A Brief History of the Rolex Milgauss
First released in Rolex’s 1950s Golden Age, the Milgauss appeared around the same time as the Submariner, the Day-Date and the GMT-Master. Up against legendary names like that, the watch built specifically for scientists struggled to find its place in the spotlight. It, like the Explorer which also debuted in the 50s, has long remained in the shadows of its illustrious companions.
While many of Rolex’s biggest hitters have gone on to emerge in various precious metals and with gemstone enhancements on dials and bezels, the Milgauss is the watch that has stayed truest to its tool-like origins.
Today, it is that exact quality that has given the Milgauss a cult status among collectors, and vintage examples are becoming increasingly sought after.
The First Milgauss
Like others in Rolex’s professional collection, the Milgauss was originally designed to satisfy a pressing need. The major advances made across the scientific, medical and engineering fields in the mid-20thcentury gave rise to never-before-seen equipment, which brought with them a new kind of problem; electromagnetic fields. The delicate internal components of mechanical watches could be warped and damaged by forces as low as 50-100 gauss, about the strength of a refrigerator magnet.
Rolex’s solution was to shroud the movement in the Milgauss inside a soft iron Faraday cage, which redirected the magnetic energy away from the caliber. The first model, the ref. 6543 released in 1956, was found to be able to resist fields of up to 1,000 gauss, leading to its name (millebeing the French word for 1,000).
Only around 150 examples of the 6543 were made before it was replaced by the nearly identical follow-up ref. 6541 the same year, both watches bearing an uncanny likeness to the Submariner which debuted in 1954.
Each had a black rotating bezel and a black matte dial like the dive watch, except the Milgauss had a metallic honeycomb mesh across its face which acted as a further magnetic shield.
In addition, the second generation was given a small design flourish which has come to symbolize the watch; a lightning-bolt style seconds hand.
The Milgauss Evolves
In 1960, the Milgauss changed dramatically. Rolex released the third iteration, the ref. 1019, which did away with the Submariner aesthetic and gave the watch its own identity.
For the first time, wearers could choose between two dial colors; either black or silver, neither of which carried over the honeycomb design. The turnable bezel was replaced with a fixed, smooth surround and the distinctive jagged seconds hand was swapped for a more familiar straight one, topped with a red arrowhead.
The caliber changed too. The first two models had been powered by the Cal. 1080, the antimagnetic version of the in-house Cal. 1030. For the new piece, Rolex gave the Milgauss its new Cal. 1580, which upped the balance frequency from 18,000vph to 19,800vph as well as introducing a hacking seconds function.
The ref. 1019 went unchanged for an incredible 28 years, before the model was discontinued completely in 1988.
The Milgauss Makes a Comeback
Much to everyone’s surprise, the Milgauss was rereleased in 2007 following a near 20-year absence. Its return was timed to coincide with the completion of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider,the world’s highest energy particle accelerator.
It launched in three versions; a black and a white dial model, both under a clear sapphire crystal, along with a second black dialed piece with a revolutionary new type of covering. This last, the ref. 116400GV (standing for Glace Verte) had a crystal tinted a delicate green, using a process so complex that Rolex hasn’t bothered to patent it.
All three examples have grown from the former 38mm to 40mm, and actually have the same case as the Air-King. They also share an identical movement, the Cal. 3131. This, for the first time, contains naturally antimagnetic components to help protect the caliber, such as the Parachrom Bleu hairspring.
In 2014, Rolex replaced the white dial Milgauss with the Z-Blue. Still covered with the green sapphire, this newest addition has a zirconium-coated electric blue dial which has attracted many admirers.
And happily, all modern Milgauss watches have had the lightning-bolt seconds hand reinstated, this time in a shocking orange.
Rolex Milgauss Milestones
|1956||Rolex introduces the Milgauss with the ref. 6543, a watch designed to withstand the high electromagnetic fields experienced by scientists, engineers and medical professionals. Outwardly, it looks nearly identical to the Submariner, but inside, a second case protects the caliber’s fragile components and the dial is given a fine crisscrossing of metal to add more protection.
The watch is rated safe by CERN to withstand up to 1,000 gauss.
|1956||After a short run, the ref. 6543 is replaced with the similar ref. 6541. The only differences are a slight increase in lug width, from 19mm to 20mm, and the introduction of a lightning bolt seconds hand. Both early references use the same Cal. 1080 movement.|
|1960||The radically different Cal. 1019 is introduced. Featuring a new caliber, the Cal. 1580, which brings a faster balance frequency and a hacking function, it also has the option of a silver dial alongside the traditional black. Neither features the honeycomb pattern of previous models.
The rotating bezel is gone, substituted for a smooth polished surround, and the trademark electric seconds hand is replaced with a straight one.
The ref. 1019 stays in production for 28 years.
|1960s||By special request from the scientists at CERN, Rolex release a version of the Milgauss with no lume on hour indexes or hands. The Tritium luminescent material the brand was using at the time, although significantly safer than the former Radium, was still radioactive enough to disrupt the sensitive equipment being used in laboratories. Known as the CERN dial models, these extremely rare versions of the Milgauss now make up some of the most desirable examples of the watch.|
|1988||After a production run of more than 30 years, the Milgauss is discontinued, a victim of poor sales in comparison to the rest of Rolex’s all-conquering tool watches.|
|2007||To celebrate the completion of the Large Hadron Collider, deep underground in Geneva, Rolex relaunch the Milgauss for a new generation.
Available in an enlarged 40mm case, it comes with either a black or white dial, the ref. 116400, as well as a black dial version covered with a green tinted sapphire crystal, the ref. 116400GV.
The movement is the updated Cal. 3131, complete with Parachrom Bleu hairspring. It also reinstates the iconic lightning bolt seconds hand, in a bright orange which matches the numerals above the hour markers.
|2014||To replace the white dial ref. 116400, Rolex release the Z-Blue Dial. Again covered by the green tinted crystal, this piece has an electric blue face, making it one of the most colorful models in the entire catalog.
It goes on to become a popular seller for Rolex, and vintage models start to attract the interest of collectors as well.