Roman four on watches
Sabine Meding, last updated on 08/07/2023

If you have ever taken a closer look at watch dials and especially at the indices of wristwatches, you may have noticed the following fact: Not all watches are equipped with Arabic numerals. Many a dial is adorned with Roman numerals. But why are Roman numerals still used on timepieces today? And what is the special feature of the Roman numeral four on watches? These are just two of the exciting questions about Roman numerals on timepieces, to which we will find answers in this article.

Meaning and use of Roman numerals

Roman numerals are a way of writing numbers that originated in ancient times. A counter is represented by "I", 5 is written as "V" and "X" stands for 10. Additionally, there are signs for 50 ("L"), 100 ("C"), 500 ("D") and 1,000 ("M") as well as for 5,000 and 10,000.

These digits can be used in combination to represent any conceivable number. The procedure is subtraction and addition counting. For example, the number 9 is written as "IX" with the dash before the 10 subtracted. The 11 is written accordingly with a dash in position behind the 10 - thus "XI" - so that the dash is to be added to the 10.

Today, Arabic numerals have prevailed, which is why we rarely encounter Roman numerals in everyday life. When we do see them, they are usually on old buildings, monuments, statues or even on the dial of a clock.

The fascination of Roman numerals on watches

The larger the clock collection, the more likely it is that at least one - if not several - of the clocks have Roman numerals. Because: it's actually not that uncommon for watchmakers to opt for Roman notation for the indices on the dial. This may seem nonsensical to the layman, since not everyone is able to read Roman numerals at first glance. As far as legibility for everyone is concerned, the Arabic numerals seem to be the clearly better choice.

And yet, the great popularity of timepieces with Roman indices speaks for the fact that this variant also has its raison d'être. What is the fascination for this notation can only be speculated. The purely visual aspect certainly has a great influence, because the Roman numerals instantly make the dial of a wristwatch look quite high-class and give it a historical touch.

The origin of Roman numerals in the art of watchmaking

Some of the oldest dials with Roman numerals were most likely tower clocks. Such an early tower clock was therefore classically equipped with Roman numerals, which was subsequently adopted for pocket watches, wall clocks and wristwatches.

The Roman Four: IV or IIII?

In connection with the indices on timepieces, the Roman four is a particularly frequent topic of discussion. In watch enthusiast circles, the correct spelling of the Roman four is still the subject of lively debate today - a topic that never seems to lose its explosive power.

The different representations of the four on watches

If you know a little bit about the roman written number values, you will promptly have in mind how to write the four: "IV". However, this notation is not used on all dials. Often, you'll find four dashes instead, i.e. "IIII", which can lead to astonishment. To the question, if dials more often show "IV" or "IIII" instead of the four, there is a quite clear answer: In the vast majority of cases, watch manufacturers choose the four dashes. Nevertheless, there are of course some wristwatches where you can see an "IV" on the dial.

Why some watches use "IIII" instead of "IV

The origin of the notation with the four strokes can be found in the development of the Roman counting system. This goes back to counting on the fingers of the hand or counting notches on clay or wax tablets. The number of strokes - whether in the form of notches or finger for finger - was counted, whereby initially the use of auxiliary numbers such as "V", "X" or "C" was dispensed with. These were added only in the course of the time and simplified above all the calculation, which became nevertheless fast quite confusing exclusively with lines. The phenomenon of the four dashes on the wristwatch can therefore already be explained by the history of Roman numerals. Which other reasons speak for preferring the "IIII" to the "IV", will be discussed in detail later in this article.

Known watch brands with roman fours

If you are specifically looking for a watch with Roman numerals, it usually doesn't take long to find one. Always provided that you look around at the right manufacturers. A surprisingly large number of watch brands in the mid- and high-priced segment include several watches with "IIII" or "IV" in their assortment, so that prospective buyers will find a wide range of choices.

Would you like to see a few examples? Let's start with a classic "IIII watch": the Chopard Geneve. The men's watch, which catches the eye with its minimalist design, features four dashes on the dial, with the Roman numerals excellently underlining the pure elegance of the classic watch.

At this point, we would also definitely like to mention a watch with four dashes from the house of Rolex and thus land directly on the Rolex Datejust. In this filigree watch icon, the four "I "s - just like the other numerals - blend extremely harmoniously into the overall picture and thus contribute to an all-around more than successful look.

Last but not least, the Montblanc Star Steel should not be forgotten as a watch with a Roman four. The chronograph with the straightforward yet neat dial also relies on the notation with four strokes and is certainly one of the models that most watch collectors would love to call their own.

The art of Roman numerals on dials

When asked about the "IIII" on the dial, many watchmakers provide an explanation that revolves around a certain key word: symmetry. By writing the number with four strokes, a kind of optical balance is created on the dial, especially with regard to the "VIII," which is opposite the four on the other side. In comparison, an "IV clock" - following this view - would always appear somewhat disharmonious, if only because of the characters. Thus, one reason for the use of the four strokes can be found in mere aesthetics.

The meaning of Roman fours in culture

There are a few other theories that try to deduce why the "IIII" is so often preferred to the "IV" on the dial. One of them is the Jupiter thesis, which is based on a peculiarity of the written language in ancient times. At that time, the letter "I" could also be read as "J", while a "V" could stand for a "U". "IV" could therefore be read as "JU", which is to be interpreted as an abbreviation for Jupiter. In this context, this does not mean the planet, but a high god from Roman mythology. In times when the legends surrounding the deities were much more than mere stories for many people, it would probably have seemed condescending and inappropriate to write "JU" in a row with other, quite ordinary numbers on a dial.

Another explanation focuses on King Louis XIV. The so-called "Sun King" is said to have recognized the number four in the "IIII" notation as a clearly better version and ordered all watchmakers in his domain to write the number in dashes.

These two theories, which refer to cultural aspects, have been circulating for a long time and can neither be finally confirmed nor absolutely refuted. So, in the end, everyone must form their own opinion and decide for themselves which version of the story surrounding the design of the dial they consider most likely.

Practical aspects of Roman fours

Away from Jupiter, the Sun King and co, there are some quite logical reasons for using the line lettering. On the one hand, there is the danger of confusion, which comes from the "IV". After all, the "VI" also belongs on the dial, which only differs from the "IV" by the position of the dash, which is feared to cause poor, unclear readability of the watch.

There is also the aspect of economy: in the past, the indices - just like the hands, for example - had to be laboriously cast by hand. Molds were used for this purpose. If one decided on the number four as "IIII," one could use a mold with twenty lines as well as four recesses each for "V" and "X" and simply use these four times - and a complete character set was already created. If a watchmaker wanted to write "IV" instead, this approach didn't work anymore, which might have complicated the production of the indices of this variant and thus made it a bit more unpopular.


Whoever hoped for a clear answer in this article, whether "IV" or "IIII" is to be regarded as the correct choice of character, must unfortunately be disappointed. Because: There is no single correct spelling. Even if "IV" is much more common nowadays outside the world of watches, "IIII" cannot be called wrong per se. Rather, there are some quite comprehensible reasons for reverting to the dash variant, especially when labeling a watch. So it remains to be said: Both is possible! Which spelling a watchmaker chooses, should be largely a matter of taste.

About the author
Sabine Meding

The broad topic of horology has always interested me, especially how multifaceted and varied the world of watches is. I love writing about the different brands and models and can no longer imagine life without watches. What I like best are models that display both the day of the week and the date. If the dial is also made of mother-of-pearl, the watch is perfect for me.