A couple of years ago, the team at the Swiss luxury watchmaker H. Moser & Cie. was fiddling around with ideas to make its Streamliner watch “iconic.” That’s the word the company’s CEO, Edouard Meylan, used on a recent call. The watch’s dial already came in a bright emerald, but Meylan wanted something less showy and more classic for the next iteration of the $21,900 flagship design. The team at Moser played with champagne and gray, but eventually arrived at the same place nearly every watch brand in 2023 has when it wants to make something more than just special but iconic: salmon.
Since prominent brands including Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre started deploying salmon dials almost a century ago, the shade has been used to turn baseline models into extremely special ones. Salmon won out by being just different enough: neither black nor white but a unique prize for the rarest editions. It’s nearly golden without conjuring images of ’80s excess—there’s a reason makers initially paired salmon almost exclusively with rose gold cases, or that Patek Philippe calls its truest salmon shade “golden opaline.”
Now, there is no bigger trend in dial color in 2023. The shade is surprisingly accessible, traveling from entry-level pieces by Tudor and the British-based Fears to savings–draining special editions like ones at MB&F and Grönefeld.
Meylan says watch-world titans such as Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe helped guide the decision for Moser: “Their salmon dials contributed to making it more of a classic.” Recent history has shown this feature can level up already coveted pieces. Take Patek Philippe’s Grandmaster Chime, the most complicated wristwatch the brand has ever made. In 2019, the company presented a one-of-a-kind salmon-dial version that was sold at auction for $31 million, setting the still–standing record as the most expensive timepiece ever. And when Audemars celebrated the 20th anniversary of its titanic Royal Oak, it recast the dial in salmon, creating what is still an incredibly desirable version of the model. An example of this Royal Oak “Jumbo” Jubilee Edition sold for as much as $302,000 at its peak two years ago.
Salmon dials emerged in the ’30s when watchmakers got experimental under the influence of the Art Deco movement. Rolex famously used the fishy shade for its Bubbleback watches. Nevertheless, over the years salmon has been used sparingly, as a kind of industry pixie dust. Patek, for example, has worked on keeping this shade special. Important clients could distinguish their models by arranging for custom-made pieces with the watchmaker. Eric Clapton famously used his special privileges to get custom salmon-dial watches from Patek. He owned several custom-order salmon-
dial Pateks, including one that sold at auction for about $450,000 in 2016 (that converts to approximately a bajillion dollars in today’s watch-crazy market).
Few brands have made use of salmon quite like Chopard, which put out a reproduction of its first-ever L.U.C this year. The $23,200 watch will make you feel like a bear during spawning season. It was a clear favorite at the Watches and Wonders trade show in 2023.
Salmon dials have been so common on special-edition watches that Moser launched its new Streamliner with a bit of satire. The Smoked Salmon dial was not based on the common Atlantic type but on its rare cousin, the coho salmon, which, Meylan wrote in an Instagram caption, was “massaged each day by specialists using an oil infused with aromatic herbs picked from the slopes of the Himalayas” and soaked in “Scottish whisky” to get its deep pink shade. It’s a funny quirk of the watch world, and Meylan knows it, that the search for something new and iconic, time and time again, leads back to salmon.
Cam Wolf is a senior style writer at GQ.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of GQ with the title “How to Make a Nice Watch Iconic: Order Up a Salmon Dial”