The Rolex Datejust
This Rolex Datejust guide makes a strong case for calling the Datejust the most important watch Rolex has ever produced. It is also far from an outrageous statement to call it one of the most important watches created by any manufacturer in the last hundred years.
It’s a design that has gone from revolutionary on its release to become the archetype against which all other timepieces are measured. The Datejust has had the longest unbroken production run of any of the brand’s core offerings.
The Only Watch You’ll Ever Need
Launched to celebrate Rolex’s 40thanniversary, still in the early days of the wristwatch and an era of three-hand, time only simplicity, it was the Datejust that changed the horology landscape. In fact, it was the first watch ever to display the date on the dial. Rolex coupled it with their innovative self-winding Perpetual movement. Then they housed it all in their proprietary waterproof Oyster case. Everything we now take for granted had to start somewhere, and it started with the Datejust.
It is now comfortably into its eighth decade and the absolute elder statesman of the Rolex range. But it’s one one that remains as relevant as ever through the sheer scope of its variety. If you can’t find a Datejust model that appeals to your own particular tastes, style, or personality, you probably aren’t looking hard enough.
The pioneering ingredients that went into the watch have formed the basis for every Rolex model that has followed. The emblematic pieces such as the Submariner, the Explorer, the GMT-Master, etc. all owe at least part of their makeup to the Datejust. But unlike those tool watches, the Datejust was not created to fulfill a particular role or aimed at a specific occupation. It was designed to be all things to all people. Its the only watch you would ever need because it could fit in in any company and match with any occasion.
Worn by Global Leaders
Throughout its long life, it has been worn by the great and the good, presidents and prime ministers, musical icons and sports legends, all the while retaining its classic shape. The epitome of simple elegance, stand the first of the breed up next to its latest iteration, and you will see nothing but a very gentle evolution at work.
Rolex got the Datejust right from the get-go and have done, or needed to do, very little on the outward styling ever since. On the inside however, it has more often that not acted as a test bed for the brand’s seemingly endless list of inventions. Upgraded technology has usually found a home in the Datejust first, before being rolled out across the fleet.
It is the piece no serious Rolex fan’s collection is complete without. And, at the same time can be that one ‘good’ watch to serve you well no matter the circumstances.
Below, our Rolex Datejust guide details why there is very little out there that can compete with the Datejust.
Buying membership into the Datejust family is really a question of asking yourself how much you want to spend, because you will be able to find an example at just about every price point.
For a watch that has been setting the standard for more than 70 years, a groundbreaker that transformed the wristwatch as we know it, you can wear a piece of all that heritage for an outlay of around $3,000.
With that you will be able secure yourself a beautiful vintage steel example, with one of the apparently infinite choices of dial, on either the utilitarian refinement of the Oyster bracelet, or with the one designed specifically for the Datejust, the intricate five-link Jubilee.
Spend just a little more and you can have the watch that screams Rolex perhaps more than any other, a Rolesor model made with a blend of steel and yellow gold. Although the brand patented the name in 1933, it wasn’t until the late 40s that they brought out their first watch in the two-tone design; and the piece they chose to trial it on first was, of course, the Datejust. Today, a Rolesor version of the model is as recognizably Rolex as the five-pointed coronet or their trademark green.
At the other end of the scale, you will find examples in any of the three flavors of gold, littered with diamonds and other precious gems on every surface, for prices well into five figures and sometimes beyond.
As far as being an ideal purchase from an investment point of view; while you would be unlucky to lose money on a vintage Datejust, the watch itself is so ubiquitous there are not many that are particularly likely to go on to become appreciating assets. For a Rolex that has enjoyed such a long run, there have been surprisingly few special or limited editions, pieces that qualify as true rarities for hardcore collectors to fight over.
The good news is, for the price of a brand new entry level model, you can buy an awful lot of vintage Datejust. Where that $6,500+ would get you a box fresh steel version, on the pre-owned market you can have the luxury of Rolesor or even pure gold. You will even find examples with diamond indexes and bezel inserts. And with the basic design barely changing over the years, there are not many who can tell the difference between old and new.
It would actually be easier to list the styles the Datejust hasn’tbeen available in over the years. The different combinations of metal, bracelet, bezel type and dial color are literally too many to count.
It means that somewhere out there, there is one (or two or three) models that perfectly reflect your own personal tastes, whether you are looking for a watch that blends in subtly and makes only a low-key statement, or one that matches a flamboyant persona with lurid hues and gemstone enhancements.
Of all the varieties of different metal in which the Datejust has been forged, you will find the steel versions most prevalent on the vintage market, underlining the watch’s status as more of an everyman choice than the model that overtook its brand flagship role, the Day-Date. That piece, otherwise known as the President, was only released in precious metals, including the most luxurious one of all which the men’s Datejust has never worn, platinum.
However, released around the same time as the Day-Date was the Lady-Datejust, a 26mm version (recently grown to 28mm) which has been issued in platinum’s silvery whiteness—more of an out and out dress watch than the men’s model.
Yet all three assortments of 18k gold are readily available, each one conveying its own unique message. Rose gold, what Rolex have called Everose since they started forging it for themselves in their own foundry, creates a beautifully warm look, and tends to look smaller on the wrist than it actually is due to the color blending in with the wearer’s skin tones. White gold has a similar look to steel but with an unmistakably opulent shimmer, while yellow, the first of the three to be offered, is the most eye-catchingly show-offish—a quintessential retro look that has started to make a real comeback in recent years, as is the way with fashionable trends.
The dial, the element that perhaps conveys the most about the wearer’s personality, is where Rolex’s designers have really let themselves off the leash, and they have been issued in just about every color of the rainbow.
‘Playful’ is not the first adjective that springs to mind when you hear the name Rolex, but with options available for the Datejust in everything from floral pink to shocking orange, you can’t help but think someone was having a lot of fun designing them. If your tastes run to the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, there are vast numbers fitted with more toned-down colors such as burgundy or champagne, along with plenty of examples with faces crafted from mother-of-pearl, the iridescent material taken from the inner shells of oysters, making each dial unique.
The hour markers were originally the classic baton type and have been joined since by pieces with Roman or Arabic numerals as well as diamond indexes, with stones selected and hand set by Rolex’s legions of gemologists.
As for the bezels, the very earliest Datejust models were fitted with a coin-edged surround, a design that subtly evolved over the years into the fluted bezels we are more familiar with today. On top of that, vintage examples can be had with the decorative engine-turned option, one that is no longer available in the modern range, alongside the standard highly polished smooth bezels and, of course, the pure indulgence of diamond embellishments.
One of the very few officially sanctioned special editions of the Datejust emerged in 1954, adding another notch to the model’s list of innovations. The Turn-O-Graph ref. 6309 replaced the ref. 6202 from the year before; that model having no date function and bearing a striking resemblance to the soon-to-be-released Submariner.
The Turn-O-Graph became the first serially-produced watch to include a rotating bezel, a concept it borrowed from a 1937 prototype called the Zerographe. Although definitely a member of the Datejust family, it is another one of those Rolex offerings that tends to be forgotten in the great scheme of things, yet it has an intriguing history.
It was issued as an award to U.S. Air Force pilots returning from successful combat missions and was soon after adopted by the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron. It was also renamed after them in the North American market—as the Thunderbird.
Although the rotatable surround, graduated to 60-minutes, was designed to appeal specifically to aviators, and it was technically the brand’s first pilot’s watch, it was of course the element that went on to define many of the brand’s other tool watches, finding undying fame on the likes of the Submariner and GMT-Master.
The model went through a number of upgrades during its time in the lineup before being discontinued for several years. A revamped version made a low-key comeback in 2000 but was retired for good in 2011. Today, the Turn-O-Graph/Thunderbird makes an intriguing and attainable alternative to the standard Datejust line.
For many collectors, the Datejust will always be a 36mm watch. That was the size in which it first appeared and the size it stuck to for the first 64 years of its life. Although for most of that time 36mm was considered the ideal for a man’s watch, the trend for bigger and bigger timepieces finally caught up with the most traditional of models and, in 2009, Rolex succumbed and released the Datejust II.
This 41mm version, released in either stainless steel or Rolesor, ran alongside the original but, while the new size appealed on paper, especially to a younger audience, it was the individual proportions of the larger model that left many wanting. Rather than keep the time-honored graceful dimensions of the classic piece, Rolex’s designers fitted the Datejust II with a wider bezel, while at the same time retaining the 20mm bracelet width, leading to thicker lugs on the beefier case. Added together, it lost much of the understated elegance of its smaller forerunner and found only a restricted market. It was discontinued in 2016 to make way for a far more popular edition, the Datejust 41. This version kept the 41mm case but returned the flowing lines and slimmer bezel.
The original model will always be the quintessential Datejust, but its larger sibling is proving an extremely popular update; a Datejust for the 21stcentury.
It is hard to imagine it today, but the arrival of the Datejust and its groundbreaking complication was a complete game changer in the 1940s, forever altering what the public expected from wristwatches.
The date window was placed deliberately at three o’clock because Rolex realized the majority of its customers would be wearing the watch on their left wrist, and so the display could peek out from beneath a shirtsleeve.
But, along with the usefulness of the new function, it was the impressive style with which Rolex delivered their innovation that drove the massive success of the watch.
Even the very earliest iterations had the signature jump at midnight, the slick process earning the model its title; the ‘date’ would advance ‘just’ in time—Datejust.
Obviously the world of mechanical watches has progressed exponentially since then, building in complications no one could have dreamt about in the era the DJ first arrived. Even Rolex, the most stolidly conservative manufacture in the business, have issued their fair share of hyper functionality in recent years. But the Datejust has endured with its solitary namesake party piece, the only difference over the years being the convenience with which it is delivered.
Those first references with the Cal. 710 would have the date begin its switch over a couple of hours before midnight and wouldn’t completely disengage until a couple of hours after. It meant manually adjusting the watch between those times was potentially hazardous for the internal movement. It wasn’t until the 50s, when Rolex introduced the Cal. 1065, that they managed to adapt the mechanism with a spring loaded cam released at the stroke of twelve, that brought the true instantaneous change—almost too fast for the eye to see.
All the references that followed have added little bits of extra expediency to the watch, such as the hacking feature that debuted in 1972 inside the Cal. 1575. Now simply pulling out the crown to its second position activated a lever which interrupted the balance wheel and stopped the seconds hand, allowing wearers to set the time more accurately.
And the final main improvement came inside the Cal. 3035, the caliber that not only signaled the Datejust’s entry into the high beat frequency club (the 28,800vph giving the trademark Rolex sweep to the seconds hand) but also introduced the long-awaited Quickset feature. Instead of having to wind the hour hand through an entire day to forward the date, it could be done simply and swiftly with the crown.
All these variations on the Datejust’s main underlying theme have merely added practicality without sacrificing any of the watch’s character. The Datejust is a very simple timepiece with very modest ambitions. But what it does, it does better than just about any other model out there.
For more than 70 years, the Datejust has been one of, if not the, best selling watch Rolex has ever produced. Because the company is a 100 per cent privately held concern, it is not obliged or required to publish any sort of production figures, and it doesn’t, but the model is widely believed to be its most popular creation even today, possibly with the single exception of the Submariner.
As such it has been made in vast numbers, leading to a pre-owned and vintage market stuffed to the gills with beautiful examples, and at prices that are extremely attainable.
Of course, the closer you get to its initial year of manufacture, the rarer the model and so higher the value. Yet you will still find the granddaddy of them all, the ref. 4467, in the low five figures; a huge amount of history for a relatively modest sum.
As the Datejust got into its stride, its production numbers increased until it was almost omnipresent, and the sheer number of examples available has kept costs very reasonable for later models.
So, the more modern Datejust is by no means rare and therefore very few would qualify as collectible. And even the special edition Thunderbird, made in far smaller quantities and with its historically significant rotating bezel, is a relative steal. Prices for the Turn-O-Graph don’t vary much from the standard DJs from comparable periods.
That is all great news for collectors, but not necessarily those searching for an investment opportunity. If you are looking to buy a model in the hopes of gaining a profitable asset, you will need to hunt down one of the very early pieces from the 40s or 50s and hang on to it.
The Rolex Datejust Timeline
It all started in 1945 at the Hotel des Bergues in Geneva, when Hans Wilsdorf himself unveiled the Datejust ref. 4467 in celebration of Rolex’s 40thanniversary, complete with its in-house bracelet, the Jubilee.
The first automatic and waterproof wristwatch in the world to display a date function, it became an instant hit and flagship of the brand.
In these early examples, the size of the mechanism that drove the revolutionary date complication led to the calibers, the Cal. 710 and later the 730, being so big the watches needed a domed case back to accommodate them, similar to the previous generation’s bubbleback models.
Three years later in 1948, Rolex presented a specially made rose gold version of the Datejust, their 100,000thwatch, to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, complete with his family’s coat of arms engraved on the back. In 1951, the 150,000thpiece, another Datejust, this time in yellow gold, was gifted to Dwight D Eisenhower, the first U.S. President to own a Rolex.
Underlining the classic timelessness of its design, the watch received the last major change to its outward appearance way back in 1954, when Rolex introduced the Cyclops, a lens over the date aperture that magnified the numbers underneath by 2 ½ times. Brand folklore has it the idea came about because Wilsdorf’s wife was shortsighted and was having difficulty reading the digits. The Cyclops has since been adopted by every Rolex with a date function bar the Sea-Dweller Deepsea.
In the late 50s, the Datejust was given a significant technical upgrade with the introduction of the Cal. 1065, a smaller and more efficient movement that did away with the bubbleback case shape and brought about a more streamlined profile. That was also the decade that saw the release of the 26mm Lady Datejust, followed soon after by a 31mm mid-size.
With the aesthetics of the watch nailed down, it continued to receive internal updates throughout the following decades. In 1965, the Cal. 1575 took over the running, bringing with it a faster balance frequency, up to 19,800vph from the previous 18,000vph, as well as the hacking function a few years later.
Many of the components of Rolex’s 1500 series of calibers were interchangeable at the time, so it is not uncommon to see a Datejust with a Cal. 1575 actually marked Cal. 1570 on its winding bridge, the non-date version of the movement.
In 1977, Rolex brought out the next generation, powered by one of the new family of engines, the Cal. 3035. Ushering in the high beat 28,800vph frequency and Quickset date feature, the 70s Datejusts also swapped the previous acrylic crystals with scratchproof sapphire replacements. The same year, the first of the impossibly accurate but relatively unsung quartz-powered Datejusts emerged, known as the Oysterquartz.
Since then, the watch has had a further two caliber changes; the long-running and increasingly legendary Cal. 3135 from 1988 and the Cal. 3235 since 2017, complete with its ultra efficient Chronergy escapement.
Throughout all its internal renovations, each new iteration of the Rolex Datejust has been available in a bewildering and exhaustive range of options, and forged either from the strongest stainless steel, 18k gold in all its forms, or in the brand’s own Rolesor combination.
There is no doubt the Datejust is an emblem, not just of Rolex, but of horology in general. It is the model that laid out exactly what a watch should look like and embedded that image in the public consciousness for generations.
That it remains so affordable for collectors and fans of the marque is testament to its irresistible popularity, and the overwhelming number of different guises it comes in means there is no wrist it doesn’t suit.
It might sound like a cliché, but the Rolex Datejust is, and has always been, the only watch you would ever need.