- By Arthur Touchot
If watches made specifically for the Middle East seem to be everywhere these days, and they are, it’s because watchmakers are responding to the growing popularity of high-end watchmaking in the Middle East, and doing so by creating pieces with incredibly distinctive features, which make them instantly recognizable on social media platforms.
In recent years, the Middle East has emerged as a new hub for watch enthusiasts, collectors, and the trade thanks to exhibitions such as the Dubai Watch Week, and brands have been quick to reward this interest with a number of exclusive limited editions that share one particularly collectible trait: their dials feature Eastern Arabic numerals.
For watchmakers, offering a watch with a regionally inspired dial is an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with an important retailer in the region, in the same way watchmakers made themselves known around the world during the 20th century thanks to “double signed” timepieces.
As so often it has in its history, Rolex was a precursor when it comes to creating watches fitted with Arabic discs and/or Arabic indexes. The company started fulfilling custom orders from the Arab States in the Gulf during the 1950s, the most requested model at the time being Rolex’s iconic Day-Date.
As the appetite for Swiss watchmaking began to develop locally, custom orders from the Middle East eventually reached other manufacturers. The present watch, from Universal Genève, featuring a cloisonné enamel depiction of the Saudi Kingdom was presented as a gift to King Saoud Ibn Abdul Aziz in the 1950s.
The practice somewhat softened at the end of the 20th century, but has made a strong comeback in the past 10 years, starting Hublot in 2013. The Swiss brand then led by the legendary Jean-Claude Biver released the first modern-era Arabic dial, a limited edition Classic Fusion in titanium made for Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons.
Also made exclusively for its Middle Eastern retail network is the present Bulgari Octo Finissimo. First released in 2017, the Octo Finissimo Automatic features one of the thinnest movements and an idiosyncratic profile, conceived by the brand's chief watch designer, Fabrizio Buonamassa. Over the years, this watch has taken the watch industry by storm, thanks in part to a series of very cool limited editions that have created scarcity within the collection and become “collectible” in their own right.
And then there are watches by independent watchmakers, who have their own special place in the hearts of Middle Eastern collectors. The best known and most sought limited edition made by an independent watchmaker has to be the Chrornomètre Bleu Byblos. Presented in 2014 by master watchmaker F.P. Journe, the Byblos was released to celebrate the opening of Journe’s boutique in Beirut, and only 99 pieces have been made.
One sign that the region has well and truly reconnected with its past is the appearance of custom orders. One such example is the present De Bethune Titan Hawk DB27 with an unusual heat blued titanium case and Eastern Arabic numerals on a silver dial.
Unique pieces like this are indicative of the incredible passion the Middle East has, and has nurtured for more than 70 years, for high-end watchmaking.