In the world of luxury watches, Rolex occupies a place all its own. As one of the most recognizable brands in the world, Rolex is synonymous with style, innovation, and exclusivity. Since 1905, Rolex has offered an array of models that have grown to be nearly brands unto themselves. Through the years, major changes to the various model lines have been rare, as the firm prefers to add only incremental changes from year to year. In the following article, we’ll profile a few of the most iconic Rolex watches, and assess what makes them so.
The Rolex Submariner
The Rolex Submariner is undoubtedly one of the most important of all the Rolex models. Perhaps the most collected, filmed, and photographed watch in the world, the Submariner is a true icon, equally at home in the board room or diving the Great Barrier Reef.
In the early 1950s, Rolex director and amateur scuba diver Renè-Paul Jeanneret persuaded the firm to develop a sports watch for divers, and he succeeded tremendously. In 1954, the Submariner was offered to the public as a professional diver’s watch—the first watch guaranteed waterproof up to 200 meters. The key to this feature is the airtight Rolex Oyster case. First developed in 1926 but perfected for the Submariner, the Oyster case is stamped from a solid block of stainless steel, platinum, or gold. An early prototype of the highly corrosion resistant case was actually tested on deep ocean explorer Auguste Piccard’s Bathyscaphe to a depth of 3131 meters in 1953, and in 1960, it survived a dive to the deepest point in the ocean, a 10,916 meter descent.
The first Submariner models featured only slight variations in water resistance and self-winding features, and there was no ‘Submariner’ wording on very early examples. The screw-down crown system known as “Twinlock” sat exposed along the side of the case, with no crown guards.
By the 1960s, the Submariner began to establish its firm grip on the watch wearing public. Not only did the watch prove to be perfect for diving, with its ability to perform at depth and its rotating bezel to keep track of dive times and decompression stops, but other innovations were introduced, like the “triplock” clasp that was easy to operate with wetsuit gloves. In 1962, Sean Connery’s James Bond character in Dr. No wore a Submariner, and the watch’s connection with Bond went on to last through nine films. While it’s hard to quantify this connection to the Submariner’s success, the publicity that followed the connection with Bond is hard to underestimate.
Changes to the Submariner have been small throughout the years. The size of the case has changed slightly, a bit of color has been added, and some of the materials have been improved, but the iconic watch is as instantly recognizable in its contemporary form as the original was.
The Rolex Daytona
The Rolex Daytona takes its name from the famous Florida beach and race track that was home to automobile speed records in the early 20th century, and it is inextricably linked with auto racing to this day. Born of the venerable Rolex Oyster collection, the original Daytona was produced in 1963, and the iconic model endures as perhaps the most famous and sought after chronograph in the world.
The history of the Daytona begins long before the watch’s introduction. The long, dense beach at Daytona had served as proving grounds for land speed records, with records being set there fourteen times between 1904 and 1935. Sir Malcolm Campbell, known as the “speed king,” was the first driver to break 300 miles per hour, and he did so at Daytona while wearing a Rolex Oyster chronograph. Campbell became a spokesman for Rolex, embodying the connection between Rolex, speed, and Daytona.
In 1955 Rolex introduced a manual-wind chronograph, considered a precursor to the Daytona. This Rolex Oyster Chronograph featured a tachometer scale on the outer ring, a telemeter scale for distances on the inner ring, and three sub-dials at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. In 1963, just a year after the Daytona Speedway was completed, Rolex launched the Rolex Cosmograph. With its striking inverse color scheme for the main and sub dials and engraved tachymetric scale on the bezel, the watch became known simply as the “Daytona” and was awarded to each winner of the grueling Rolex 24 endurance race.
Like most Rolex watches, the Daytona changed only incrementally, with the original model series remaining in production until 1977. There were, however, a number of Rolex Daytona chronographs produced between 1963 and 1978 with so called ‘exotic’ dials, now commonly referred to as “Paul Newman Daytonas.” These exotic dials featured just a bit of color, and were not great sellers at the time, but the simple fact that Paul Newman wore one has resulted in their becoming some of the most sought after watches in the world.
Contemporary Daytonas feature the Rolex manufactured calibre 4130 self-winding movement, and are offered with a wide variety of options, all true to the heritage of this iconic chronograph.
The Rolex GMT Master
The Rolex GMT Master was originally designed as a professional ‘tool’ watch for airline crews on long-haul, international flights as a way to keep track of two time zones easily. Its combination of brilliant aesthetics and superior functionality have made the watch one of Rolex’s most enduring models, and it can be found today on the wrists of pilots, globetrotters, and board chairmen alike.
The Rolex GMT Master takes its name from Greenwich Mean Time, the internationally recognized “0” hour of the world’s 24 time zones and the standard for all aviation planning, weather forecasts, and scheduling. As modern jet travel came of age in the 1940s and 50s, the airlines began to travel across multiple time zones in a single flight. Pan American Airways approached Rolex and asked to have a watch created that would be capable of tracking two time zones simultaneously, and in 1954, Rolex introduced the GMT Master.
This new aviation watch featured a 24 hour hand complication, enabling flight crews to set the 24 hour hand to GMT and the twelve hour hand to whatever time zone they chose. Early GMTs featured a red-and-blue “Pepsi” bezel for the 24 hour time scale. The “GMT hand” points to the 24-hour time scale—red for day and blue for night—and since the bezel rotates, any hour can be set to the GMT hand, effectively tracking a second time zone. This simple and effective complication made the GMT Master the most popular pilot’s watch by the 1960s.
The earliest GMT Masters featured a ‘fixed’ 24-hour hand—when you adjusted your local time, the GMT hand moved as well, so it was necessary to rotate the bezel to set the second time zone. Today’s GMT Masters have either an independent GMT hand that can be set separately from the local time, or a GMT hand that is linked to the minute hand while the normal hour hand is independently adjustable and linked to the date. This latter variation allows for easily moving the hour hand to a new time zone without affecting the minute or date.
The Rolex Yacht-Master
The Rolex Yacht-Master was created in the vein of “tool” watches like the Submariner and the GMT Master, but its focus is more on luxury and aesthetics. First released in 1992, the Yacht-Master joined the nautically themed Sea Dweller and Submariner, but the Yacht-Master’s highly refined looks have earned it a place on the wrists of yacht club commodores and CEOs alike.
An initial prototype of the Yacht-Master was created in the 1960s, probably as a redesign of the iconic Submariner, but the changes were considered too drastic, and Rolex chose to wait and introduce the watch later as an entirely new model. Like the Submariner, the first Yacht-Master featured an Oyster case, with a triple-lock crown and water resistance to 100 meters, maintaining Rolex’s reputation for strength and durability. The perpetual, chronometer certified movement was the same one used in the Submariner, but the big difference was in the material. The first Yacht-Masters were offered in 18kt gold, announcing its intention to be a more luxurious version of the Submariner.
In 1994, Rolex introduced a smaller, 35mm version of the Yacht-Master, as well as a women’s version at 29mm. The standard 40mm Yacht-Master was updated to include a blue sunray dial to complement the 18kt gold. By 1999, versions included a 40mm model made of Rolex’s proprietary metal Rolesium, a mix of steel and platinum, with a platinum dial. Later models included mother of pearl dials and two-toned versions mixing steel and gold.
The Yacht-Master II was released in 2010, and designed for professional sailors. The 44mm case is large by any standard, and the watch’s commanding presence is furthered by sharply contrasting deep blue hands, a white dial, and red countdown hand, with a signature bright blue bezel.
The Yacht-Master II also features a programmable, flyback regatta timer. What makes this complication particularly useful for competitive sailors is its ability to be synchronized on the fly with the race committee’s official countdown. With a single touch you can synchronize with the official time by waiting for the starter’s second gun/signal and hitting the reset button. The seconds hand will fly back to the zero mark and begin running immediately, and the minute countdown will fly back to the nearest minute, not zero, allowing the countdown to continue. While perhaps not useful to the CEO, the flyback regatta timer addresses a particular horological problem with a technically interesting complication.
The Rolex Datejust
The Rolex Datejust occupies a place of honor in any list of exceptional watches. Its name comes from a complication that, while taken for granted today, was a real game-changer when it was introduced in 1945: a changing date window. Simple, elegant, and useful, the Datejust has earned a reputation as the perfect everyday watch.
The Datejust was introduced in 1945 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rolex, and it is still produced today, making it one of the longest lasting models in the Rolex collection. The first self-winding automatic wristwatch to feature an automatically changing date window at the three o’clock position, the original Datejust was offered in yellow gold with a yellow gold “jubilee” bracelet. A cream-white dial with gold batons marked the hours, and a “roulette” date window showed even days in red and odd says in black. The first versions didn’t carry the Datejust name, but read simply “Rolex/ Oyster Perpetual,” indicating the famous waterproof oyster case and self-winding movement.
The Datejust evolved only minimally over the years, though there were almost countless variations. Two-tone steel and pink gold models were offered, as well as watches featuring everything from stone dials to diamond bezels. The biggest change came in 1955 with the addition of the famous “cyclops” window over the date indicator. This magnifying bubble allows the wearer to more easily read the date, and is a staple on many Rolexes today.
An updated Datejust II was introduced in 2009, its main difference being a larger, 41mm case to appeal to a more modern style. The standard 36mm Datejust is still offered alongside its updated version, and is available in literally dozens of possible combinations of metals, bracelets, dials, jewels, etc. Other modern updates include the 904L steel case and the Rolex produced caliber 3135 movement featuring a proprietary Parachrom hairspring that is amagnetic and more resistant to shocks.
The classic look of the Datejust remains a best-seller for Rolex. Perhaps the greatest combination of form and function, the Datejust endures as a perfect everyday watch, as easy to wear at a board meeting or the opera as it is at a casual dinner.
Do you have a previously-owned Rolex watch that you are looking to sell for the most cash possible? Please see our article How to Sell a Rolex for important information.