A brief history of time

Limited edition watches designed especially for the Middle East have been a favorite of watchmakers in recent years, due to the growing demand for fine watches in that region. Of all the editions made for the Middle East, the most popular watches are the ones with Eastern Arabic numerals for the hours, usually labelled as “Arabic dials”.

Arabic numerals are symbols descended from the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, invented more than 1600 years ago by Indian mathematicians. Over the time, they were adopted by the Arabs and evolved into the Arabic numerals (1,2,3…) that are commonly used today. However, these numerals are still widely used with the Arabic alphabet in the east of the Arab world, namely the wealthy, oil producers of the Arabian Gulf.

Watchmaker Hublot started the Arabic number revival in 2013 with a beautiful titanium Classic Fusion with a grey dial and rose gold-plated Arabic numerals. The series was limited to 100 pieces and were sold faster than expected. Hublot’s success encouraged watch brands to come up with their own interpretation of Arabic dials.

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But such dials are not actually a new trend. One of the notable pioneers was Rolex, which offered special dials with Arabic numeral back in the late 1950s on Day-Date watches. “Rolex’s willingness to tailor its watches to the specific needs and tastes of its clients in order to increase sales to an emerging luxury market” was the reason behind Arabic dials, explains Eric Ku, a Rolex specialist.

As with all things that involve Rolex, it is hard to say exactly when Arabic dials first came to market. It is industry wisdom that such dials were first fitted to Day-Dates from the 50s, with several models known to exist. These special watches are likely the first time that an entirely Arabic number dial with a matching Arabic script calendar function was ever produced, not jus only Rolex, but by the entire Swiss watch industry.

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A brief history of time 4Watches with Arabic dials became popular resulting in their production for the next 20 years, during which Rolex experimented with the designs and so dis its customers. The result was many different combinations of dial colors and varying metals for the case and bracelet. Some dial patterns are unique. One example of Rolex Day-Date was a ref. 1803 in pink gold fitted with a dial nicknamed “Aladdin’s Rose”. It was made in 1974 and sold in Damascus, Syria.

But while all that aesthetic evolution was happening over more than two decades, two factors remained unchanged: the font of the Arabic hour numerals consistently remained the same size and style, and so did the typography for the day and date. By the end of the 70s, the Arabic dial was discontinued, leaving only the Arabic day and date wheels as an optional feature available on request. A unique genre of vintage Rolex Day-Dates are those with Arabic text or logos on the dial that commemorate events or people.

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A classic comes back to life

Fast forward to Baselworld 2016: photos of a brand new Day-Date 40 emerges at the world’s largest watch trade fair, paying tribute to the golden era of the Arabic Dial. The model is a platinum Day-Date with a dial entirely in Arabic script. It is amazing that only after all this time Rolex finally have decided to resurrect what was a very desirable watch. Like other platinum Rolex watches, the Arabic Day-Date has an “Ice Blue” dial, a pale tone of blue that is beautifully finished with a sun-ray brushing.

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A brief history of time 7The new model is not just a casual tribute to the past: if you compare the numerals on the vintage and modern Arabic Day-Date, you will realize that the font and alignment are exactly the same. It’s definitely a beautiful homage piece, true to the original purpose of catering to the Arab market while still keeps it rare by making only limited numbers and keeping it to the most precious materials.

It was a great move from Rolex: introducing the Arabic dial on a top of the line model, in the priciest material, and having it produced in limited quantities. Distribution is extremely limited, once the watch will only be available at select authorized dealers in the Middle East. The special edition Day-Date 40 is priced at US$63,200. Rumors have it that there is another model in platinum that costs almost twice as much thanks to a baguette diamond bezel. That is a combination perfectly fits the glorious history of the Arabic Day-Date.