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The History of Panda Dials and How the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Panda Raises the Bar

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Panda

The Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph is a staple of the luxury giant’s sporty offerings and over the years it’s had many styles and colourways. However, the latest version, the Overseas Chronograph Panda, is quite possibly the best ever. To understand why, we need to take a look at the history of the panda dial, a variation of a chronograph display that is several lengths ahead of any other. By this point I feel like I shouldn’t need to explain exactly what a panda is, but just to cover all bases: simply put, a panda dial is a chronograph layout with a white dial and contrasting black subdials.

Sometimes they will include a matching black tachymeter; sometimes not. Sometimes they have three chronograph subdials, sometimes two. In fact, there are about as many subtle variations of the Panda as there are chronographs. All that really matters though is the high-contrast black-subdials-on-white (or in some more elegant versions, silver) look, ideally with the panda’s eyes at 3 and 9 o’clock, with the third in the case of a tri-compax at 6 o’clock.

Rolex Daytona 6239 Panda 1967

Rolex Daytona 6239 Panda 1967

Most collectors agree on precisely when the modern Panda came about, the exact model that came to define it. It was, of course, the Rolex Daytona 6239. Not only was it a seminal racing watch that, along with the Heuer Carrera, defined the kind of trackside timekeepers that have become pure archetypes in modern watchmaking parlance, but it did so with an equally iconic look. Granted, its competition had much the same look – in fact, TAG Heuer has recently re-issued the Carrera Panda for the collection’s birthday – but only one watch found its way onto Paul Newman’s wrist.

It’s largely thanks to his patronage in fact that not only made the Daytona a household name, but specifically the high contrast, aptly named ‘Paul Newman’ versions. Thus, Daytonas in the main and Pandas specifically, became inextricably linked with racing, Rolex and the glory days of the track.

There are a few caveats however. Archival information from the time is sometimes hard to come by, so we can never be 100% certain that the first Panda dial was a Rolex. The Crown often just has the loudest voice (and marketing department) in the room. What we do know however is that older watches, such as the Breitling Superocean from 1957 used the same high-contrast look, just with white subdials on black, now dubbed the Reverse Panda. The point is, the Panda wasn’t always strictly meant for a racing watch, just anything that could make use of the high contrast look.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Panda

Over the years, most watchmakers with a sporty outlook have dabbled in pure Panda dials. Other than Rolex and Heuer, Breitling followed a few years later in 1966 with the first black-on-white Top Time models. Zenith also had an early version in their seminal El Primero A384 from 1969, a watch whose movement would become as definitive to the workings of racing chronographs as the Daytona did for the aesthetics.

So, Panda dials have never been particularly rare. In recent years however, there’s been an explosion of them, with many a watchmaker doing a damn sight better than the animals themselves at making sure Pandas are everywhere. These days everyone from microbrands to major watchmakers that want to evoke retro racing give the black-and-white look a go. There are too many even so far this year to list here, and generally they’re a good look. I like them. From the number out there, I assume you like them too. Well done, we have great taste.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronoraph Panda
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronoraph Panda

The thing is, most of them are missing the wow factor. In most instances, the main feature of the watch is the dial and beyond that it’s just a basic, often Sellita-equipped accessible chronograph. There’s nothing wrong with that at all; I’d argue it’s a healthy place for the watch world to be in when we can get cool designs at relatively low prices. But occasionally you want something with a bit more substance than a face-value nod to vintage racing. And that brings us back to the 2023 edition of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Panda

The modern successor to the 222 of the 1970s, the Overseas is Vacheron’s modern sports watch collection. You know, a sports watch in the same way that the Nautilus is a sports watch. You can wear it all day every day, but you may not necessarily want to. The case is generally steel (though obviously there are other versions), it’s streamlined and it has a satisfying industrial twang to it. What it isn’t, strictly, is a racing watch.

Honestly, that’s because the term ‘racing watch’ is a little tough to define. There are no ISO standards to define it like there are for a diver. Generally, it means the inclusion of a tachymeter, but all it really means is a sporty chronograph. There’s no denying that the Overseas is that. And so the inclusion of a panda dial makes a lot of sense – and absolutely transforms the look of the watch.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronoraph Panda

It’s odd just how much the white dial with black subdials stands out, if only because back in 2018 (if you can remember pre-Covid any more) Vacheron released an Overseas with white subdials on black, a reverse Panda. The difference is that dark colours, from black to anthracite to blue, have classically been a core element of the collection. This is the first time they’ve gone the other way, going from serious and elegant to a more obviously retro look. And it does look spectacular, especially with the delicate snailed finishing on the subdials adding some welcome texture.

“Since their creation more than 20 years ago, Overseas chronographs have been synonymous with exploration for the manufacture,” explains Vacheron Constantin’s Style and Heritage Director Christian Selmoni. “These versatile timepieces combine the spirit of haute horology characterising Vacheron Constantin with the refined sporting elegance suggested by the chronograph function. In a way, the Overseas chronographs have always marked, for the manufacture, a desire for controlled yet subtly disruptive breakthroughs, a desire to explore other watchmaking territories and to experiment with new creative fields”.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronoraph Panda
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronoraph Panda

Personally, I find it a little much to call a panda dial disruptive, but at least Selmoni qualified it with subtle. There’s also at least something to it. Classical watch manufactures of Vacheron’s pedigree rarely opt for such a sporty look and as a controlled evolution of its sportiest timepiece, heading in this direction makes sense. Hopefully it leans hard into the retro angle in the future – perhaps with a touch of the Fifty-Six Sepia in there somewhere? As it is, the new dial gives a lot of wrist presence to a watch that already had the elegant gravitas of a bespoke dinner suit. Just with a racing helmet on top.

What the Overseas has above other racing chronographs however is the finishing. Most racing watches are built as timekeeping tools, solid and reliable over ornate. The Overseas is all three of those things. The Calibre 5200 has a 52-hour power reserve, not too shabby for a chronograph. It’s also decorated to within an inch of its balance spring. Just because it’s housed inside a sporty, 1970s-flavoured case doesn’t mean the automatic movement’s had any less attention lavished on it. It also has a column-wheel clutch to match the 1960s flavour of the dial.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Panda
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Panda

The rest of the watch is the Overseas we know and love, complete with 42.5mm stainless steel case and a quick-change, Maltese cross bracelet, which is one of the most satisfying to use out there. Ultimately, the new dial isn’t necessarily a ground-breaking piece of disruption for the watchmaker as much as it is a tentative step into new (if only inverted) ground.

That said, the bottom line is this: the panda may just be the coolest Overseas yet. Vacheron doesn’t usually follow trends like this – which is part of its appeal – but this one instance is a time I’m glad it has. Just as full gold versions with perpetual calendars and the like showcase the haute horology end of the Overseas spectrum, this emphasises its sporty side. And if this is a hint of what to expect at Watches and Wonders 2023, there’ll be a lot more cool to come.

Price & Specs:

  • Model: Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Panda
  • Ref: 5500V/110A-B68
  • Case/dial: 42.5mm diameter x 13.7mm thickness, stainless steel case, silver dial with black subdials
  • Movement: VC calibre 5200, automatic, 54 jewels, 263 parts
  • Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
  • Power reserve: 52h
  • Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, chronograph
  • Strap: Leather, rubber or stainless steel bracelet
  • Price/availability: £31,200

About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.

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