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In the world of vintage watches, Rolex reigns supreme. The Crown’s history of creating iconic pieces has had every watch collector yearning for them, even those from bygone eras. Aside from their timeless designs, so much myth and history come with Rolex watches – from their innovations in horology, to their association with cultural and political icons.
Demand for vintage Rolex watches shows no signs of cooling, with auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips reporting record prices on Rolex. In fact, a vintage Rolex Daytona owned by Paul Newman sold for over $17 million in 2017.
While some may argue that vintage Patek Philippe models command the highest values at the auction block, their limited availability and exorbitant prices make them out of reach to most collectors. With a more diverse range of models and price points available, vintage Rolex watches open a whole new world to the collector, whether they are looking to buy or make room for their next timepiece.
Watches in the vintage Rolex market run the gamut from classic everyday watches to grail sports pieces and ultra-rare prototypes. Begin your hunt with our wide selection of vintage Rolex watches at SwissWatchExpo.com.
While there are no documented “rules” on what makes an item vintage, it is generally said to be anything that is 30 years old, or older. Meanwhile, items that are 100 years old and older are considered antiques.
Of course, what qualifies as a vintage watch will change as time passes, as new models come in and yesterday’s pieces become older.
As of 2022, we consider Rolex watches made before the 1990s to be vintage. These include all models introduced before then such as the Submariner, GMT-Master, Datejust, Day-Date, Daytona and so on. Models that were introduced in the 1990s or later such as the Yacht-master, Pearlmaster, Sky-Dweller, and Deepsea can’t be considered vintage just yet.
One of the main draws of vintage watches is the aging process that each watch goes through. Patina, color changes, and even cracked dials also mean that the watch is unlike others. While these are considered undesirable in other items such as bags and furniture, in the watch world, the reverse is true. Certain types of aged vintage watches – such as those with eminent provenance – are often worth more than their modern counterparts.
One example of this the “Tropical” dial, where black dials turn into brown shades due to oxidation. These are particularly desirable among vintage Rolex Submariner models.
There are also Rolex GMT-Master “Pepsi” models whose blue and red bezels turn into a bright fuchsia color. The said changes are the result of long-term exposure to elements, such as sunlight and humidity, giving the watch character that collectors seek.
In the 1980s, Rolex experimented with materials in a bid to improve their watches. One of the changes they made was the switch from matte to gloss dials for the Rolex Submariner. In earlier versions of these watches, the material had not been perfected, which resulted in crazing over time. This effect is known among collectors as the “Spider” dial, due to its net-like appearance.
These cracks don’t necessarily put a premium on the timepieces, but they do make the models collectible.
Among Rolex Daytona watches, the outcome of experimentation can also be seen among ref 16520 “Patrizzi” dials. Produced in the early 1990s, these steel Daytonas were coated with an organic varnish called Zappon which Rolex was just testing out at the time. As it turns out, the varnish could not sufficiently coat the dial, and exposure to natural oxidation caused the white subdials to turn brown over time.
These watches got their nickname from Italian auctioneer Osvaldo Patrizzi, who first noticed the phenomenon around 2005.
Not all imperfections are undesirable. In the world of vintage watches, they make watches one-of-a-kind and even more sought after.
Many factors influence the prices of vintage Rolex watches, so it is not unusual to see a wide range of price points for the same model.
As with any luxury watch, authenticity and condition are paramount. Moreover, since vintage watches go through restorations over time, it is also important to distinguish between an authentic model and a period-correct model.
An authentic Rolex model has all of its components made by Rolex. Meanwhile, a period-correct model would have all of its components correct for the time it was produced. When Rolex parts are replaced over the years due to maintenance and restorations, it can be the case that a vintage model is authentic, but no longer period correct.
A vintage Rolex watch that is as close as possible to its original condition (with the original Rolex dial, hands, crystal, bracelet, and other parts) will always be valued higher than one with aftermarket or replacement components from another era.
Vintage Rolex watches continue to attract significant demand, as watch collectors and enthusiasts seek to acquire a piece of Rolex’s prestige and history. Aside from having a vast range of models available, it is believed that each collection has its own unique story to tell.
Here are the most popular vintage models in the Rolex catalog.
Introduced in 1963, the Rolex Daytona was created as a mechanical chronograph that could meet the needs of professional race car drivers. While Rolex had been producing chronographs decades before, the Daytona and its tachymetric scale resulted in easier reading and a sporty aesthetic.
The Rolex Daytona is now one of the most popular models in the catalog, but it struggled to sell to the public in its earlier days. Therefore, a limited number of them were produced in the 1960s and 1970s, making them more expensive than their modern counterparts. Historic models such as pre-Daytonas (without the Daytona text on the dial) and limited production four-digit models continue to increase in value over time.
Select editions such as “exotic dials” are even more expensive and harder to come by, and their storied connection to actor and race driver Paul Newman has made them grail material. In 2017, the Rolex Daytona Paul Newman chronograph owned by the actor himself sold at auction for $17 Million, the most expensive watch sold at the time.
Below are some of the most popular vintage Rolex Daytona watches:
|Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ Dials
|6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264 and 6265
|Rolex Cosmograph Pre Daytona
|Rolex Daytona John Player Special
|Rolex Daytona Big Red
|Rolex Daytona ‘Zenith’
The Rolex Submariner is widely recognized as the quintessential dive watch. Launched in 1953, it was initially developed by Rolex as a specialist tool for professional divers with a water resistance of 100m. With its striking yet timeless design, it has achieved iconic status and can be reasonably described as the most recognizable and iconic sports watch of all time.
Rolex is famous for its classic design DNA and the slow evolution of its watches. The Rolex Submariner embodies this well – even with nearly 70 years of history, it is one of the least visually altered models in the Rolex catalog. Small but significant changes were made through its lifetime, but its construction remained.
Among vintage Rolex Submariners, models can have either 37mm or 40mm case sizes; 100-meter, 200-meter or 300-meter water resistance; pencil-style hands or the now standard Mercedes hands, and different crown sizes ranging from 5 to 7mm Small Crowns or the 8mm Brevet Big Crown.
While all vintage Rolex Submariners are important, there are models deemed more collectible because they mark bigger or landmark changes to the Submariner’s design. An example of this is the ref 5512 or the first Submariner with crown guards; the ref 1680 which marked the addition of a date window and Cyclops lens to the Submariner; and the ref 1680/8 which is the very first Sub made in yellow gold.
The Rolex Submariner has also made its mark in pop culture and history, and those models are sought after for their association with personalities and events. For example, there are many variants of the ref 5513, but some of the most collectible ones are those made for the British Ministry of Defense, more popularly known as the “Milsub”.
Rolex Submariner watches worn by James Bond in the 007 franchise are also deemed collectible – at the top of this list of the ref 6538 worn by the very first James Bond, actor Sean Connery.
With its combination of classic good looks, high functionality, and illustrious history, the Rolex Submariner is considered the sports watch to own. Here are some of the most popular vintage Rolex Submariner references:
|Rolex Submariner Big Crown
|Rolex Submariner James Bond
|Rolex Submariner Milsub
|Rolex Submariner Vintage
|Rolex Submariner Red
The Rolex GMT-Master was a product of the golden age of aviation. In the 1950s, as transatlantic travel flourished and long haul flights became more frequent, pilots began to see the need for a timepiece that displayed two time zones. Pan American Airways commissioned Rolex to build such a watch for their pilots, and the GMT-Master was born.
The first ever version of the Rolex GMT-Master was the ref 6542 which featured a blue and red bi-colored bezel. The two halves work together with a GMT hand to tell daytime hours (red) from nighttime hours (blue). This color combination spawned the now iconic “Pepsi” nickname, which has been followed by other soda-themed names like “Coke” and “Rootbeer”.
The Rolex GMT-Master has a wide range of models which could make for a possibly dizzying array of references and variations. The key feature of the Rolex GMT-Master is its two-color bezel, and one can distinguish generations of the collection with the kind of bezel used.
Earliest GMT-Master watches (1954 – 1959) had bezels made of Bakelite, a plastic made of synthetic components. As this material is prone to cracking, Rolex recalled these bezels and replaced them with anodized metal ones by 1956, which became the standard until 2005. Because of their short production period and limited numbers, GMT-Master models with Bakelite bezels are highly valued.
Rolex GMT-Master watches that mark significant changes to the collection are also highly collectible. Examples of these are:
By 1983, the GMT-Master was replaced by the GMT-Master II. The main difference is that the GMT-Master II now has an independent 24-hour hand that can be set separately from the central hour and minute hands – therefore, the watch can also now display three time zones.
The very first GMT-Master II introduced was the ref 16760 which featured the red and black bezel, affectionately named the “Coke” among collectors.
Here are some of the most popular vintage Rolex GMT-Master and GMT-Master II references:
|Rolex GMT-Master Pepsi
|Rolex GMT-Master Pepsi
|Rolex GMT-Master Rootbeer Nipple Dial
|Rolex GMT-Master Rootbeer
|Rolex GMT-Master II Coke
|Rolex GMT-Master II Fat Lady
The Rolex Datejust is the archetype of the classic watch. Even those who know little about luxury watches would come to recognize a Rolex Datejust because of its timeless design. Introduced in 1945, it was launched in time for the company’s 40th anniversary, and became the first watch whose date automatically changed at midnight.
Many hallmark traits that we see in Rolex watches today originated with the Datejust – the Jubilee bracelet, the date aperture, the Cyclops window above the date, and Rolesor or the combination of steel and yellow gold were all seen in the Datejust first.
There is a vast variety of metals, dial colors and textures, and embellishments available in the Rolex Datejust line. Two key features separate vintage watches from modern models – the movements and the sizing.
Originally, the date feature was not independent from the timekeeping hands, which meant that to change the date displayed, one had to adjust the hands past midnight. It was in 1977 that Rolex introduced Caliber 3035 which featured the quickset date, allowing the wearer to adjust the date independently from the time.
Vintage Rolex Datejust watches are also sized 36mm (and 26mm for the Lady Datejust). Modern references offer a 41mm and 28mm version respectively.
The Rolex Datejust is the brand’s most varied collection and there is certainly one for every taste. Here are some of the most popular vintage Rolex Datejust references:
|Rolex Datejust Four Digit References (alpha hands and arrow indices)
|1600, 1601, 1603
|Rolex Datejust Five Digit References (quickset feature)
|16000, 16013, 16014
|Rolex Datejust Five Digit References (sapphire crystal feature)
|16200, 16233, 16234, 16220
|Rolex Datejust Oysterquartz
|17000, 17013, 17014
|Rolex Datejust Turnograph (engine-turned bezels)
The Rolex Day-Date symbolizes the pinnacle of Rolex’s watchmaking prowess. Introduced in 1956, the Rolex Day-Date became the first waterproof and self-winding watch to display the date and the day of the week in full – and also in 26 different languages. Aside from its pioneering feature, the Day-Date’s prestige also stems from the fact that it is exclusively made from 18k gold or platinum.
Furthermore, Rolex unveiled the Day-Date with the then new bracelet that combines the three-piece links of the Oyster with the hemispherical-shaped links of the Jubilee. Now also called the “President” and the “Presidential” bracelet, it received its moniker after US President Lyndon B. Johnson made the Day-Date his signature timepiece. It has since been worn by other US Presidents including Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan – as well as many other world leaders.
When buying yourself a vintage President watch, it’s important to note that earlier Day-Date references (ref 65xx, 66xx, 180x) have non-quickset movements, meaning the day and date need to be set by turning the central timekeeping hands. Rolex Day-Date models produced from 1977 onwards (ref 180xx, 181xx) already have single quickset functionality, which allows the setting of the date independently from the hour hands, but not the day of the week. It was in 1990 that Rolex introduced the double quickset (ref 182xx), which allows both date and day of the week to be set independently.
Rolex President Day-Date watches are the height of luxury. Aside from their gold and platinum construction, there are also many opulent dial options available – among them are the “Stella” lacquered dials from the 1970s, dials with Arabic script, and dials made of stones and decorative materials such as mother of pearl, burl wood, aventurine, lapiz lazuli, onyx and more.
Here are some of the most popular vintage Rolex Day-Date references:
|Rolex President Day-Date (non-quickset)
|65xx, 66xx, 180x
|Rolex President Day-Date (single quickset)
|Rolex President Day-Date (double quickset)
Because of its minimalist aesthetic and lack of functional bezel, the Rolex Explorer is not thought of as a sports watch today, but it is in fact one of the first tool watches made by Rolex. The first Rolex Explorer watch was introduced in 1953, stemming from a prototype worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay during the first successful ascent to the Mt. Everest. Its characteristic black dial, large hour markers, and contrasting 3, 6, and 9 numerals were meant to be legible even in the harsh conditions of mountaineering and polar expeditions.
The inaugural Rolex Explorer ref 6350 featured a 36mm Oyster case, a steel Oyster bracelet, time-only features, and a black dial with Arabic numerals at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. Rolex replaced the Explorer 6350 with the Explorer 6610 in the mid-1950s, and then the Explorer 1016 in the mid-1960s. Rolex made the Explorer 1016 well into the 1980s, making it the longest-running vintage Explorer reference.
While Rolex has updated the Explorer over the years to include modern larger models and a Rolesor version, the overall style of the watch has remained largely unchanged. Here are some of the most popular Rolex Explorer references:
|Rolex Explorer I 36mm (matte, gilt dial)
|Rolex Explorer I 36mm (applied metal numerals, gloss dial)
The second edition of the Rolex Explorer, dubbed Rolex Explorer II, was introduced in 1971. It had the same raison d'etre – to help adventurers tell time even in harsh conditions. For this collection, Rolex expanded the idea of an adventure-built timepiece by adding daytime and nighttime hours. With the use of its 24-hour engraved bezel and bright orange 24-hour hand, spelunkers, cave explorers, and those who work in dark conditions could be able to tell day from night.
The inaugural Rolex Explorer II ref 1655 was dubbed “Freccione” or Italian for “arrow” due to its distinctly orange 24-hour hand. This model was eventually replaced in the mid-1980s with the ref 16550. Aside from making the 24-hour hand red, and adding the options of a black and white dial, the new model allowed for the 12-hour and 24-hour hands to be independent from each other, making the Rolex Explorer II not just an AM/PM watch but a dual time watch.
Here are some of the most popular vintage Rolex Explorer II references:
|Rolex Explorer II Freccione (orange 24-hour hand)
|Rolex Explorer II (red 24-hour hand)
Vintage Rolex watches are loved for their heritage, timeless design, and illustrious history. Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about vintage Rolex watches.
There is no law or standard definition in the watch world about watch makes a watch vintage but those at least 25 to 30 years old are generally accepted as vintage among collectors.
The water resistance of vintage Rolex watches vary. Most models offer 100m water resistance, but in the case of the Rolex Submariner, it being a dive watch, its more recent vintage models have 200 meter and 300 meter water resistance.
Rolex generally recommends having a watch serviced every 3-5 years. By nature, vintage timepieces tend to be more fragile, so it's recommended to have any vintage watch serviced every two years.
It must be remembered that a watch’s water resistance and accuracy are not permanent and can over time be reduced due to wear and tear. There are a few signs that your watch needs a service sooner rather than later. Read on for Signs It’s Time for Watch Maintenance.
At SwissWatchExpo, we also stand ready to service your watch in our state of the art service center. We offer a full range of services, from basic maintenance to major repairs and restorations, all performed by proficient and trained watchmakers. Find out more about our stringent Repair Services.