If I had a penny for every time I’d been asked that question…
To understand why Rolex are probably the most widely collected watches in the world, we have to go back to the beginning. The year is 1908, the man Hans Wildorf, founder and bedrock of the Rolex Watch Company Ltd.
We all know about their early innovations such as the first waterproof watch (the Oyster) and the first automatic waterproof watch (the Oyster Perpetual) etc. The reason we know this is because their advertising was so brilliant. Be it Mr Bond saving the world with his trusty (if somewhat trick) Submariner, Mercedes Gleitze successfully swimming the Channel wearing her Rolex cushion Oyster, or Hillary and Tenzing conquering the unconquerable with the help of a soon-to-be-named Explorer. (I often wonder whether Rolex even waited for them to descend before naming the new watch!)
However, I believe the main reason for Rolex’s success to be familiarity. Like the Porsche 911 or VW Beetle, when you have something as design-perfect as the Rolex Oyster why change it? Virtually 80% of their current gentleman’s Oyster range was born in the 1950’s and has changed minimally, which is why there is such huge demand for those models that incorporate unique differences, however minor they may be.
The following examples are based on stainless steel.
The GMT Master
Designed as the aviator’s watch with 24-hour hand and rotating bezel, thus giving the capability of a dual time-zone readout. The first model was ref.6542 and differed from the current S6700 in that the bezel insert was bakelite, the calendar alternated from red to black, the dial was lacquered and there were no protective shoulders for the winding crown. The 6542 developed into ref.1675, which initially maintained some of the previous model’s aspects before becoming ref.16750 and finally the model we know today.
Current price of ref.6542: £3,000 to £4,500, depending on condition.
The Rolex Explorer
There have been too many versions of this model to mention but to name a few there was the 5500 with lacquered dial, the 1016 with hacking or non-hacking seconds, and the earliest (and my favourite), the 6150/6350 which went into production in the early to mid fifties. Some of the first models boasted stunning guilloché or honeycomb dials.
Guilloché dialled 6350/ 6150: £3,000 to £4,500.
The Rolex Submariner
Perhaps the most famous model in their sports range. Initially introduced in the early- to mid-fifties, once again I am afraid there are too many various models to mention. Too many models, that is, until the ingenious introduction of the protective shoulders for the Triplock winding crown on ref.5512/3 in the early sixties. Since then the watch has endured only three main cosmetic changes, being from lacquered to matt dial in the early seventies and plastic to sapphire glass with the added bonus of a unidirectional bezel in the late eighties resulting in the ref.14060 we know today. These changes exclude of course the version incorporating a magnet and buzz-saw, reserved for the shaken, not stirred 007.
However, you must go back to the experimental stages of the pre-shouldered models to find real collectability. When it was first introduced, the model virtually changed from year to year in its quest to become the ultimate diving tool, a goal finally achieved in the afore-mentioned 5512/3. Some, such as references 6536 or 5508, were slimmer in width and had a smaller winding crown, being capable of depths up to 100 metres. These are of course very collectable, but the ultimate prize for the modern-day collector remains one of three chunkier big-crowned versions: ref.6538, capable of depths up to 200m, currently worth £3,000 to £4,500; ref.5510, again capable of depths up to 200m, currently worth £7,000 to £9,000; and ref.6200, known in the trade as ‘the prototype’ due to the dial’s similarity to the Explorer and the lack of the word Submariner - currently £5,500 to £7,500.
Most shoulderless versions should have lacquered dials and are known as the James Bond due to the sporting of one by Mr. Connery in Goldfinger, which was in fact the 6536, a smaller crowned version currently worth £2,500 to £3,500.
The Daytona was introduced in the early sixties as ref.6239 and differed from previous Rolex chronographs in that the bezel incorporated an engraved tachymeter and the dial was either silver or black. They did however retain the same Valjoux movements as the earlier chronographs, such as ref.6238. You could however order the Daytona with an exotic or ‘Paul Newman’ dial, in white or black, sometimes incorporating a red minute track. The popular choice seems to have been the plainer or less fussy option, making the exotic dialled version very rare. By the time the screwdown pushers were added in the seventies to what was now the ref.6263, there were many other watch houses using automatic movements in their chronographs, thus causing Daytona sales to dwindle further, perhaps due to their hand wound movements, making ref.6263/6240 and 6265 exotic dialled versions the ultimate sports watch for the modern-day collector. So they should be at £13,000 – £15,000 – mind you, I said the same when they were going for £4,000!
We now have to tackle the most frightening aspect of Rolex collectability – the dreaded fake. In a world where certain auction houses are adopting a no-responsibility clause when it comes to the originality of Rolexes, you know the problem is serious. This, coupled with the fact that up to 70% of the value can lie in whether or not the dial alone is original and not a reprint makes the whole issue a minefield. If you don’t have the knowledge yourself, shop around, find a dealer you trust, and ask a few simple questions:
1. Ask to see the reference number between the lugs at the 12 o’clock position, and the serial number at the 6 o’clock position.
2. Ask if the dial is not only original, but also the dial the watch was born with. The reason for this is that Rolex have replacement dials available for certain models, and whilst falling under the category of original, they often have a different finish which is unacceptable to the serious collector or investor.
If you can satisfy yourself as to these criteria, get the dealer to put the reference number and serial number on the receipt, stating that he or she guarantees the whole of the watch to be original. If you’re lucky enough to find one with the original paperwork, it could enhance the value by up to 20%.
Good luck and remember, when it comes to originality, you really do have to pay for it!
Tom Bolt (Which Watch Co. Ltd.) has been specialising in vintage Rolexes for ten years; he also advises the vintage depart-ment of the Watch Gallery.
Tel/Fax: 0203 073 0000
Mobile: 07976 662103
The Watch Gallery
129 Fulham Rd.
London SW3 6RT
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Like the reintroduction of the Mini motorcar over a decade ago, this reinterpretation of Big Pilot by IWC is better than the original. This 1st series Platinum example is of course the top of the top.