. 

Interestingly, the original panda dial chronograph wasn’t a classic panda but a reverse semi-panda. Made in 1957 by Breitling, the SuperOcean Chronograph ref. 807 was the watch that started it all. Breitling’s deep fixation with precision timekeeping spurred it to continually invent many key features of the modern chronograph. In 1961, another panda dial Breitling was introduced, the AVI 765 Co-Pilot. Also a reverse panda format, it however has three sub-dials—one more than the ref. 807.

Around that same period, TAG Heuer caught onto the reverse panda trend and in 1961 released its auto-inspired Autavia timepiece. TAG Heuer, then named Heuer, had also made panda versions of its iconic Carrera Chronograph, which are extremely sought after today. But those came only after this great watch company made the first true panda dial.

In 1963, Rolex released the Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6239 which had black chronograph sub-dials on a sunray opaline dial. Incredibly sought after at auctions today (as are all vintage Rolexes), this reference didn’t yet have screw-down pushers, neither did it have the word Daytona printed on the dial. A first in the world, this was the precursor to the legendary Paul Newman Daytona. In October 2017, Paul Newman’s own Daytona appeared on the auction scene and was sold to a private buyer for a mind-blowing US$17.8 million. 

The Paul Newman Daytona always does well at auctions but US$17.8 million is unprecedented even for Rolex. As news of this record-breaking vintage timepiece rippled across the industry, so did the desire for chronographs of similar designs grow exponentially.

Inspired by the iconography of these early and legendary examples, brands today have released a plethora of panda dial chronographs updated with modern details. Montblanc’s TimeWalker Manufacture Chronograph blends sport with vintage; the Breitling Navitimer 8 opens a new chapter for the brand; the Omega Speedmaster CK2998 is as stylish as it is elegant.

Audemars Piguet shakes up the Royal Oak Offshore 42mm with a host of panda and semi-panda designs, as did the Girard-Perregaux Laureato Chronograph. Across the pond on the accessible luxury tier, Hamilton also got into the game with the Intra-Matic 68 while Hublot had recently released two reverse panda Classic Fusion Chronographs, one each for football clubs Juventus and Chelsea.

So panda dials are officially a thing but so was the mullet, and at some point they’ll go out of style. Unlike the mullet though a panda dial is not going to get you mocked.