The Rolex Oysterdate
Rolex as a brand is now so well known throughout the world that is has very few secrets left. Everybody, and I mean literally everybody, knows the name and can probably list at least one or two of the more famous models off the top of their heads, even if they have zero interest in horology.
Yet, the Swiss behemoth still has a couple of pieces in the archives that even the seasoned collector might be unaware of, and the Oysterdate Precision is certainly one of them.
Released in Rolex’s first true golden age, it is a family of watches so under the radar they make perpetual underdogs like the Air-King and Explorer look like overblown mainstream bestsellers.
Style wise, their most obvious comparison lies with the all-conquering Datejust series released less than a decade earlier. That means no outlandish complications; no split second chronograph, no dual time GMT function—the Oysterdate just gets on with the simple task of displaying the time and day of the month in the most sophisticated and legible way possible.
In fact, there are just two key differences between it and the Datejust. The first is in size. The Oysterdate loses 2mm off the DJ’s traditional 36mm dimensions which, you would be correct in thinking, makes it identical to the similarly unsung Rolex Date with its 34mm case. Yet, where the Date has always been a ‘Perpetual’ watch, meaning it is powered by an automatic self-winding caliber, all Oysterdate models have manually-winding movements.
Confusing? Yes, but that is just part of the charm in collecting vintage Rolex!
But while it may seem about as basic a watch as you could possibly get, it is still a product of the most successful watchmakers of all time, with all the inherent resilience and engineering excellence the Rolex name implies. With nothing in the way of flamboyant functionality, there is very little that can go wrong with an Oysterdate, and a well looked-after example from 30 or 40 years ago, if not older, can still be expected to perform with rock-solid reliability.
In addition, the unashamedly simple designs of the collection lend the watch a timeless look, an aesthetic that doesn’t scream Rolex, but one that can be dressed up or down as necessary.
However, modest and unassuming as it may be, this is, by anyone’s standards, a cool watch. Walk into any board meeting and you will see plenty of wrists adorned with Submariners, Presidents or Daytonas—all beautiful models, but by no means standouts. The chances of finding another Oysterdate wearer are very low indeed, and there’s nothing better for a true watch fan than having a unique piece.
Below, we’ll take a closer look into the Oysterdate, and find out how you can and why you should take ownership of one of Rolex’s most stealthy offerings.
So, it may be one of the brand’s best kept secrets, but as we all know, no secret stays hidden forever. As the prices for vintage Rolex watches head ever upward into the stratosphere, the Oysterdate Precision models might well represent some of the last of the true bargains and a real investment potential.
Savvy collectors have always sought out the most overlooked models to add to their hoards and the entry price of the Oysterdate makes them almost irresistible, whether you are an old hand or a newbie looking for that first Rolex that won’t break the bank.
The buy-in point starts at an average of around $2,000 to $2,500. However, you will also find plenty of examples for considerably less than that. You can easily secure yourself a genuine classic Rolex for around $1,500, which is not a sentence you will read very often.
For that sort of money, it will most likely be a reference from the longest running series, the ref. 6694, which was in production from the late 50s to as recently as the late 80s.
Even at the very top end of the range, you will struggle to find an Oysterdate costing more than $5,000 or $6,000, and the most expensive models around this price tend to be what is described as NOS, or New Old Stock, meaning a model now out of production that has never been sold.
Other factors that can add a slight premium on top are whether or not the watch comes with its box and papers, but even here, the Oysterdate is slightly different. As opposed to many of the better known models in the Rolex catalog, and particularly the brand’s professional range, people who bought the Oysterdate tended to be the type who were in the market for the one good watch to last them a lifetime, rather than those merely looking for a status symbol or another piece to add to a collection. As such, Oysterdate owners tended to take great care of their watches, and that included keeping hold of everything that came with it. So, finding a model with its box and papers all present and correct is not as rare as it is with some of the more popular names, and shouldn’t add as much to the asking price.
By comparison, the closest neighbor to the Oysterdate, the Datejust, has a significantly higher average starting price. The automatic movement and the much more recognizable name makes them a good 25% to 30% costlier on the pre-owned market. They were also made in vastly greater numbers, leading to them being less of an attractive speculation for those searching for a future financial asset.
As you might expect with such an unheralded model, the options list for the Oysterdate is pretty thin on the ground.
Forged exclusively in steel, with no precious metal anywhere to be seen, they did come with a range of different dial colors. The most common among these are in silver, black and blue, although you will find occasional pieces with Rolex’s signature champagne face.
One particular characteristic of the watch is the number of modified examples that emerge on the vintage scene. You will come across plenty of specimens with aftermarket additions such as diamond enhancements on the bezel and hour markers, along with some outlandish color schemes. Most common among these are lurid recreations of Rolex’s short-lived Stella dials which they originally produced for the Day-Date in the 1970s. Inspired by the garish palette of American painter, sculptor and printmaker Frank Stella, the brand outfitted the President with some eye-blindingly bright enamel dials in orange, pink, blue and a host of other in-your-face hues. Although never an official option on the Oysterdate, there are no shortage of these refinished dials to be had.
As for bracelet choices, the watch was only available on the utilitarian Oyster, the earliest versions being the riveted type before being upgraded to the newer design in the mid-sixties. However, the modest air of the Oysterdate means it suits a quality leather strap very well, and there are ample examples of these to choose from too.
The hands also evolved over time, starting with the decidedly vintage sword-like dauphine style before switching to the far plainer baton type.
Perhaps the rarest edition of the Oysterdate, and its one concession to a touch of luxury, is a peculiar two-tone example. Still with an all steel construction, you might very occasionally see a piece with gold hands and with a gold applied logo and hour indexes.
Like a lot of Rolex’s non-sports models that started life way back when, the Oysterdate was launched in, and stuck to, a 34mm diameter. There were also a tiny number of mid-size editions released measuring in at 31mm.
While that may seem off-puttingly small to a modern audience now used to 40mm at a minimum, the design of the Oysterdate gives it the look of a watch that wears bigger. On the wrist, with its decent size crown and strong lugs, it can pass for somewhere around the 36mm mark, especially when paired with the Oyster bracelet.
It is one more element about the watch that keeps it understated and discreet, and also lends it the perfect unisex appeal. It can be worn just as easily by men or women, the ideal daily wear that will never look out of place.
Although it came out a few years later than the Datejust, a watch that displayed the date as well as the time was still seen as something of a groundbreaking innovation in the 1950s.
It was Rolex who had pioneered the concept, introducing the small aperture at the three o’clock position so the window would peak out from beneath a shirtsleeve for the majority of users, who wore their watch on the left wrist.
What was not at all groundbreaking however was the use of a manually-winding caliber in the Oysterdate. The brand had also invented, or at least perfected, the automatic ‘Perpetual’ mechanism which wound the movement with nothing but the motion of the wearer’s arm. By the time of the Oysterdate’s first appearance, that technology was already 20-years old, and the watch-buying public was well used to the convenience.
As a result, where Rolex’s impressive range of self-winding calibers went through an almost non-stop succession of improvements and refinements, a process which is still ongoing to this day, there was very little point in throwing the same level of investment into their increasingly obsolete manual movements.
That meant, although the Oysterdate did receive a number of different calibers during its production run, none of them were COSC-rated (hence the ‘Precision’ tag instead of ‘Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified’) and they still lagged a long way behind the Perpetuals in terms of functionality.
The watch has never, for example, been granted a Quickset date feature, something the Datejust received in 1977 with the first of the Cal. 3000 series. Quickset refers to the system whereby it is possible to change the date using just the crown rather than having to spin the hands through 24-hours.
It also never graduated to Rolex’s range-wide balance frequency of 28,800vph, the speed which gives their trademark eight beats per second sweep to the seconds hand. The Oysterdate began life with the in-house Cal. 1215, the date version of the base Cal. 1210. This mechanism ‘ticked’ at 18,000vph, or five beats per second. When the longest-running reference in the series, the ref. 6694, was unveiled at the end of the 50s, it was powered by the Cal. 1225; ostensibly the same but with the addition of a Breguet overcoil and an increased speed of 21,600vph—giving six beats per second. That was the movement that drove the Oysterdate for the next 30 years until the model itself was discontinued, with very little to speak of in the way of modernizations.
What the watch did share with the rest of Rolex’s output though, was another invention which had revolutionized the industry, in the shape of the waterproof Oyster case. The assembly involved screwing the bezel, case back and winding crown down against the middle case, thereby creating an impregnable seal that protected the inner workings from moisture or dirt creeping in. Key to it all, of course, was the crown, the element that secured the whole device.
With Rolex’s Perpetual, or automatic, watches, this presented few problems. Wearers would unscrew the crown only on those occasions when they had to correct the time, and the accuracy of the brand’s calibers meant that didn’t happen very often.
On the other hand, the crown on the Oysterdate would need to be brought into service at least every other day to wind the mechanism, which had a maximum power reserve of around 58 hours. It was an easy mistake and frequent occurrence to forget to screw the crown back in, which would allow water to leak inside the case and eventually destroy the movement.
In 1950, Rolex brought out the Super Oyster crown in an attempt to resolve the problem. Instead of using a threaded case tube, with this system the crown was machined to form an extremely close fit, helped along by rubber gaskets, between the winding stem and the case body, and it could simply be pushed in. While a good idea at first, before long a minute amount of play would develop that rendered the whole thing useless, and it was retired just a few years later. Those watches fitted with a Super Crown would have them replaced as a matter of course with the standard screw down type during a service, but some of the very early Oysterdates available on the pre-owned market still have them, and make for an especially authentic slice of horology nostalgia.
With its distinct lack of development throughout what was a particularly long run, it almost seems like the Oysterdate is the Rolex that Rolex forgot. But what that lends to the model is a truly vintage feel, and a harkening back to a time when the brand was still perfecting those aspects of the wristwatch we now take for granted.
It might be a relatively unknown quantity, but that doesn’t mean you will have too much trouble hunting down an excellent example of the Rolex Oysterdate, and at a price that ranks as one of the nicer surprises for the average collector.
As we said above, the original owners were of a type to really look after their watches, and with not much to go wrong in terms of complications, you can secure yourself one with a modest outlay that should last a lifetime.
Even buying one of the debut references, generally the most expensive option with the historic models, won’t create too big a dent in the bank balance. Expect a bill for anywhere between $2,500 to $5,000.
That model, the ref. 6094, pre-dated Rolex’s Cyclops over the date window, another tick in the watch’s favor for those who have always harbored strong negative feelings about the magnifying lens. It was introduced halfway through the second iteration’s run, the ref. 6294, so you will find examples of that piece both with and without the addition.
What you will also find on the Oysterdate, across all four of its different references, are certain pieces with the wonderful roulette date wheels, where the color of the numerals alternate between red and black. It was a widespread alternative with many Rolex models of the period which has sadly died out in recent years.
Also, where others in the catalog tended to have at least one or two special or limited editions made, perhaps for a specific organization and not officially available to the public that tend to sell for a considerable premium, the Oysterdate was so covert it never qualified for the treatment.
That inconspicuous nature does leave it with one great advantage over some of the more identifiable of its stable mates though.
Rolex watches are the most counterfeited timepieces in the world. There are, for instance, more fake Submariners in circulation than the real thing. Why? Because everyone has heard of and wants a Sub. No one, or at least, very few people, know the Oysterdate exists, so you are unlikely to get taken in by a forgery.
All told, it is a watch worthy of a place in any fan’s collection, whatever stage they are at. The most dedicated collectors have a real fondness for manually wound Rolexes, and the price makes it the ideal choice as an entry level piece as well. The modest size and slim profile means it’s perfect for either men or women, and its styling lends it a real versatility.
Easy to find for sale, but rarely seen in the wild, it could well be a smart investment too.
The Rolex Oysterdate Precision Timeline
Although it remained in the Rolex lineup for a long time, the Oysterdate went through practically all of its development in the first few years of its life.
It was released in the early 50s as a cheaper alternative to the Datejust from 1945. With nothing but stainless steel used in its construction, coupled with the hand-winding caliber, it was always destined to live in the shadow of its slightly larger and more luxuriously appointed forerunner.
The first reference was the ref. 6094, a 34mm model with an acrylic crystal and sword-like hands, offered on an Oyster bracelet. Power came from Rolex’s own 17-jewel Cal. 1215, with date module and standard central seconds hand.
Two further versions followed in quick succession, the ref. 6294 and 6494, which swapped out the hands for baton types and added the Cyclops lens over the date window, as well as bringing in a wider choice of dial colors.
With the introduction of the last generation in the series, the ref. 6694 from 1958, the caliber was upgraded to the Cal. 1225 with its 21,600vph balance frequency, increased from the previous 18,000vph.
None of the movements driving the Oysterdate were chronometer certified, leading to the ‘Precision’ designation, as well as the lower price point.
That model took the range up until the late 80s, with some dealers still including the watch in their inventories as recently as 1989.
Beyond that, it was quietly retired, the perpetual second fiddle to the Datejust and even the Datejust’s less well-known companion, the Date—a sort of understudy to the understudy.
But today, with more and more knowledgeable collectors continuing the hunt for the next big thing, maybe the Oysterdate’s time has come. As a substitute to the ever present usual suspects, in the shape of Submariners and Daytonas, it makes a fascinating talking point, and the enticingly low cost is just the icing on the cake.