By Nirja Dutt
There is something so lyrical about the sheer play of black and white on the dial, whilst they are opposites of the spectrum, together they sing the same tune. And that’s the beauty of a Panda dial, it hits the right note every time, no matter who makes it.
Quintessentially chronographs, the Panda phenomenon started in the 1960s, they were more functional at the advent and overtime reached a cult status that are today coveted by most collectors under their ‘holy grail’ category. In theory, a Panda dial is exactly what you think it is, a white dial base with black subdials and markers.
Why is it called the panda you ask? The answer lies in the nickname itself, the positioning of the subdials at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock that mimic the exact face of a panda, the two eyes and mouth in that exact color scheme have gained this style of chronograph its title. Often the connection between the rarity of pandas and these watches are drawn as parallels and while that may be the case, they were originally named ‘panda dials’ for their uncanny resemblance to the lovable bear, the rarity is more of an outcome of their cult status. What’s more notable than the nickname is the fact that whilst everyone refers to them as ‘panda dials’ till this day, not even a single watch brand has titled their watch that.
Over the years the style has only gained popularity and allure, it has evolved immensely in its half-century existence, with different permutations in color and dial positioning, here’s a fail safe glossary that explains the many versions of the pandaverse:
Panda dial: White/off white dial with black sub registers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.
Reverse Panda: Black dial with white subdials (often complimented with an accent colour that can be spotted in the details i.e. the lettering, tip of the hands, outline of a certain sub register etc) at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.
Vertical Panda: Contrasting dial and sub-dials (typically in black and white), but with the
dials placed at 6, 9 and 12 o’clock.
Semi Panda: This features a contrasting dial and sub-dial but not in black and white.
Baby Panda: Stepping away from the standard 3/6/9 sub-dial arrangement, this watch has a rather unorthodox 12 and 6 o’clock dual sub-dial layout.
Spider dial: The term came about due to a fault in the lacquer used by Rolex on just a few dials during the 1980s. Over time, the lacquer cracked in an even fashion leaving what appears to be a “Spider Web” across the dial when looked upon from a certain angle.
Now that we know the basics let’s get to the good part, the watches that have truly made an impact. With legibility that will ensure punctuality down to the second, the beauty of panda dials is so drenched in the world of horology that at any given point, a version can be found in every budget. Present in endless sizes, forms, categories and brands, here’s a quick roundup of six iconic panda watches that will never go out of style.
1. Rolex Daytona
What can be said about this watch that hasn’t already been said. What started out as a frenzy with the Paul Neuman era till this very day, these monochromatic watches have had the audience in a frenzy ever since they came into being. Today it comes in various renditions, the latest Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona still stays true to its roots—a tool watch for those with a strong passion for driving. Powered by the calibre 4130, a self-winding mechanical chronograph movement that is developed and manufactured in-house, the watch has a 72 hour power reserve and a dual-disc system that offer impeccable precision with an ability to run for long periods with no negative impact. Crafted in three renditions, the latest take on ‘black and white’ is fashioned in meteorite with black subdials in a 40mm case with an oysterflex black rubber strap.
2. Zenith Chronomaster Original
Since the release of the very first model in 1969, the El Primero chronograph has held a prominent role within Zenith’s offerings and in the world of horology overall. Breaking records of precision to literally the10ths of a second, its automatic high-beat chronograph caliber has been loved and appreciated by many for years and is appreciated till this day. However in 2022, the brand decided to discontinue the series and has now offered the Chronomaster Original that is an inspired rendition of the iconic El Primero reference A386. Fashioned in reverse panda, the watch comes in a comfortable 38mm steel case with a brown leather strap. Empowered with the El Primero 3600 high-frequency automatic caliber, the watch is equipped with a chronograph function with a reading accuracy of 1/10th of a second and a 60-hour power reserve.
3. TAG Heuer Autavia
One of the house’s oldest collections, the 1960s original 36mm Carrera is known as collector’s favorite for decades. The signature Autavia Ref. 2446 features a three register chronograph and was famously worn by the Formula 1 champion and legend Joschen Rindt. The latest rendition pays homage to this icon Autavia Automatic Chronometer Flyback which comes in a 42mm dial. Powered by the Calibre Heuer02 COSC Flyback movement, the movement comes with a power reserve of 80 hours. The 60th anniversary version is circled with a black ceramic bezel, the sublime silver dial has white super-luminova on the indexes and hands, enhancing legibility in low light.
4. Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph
A staple for pilots and aviation enthusiasts, the Navitimer has been a go-to for many when it comes to a classic chronograph. When it first came to live in 1959 it was monotone with a daily busy dial and cutting edge technology and it wasn’t until 1963 that the house resigned the watch adding white subdials and, after a short transition replacing the beaded bezel with a serrated version in 1964, presenting it’s first ever panda version. The latest Navitimer B01 Chronograph comes in a 46mm dial in stainless steel, and is powered by the Breitling 01 movement which has a 70 hour power reserve. With a bidirectional bezel and the panda dial offsets the red details and second hand with ease, almost lending to the colourway.
5. Vacheron Constantin Overseas Panda
One of the newest recruits of the panda club, the Overseas has always been one of those watches that embodies the house’s finest movements with a fine integrated bracelet that melts across the wrist. Its latest offering plays into the panda style of watches with a white dial and back subdials and a reverse panda too. Crafted in stainless steel the satin finish on the bracelet and case, and a high-polished bezel uplift the contrasting 42.5 mm dial with ease. Leaning to the sporty chic style of the watch, the movement is powered by the Caliber 5200. Equipped with a twin barrel that offers 52 hours of power reserve and is fitted with a column wheel with Maltese cross-shaped screw used to control the chronograph functions of start, stop and reset.
6. Tissot PRX
One of the most affordable yet rooted in history watches on the list, the Tissot PRX first came to life right around the time Panda dials were gaining popularity—1978. Then called the Seastar, the watch was known for its integrated bracelet and quartz movement. However, today, the brand has made the PRX Chronograph Automatic stands out by combining both trends – vintage-inspired design and integrated bracelet with an affordable edge. The automatic chronograph’s panda version comes with rose gold (coloured) hands and indices and an angled date window is tucked between 4 and 5 o’clock. At 40mm, the watch sits well on the wrist, beats at 28,800vph (4Hz) and comes with a 60-hour power reserve.
While this just scratches the surface on the variety of offerings in the market, a panda dial is a classic and needless to say is here to stay, it doesn’t matter if it’s black or white.