The Rolex Milgauss
If the Submariner and GMT-Master are Rolex’s Lennon and McCartney, then the Milgauss is most definitely the George Harrison.
All released around the same time, the world’s favorite diver and the world’s favorite traveler have been overshadowing their dark horse band mate for the last 60-plus years.
A watch created especially for scientists was never going to compete in the glamor stakes with pieces made for airline pilots or underwater explorers, and so the Milgauss has always been on the back foot when it came to image.
Yet, ironically, it is the Milgauss’s specific abilities that make it the most relevant to a modern-day environment.
When it debuted, the world was entering the Atomic Age, with massive technological strides being made in virtually every scientific arena.
As with everything, new breakthroughs brought with them new challenges, and researchers and engineers started to notice their watches were becoming severely affected by the magnetic fields generated by their state-of-the-art equipment.
Even a relatively small force was enough to bend and warp the delicate internal components of a mechanical watch, and the potency of some of the fields scientists were working in were more than enough to destroy their timepieces for good.
Rolex’s answer to the problem was to double-case their new creation, with an additional soft iron Faraday cage shrouding the movement inside the standard steel shell. In doing so, it offered the model a resistance of up to 1,000 gauss, the unit of magnetic flux density (and hence the name, with the first half taken from the French for 1,000—mille).
An impressive performer even by today’s standards, on its launch in the 50s the Milgauss singularly failed to capture the imagination, even though the initial reference was virtually indistinguishable from the wildly popular Submariner, matte black dial, rotating bezel and all.
It is a pattern which has continued throughout the watch’s life, always playing second fiddle to the big names despite formidable talents. Yet, in the modern world, we are surrounded by significant magnetic fields virtually every minute of every day; from computers, cell phones, even refrigerators. A model that can withstand them is arguably far more beneficial than one that will keep ticking 300m underwater or display a second time zone on those all-too-seldom occasions we jet off on vacation.
But the time of the Milgauss may be here. With Rolex’s unrivaled prominence, savvy collectors who have already secured themselves one or more of the heavy hitters are looking to stand out just that little bit more with some of the lesser known models. The Milgauss is currently reveling in its role of cult favorite, with prices for vintage and pre-owned examples rising steadily for the last few years and with no sign of slowing down. It is the same story with other ‘quiet ones’ in the brand’s stable, with pieces like the original Explorer and classic Air-Kings heading in the same direction.
There is one other quality the Milgauss has which is almost unique. Practically every other model in the Rolex lineup, especially the ones which have been around for so long, have gone through nothing but a gentle aesthetic evolution during their production. Stand a late model President, Datejust, Daytona or Sea-Dweller up next to its inaugural reference and anyone can see the same basic DNA behind both.
With the Milgauss, the earliest pieces and the current offerings bear no relation to each other. It is what makes them such a fascinating target for many classic Rolex fans, and underlines the watch’s status as a real outlier in the range.
Below we will take a look at everything you need to be aware of to add a beautiful Milgauss to your collection.
Its simplicity, coupled with its all round underdog status, means the price of entrance to the Milgauss owners club is among the most reasonable of any Rolex model.
The least expensive of all are actually the newer examples in the series—dating from 2007, the year the watch was relaunched following a near two decade retirement. The very recently discontinued ref. 116400 can be had for less than $5,000. Available with either a black or white dial, it is the white which seems to be the cheapest, but not by much.
The contemporary lineup consists of two options, both with the reference 116400GV. The ‘GV’ stands for Glace Verte, describing the subtly tinted green sapphire crystal covering the dial. It is the first colored glass the brand has ever manufactured, the process reportedly so complex that even Rolex, who own more copyrights than just about any watchmaker, haven’t bothered to patent it, confident no one else will be able to figure it out.
The black dialed GV is only marginally more expensive on the pre-owned market than the clear sapphire equivalent; however, adding an extra $2,000 or so on top of that price point is 2014’s Z-Blue model. This replaced the white dial piece and doubled-down on making the Milgauss just about the most colorful tool watch in the lineup by giving it a Zirconium-coated electric blue face. Not only is it an eye-catcher, it reaffirmed that Rolex were starting to take the Milgauss seriously again, after it being seen as a bit of an afterthought for years.
As for vintage pieces, they represent something of a leap in outlay.
The extremely long-running ref. 1019, launched in 1960 and taking the watch right up to its sabbatical in 1988, is the most attainable of the classic references. It was the model which first steered the Milgauss away from the cookie-cutter styling it had previously shared with the Submariner and gave it its own identity. So the rotating bezel has been vanished in place of a polished surround and the dial could be had in either black or silver, the first time an option had been presented. Prices for a ref. 1019 start at around the $20k mark and can easily rise to twice that.
There were only two other earlier models of the Milgauss, both especially short-lived. The debut piece, the ref. 6543, was produced for less than two years and is pretty much just a prototype. With only around 150 ever seeing the light of day, your chances of coming across one are slim, but they do occasionally surface at auction. Six-figure hammer drops are not uncommon.
That was replaced with the ref. 6541, a watch very similar in appearance but with one design flourish which has since gone onto define the watch.
It had the same rotating bezel as its predecessor, and carried over the unique honeycomb type dial—a crisscross arrangement of metallic mesh which not only gave an attractive finish but also added an extra level of antimagnetic defense.
But it is the ref. 6541’s seconds hand which has become a trademark of the scientist’s watch. The formally straight stick type switched to a jagged, lightning bolt-looking affair, a subtle little nod to the Milgauss’s lab coat-attired audience. These too are incredibly rare beasts, seldom seen outside dedicated watch auctions and generally selling at around the same eye-watering level as the ref. 6543.
There is a definite hierarchy at play in Rolex’s professional range. Although all described as tool watches, it is only the most popular members of the family which are granted a wide and varied options list.
So household names like the Daytona or the GMT or the Sub all get extensive selections in different metal type, dial color, bezel design and even bracelet, underlining how far they’ve strayed from their originally intended environments and into status symbol territory.
But other models in the catalog, the ones at the more unfashionable end of the spectrum, are generally offered as is, sticking closer to their roots of providing a vital service in challenging conditions.
Watches such as either flavor of the Explorer have always just gotten on with the business of being the best at what they were designed to do, without having the worry of choosing the most pleasing combination of other attributes.
The Milgauss is undeniably in this latter category. Throughout its life, the only choice potential customers have been called on to make has been able to be settled with a coin toss, picking between one of two colors for the face.
Even that didn’t start until the model’s third iteration, when Rolex added a silver dial to the ‘range’, alongside the previous black.
For the rest, it has only ever been offered in steel, with no precious metal overcoats for the well-heeled particle physicist, and no diamond-studded accents anywhere either.
There are no fluted or engine-turned bezels in the archives, and it is fitted exclusively on that most utilitarian of Rolex’s bracelets, the three-link Oyster.
It is, in short, for those people who need a watch that will carry on working under whatever stresses it is subjected to, rather than one that draws attention to itself.
Classy, in other words.
Just as with the rest of the options list, there is no choice in size with the Milgauss either.
Up until its recent revival, the watch stuck rigidly to 38mm dimensions, actually fairly large on its release in the mid-fifties, but which were to become outgrown over the years. The only adjustment made very early on was when the 19mm lug width on the debut ref. 6543 increased to 20mm with the follow-up ref. 6541.
When the newest six-digit reference pieces emerged in 2007, the Milgauss was actually given the same 40mm case as the latest Air-King model, except with a polished rather than brushed finish. In actual fact, the two models also share the same movement, bracelet and level of magnetic protection.
Although Rolex has started to dip its toes into the world of larger watches in the last few years, they have been reluctant to take too many of their existing range beyond the 40mm magic number. It has been seen as the ideal size for a tool watch for a long time, offering enough of a surface area for designers to make everything legible, but small enough to still slip under a shirtsleeve when occasion demands.
When the fashion in horology turned to evermore outsize dimensions in the 90s and 2000s, the brand still stuck to their guns for the most part, leaving some to accuse them of falling behind the times. But as that trend starts to come full circle, and manufacturers begin to release more restrained versions of those mammoth pieces, Rolex’s philosophy of sticking with timeless design rather than current fad is one which has been proved right yet again.
Its antimagnetic party piece aside, the Milgauss is about as unassuming as a watch can be, with not even the extra complication of a date function on the three-handed timekeeper.
The basic nature of the design is reflected in its movements, and the four references dating back to the mid-fifties have been powered by just three different calibers.
The ref. 6543 and ref. 6541 both ran the Cal. 1080, from Rolex’s 1000 series, their very first family of all in-house manufactured mechanisms. Beating at 18,000vph, the Cal. 1080 is based on the renowned no-date Cal. 1030 but with the addition of the Faraday cage.
In its simplest form, a Faraday cage is just an earthed metal screen, usually a mesh, that forms a covering to block out electromagnetic radiation and prevent it from affecting whatever is inside. With the Milgauss, it stopped the magnetic fields produced by laboratory equipment from distorting the extremely fragile workings that make up the watch’s movement and ruining their performance.
The third generation, the ref. 1019, kept the updated Cal. 1580 for the entirety of its 28-year run. Again, it was the antimagnetic version of the base caliber, the Cal. 1570, which not only upped the balance frequency to 19,800vph but also introduced the convenience of a hacking function to stop the seconds hand when setting the time.
The brand’s 1500 range of calibers are among the most revered of all by fans of vintage Rolex, found inside some of the all-time great references of the past. Sturdy, accurate and wholly reliable, they were still being used in some models, such as the ref. 1016 Explorer, as recently as the end of the eighties.
When the Milgauss made its surprise return in 2007, it was with the first movement in its history to have both a Faraday cage as well as naturally antimagnetic components. The Cal. 3131 has been used in the ref. 116400 series since then, as well as the 40mm Air King, and comes with Rolex’s patented Parachrom hairspring.
Made from an alloy of niobium, zirconium and oxygen, the Parachrom hairspring was originally introduced in 2000 and updated five years later with a thicker coating, which turned blue when exposed to the air, giving us the Parachrom Bleu. As well as being impervious to magnetic fields, the spring is also much more stable in the face of temperature variations and gives up to 10x more protection against shocks than traditional materials.
It has become a feature across the Rolex range, cementing their reputation as the manufacturer of some of the most precise engines in the industry.
While the Milgauss has been a staple in the lineup for many years, it can come as a surprise to some just how few there are available on the pre-owned market, especially the true vintage models.
But it follows the same logical path as some of the other incognito pieces from Rolex, such as the Date, the smaller alternate to the Datejust.
These kinds of under-the-radar examples usually attract a different type of buyer than those who go after the big names. Rather than being collectors per se, looking to add another prize to their hoard, the Milgauss was built for people who needed a specific kind of watch for their professional lives and wanted it to last them a lifetime. They would opt for a Rolex due to their reputation and would then hang on to the watch for as long as they could, before often passing it along as an heirloom.
The vintage Milgauss scene is so sparsely populated then because a) it was a perennial sales underperformer anyway, so there were never as many made in the first place, and b) the original owners, or their families, are still in possession.
This can be both good news and bad news for fans. Their comparative scarcity means buy-in prices for a classic model can seem quite high, but on the flipside, they could well be a pretty safe bet, investment-wise.
The first two references, the ref. 6543 and ref. 6541, are both staggeringly low in number, leading to them selling for huge amounts on the rare occasions they come up. At a recent Christie’s auction dedicated to fine watches, a 1955 ref. 6543 went for CHF 271,500.
A far more realistic option is the long-running ref. 1019. In production for nearly three decades they are by far the most plentiful of the classic references, but even so, there isn’t exactly a flood of them out there. You can expect to part with between $20,000 to $40,000 for a piece in good condition which, for the most part, they will be. These were watches generally worn inside, in gentler environments than those experienced by some of the other professional models. Scuffs, scrapes and dings to the bodywork should be at a minimum.
There is another, highly valuable, type of the ref. 1019 beyond the standard black and silver dial pieces.
As the story goes, the Milgauss was actually created at the request of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Scientists there were obviously finding their regular watches not up to dealing with the new demands of the job and so approached Rolex for help, leading to the Milgauss coming into being.
It is an unconfirmed tale, as most stories about the brand are, but it is certainly not out of the realms of possibility. It is, after all, similar to how the GMT-Master (Pan-Am) and the Sea-Dweller (COMEX) were born.
What we do know for sure is that Rolex did create a special ref. 1019 explicitly for CERN workers with the hands and hour markers stripped of all lume. The tritium they were using at the time, while far safer than the previous radium, was still slightly radioactive and capable of disrupting the researchers’ highly sensitive equipment. The so-called CERN dials are now among the most sought after examples of the reference.
The one other oddity in the vintage range is the ref. 1019’s MK I dial. Whereas successive generations had tick marks every half second, the earliest run had their marks every 1/5thsecond. These first edition pieces now represent an extremely rare version of an already fairly rare watch.
The Rolex Milgauss Timeline
The Milgauss was released in 1956, the first antimagnetic watch Rolex had ever made. The ref. 6543 was targeted directly at those working in power plants, medical facilities, research labs, or indeed anywhere there were strong electromagnetic fields. With a soft iron Faraday cage shielding the movement, it was designed in answer to a new problem experienced by those on the cutting-edge of new technology, where a magnetic force greater than 50-100 gauss, about the strength of a fridge magnet, would be enough to render their timepieces useless.
Before it arrived, scientists and engineers either had to accept their watch was going to be affected or else not wear one at all.
Featuring a rotating black bezel and matte black honeycomb dial, the ref. 6543 bore an uncanny resemblance to the Submariner, released a couple of years before. Yet, despite its aesthetics and its abilities, the Milgauss started life as it would go on—the perpetual also-ran.
Compared to others in the stable, it always had something of an image problem. Lab coats and overalls just couldn’t compete with wetsuits or airline captain uniforms on the sexy scale. It was the same fate that befell Omega’s Railmaster, created for a similar purpose, but always playing catch-up to the likes of the Seamaster and the Speedmaster.
Nevertheless, Rolex updated the Milgauss soon after with the ref. 6541, ostensibly the same watch but with a couple of subtle tweaks. Firstly the lug size increased a smidge, up to 20mm from the previous 19mm. And in an unexpected fit of whimsy, Rolex swapped the straight seconds hand for a stylized lightning bolt style. Although neither did much to help sales, the seconds hand became a recognizable element exclusive to the Milgauss.
In 1960, the model was changed again, this time radically. With the ref. 1019, all traces of the Submariner were discarded, and the Milgauss reverted to a more simple, elegant design. The rotating bezel was substituted for a plain, polished one and the dial was offered as either a black or silver option. But curiously, the distinctive seconds hand was also gotten rid of and switched to a more conventional replacement, topped with a tiny red arrow.
That reference limped on for an incredible 28 underperforming years until, in 1988, the Milgauss was eventually retired. Most people thought that was that for the model, but Rolex had other ideas. With their typically impeccable timing, the brand dusted off the Milgauss in 2007 and rereleased it to coincide with the completion of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s highest energy particle accelerator.
The new reference, released in three different styles, was another complete departure for the watch. With the ref. 116400, the case size had grown a couple of millimeters, up to 40mm. Two of the models, with either a black or a white face, were covered with a plain colorless sapphire crystal, while the third also featured a black dial but with a green tinted covering. Known as the ref. 116400GV, for Glace Verte (or green glass) it gave the watch a characteristic tint that proved very popular with fans. In 2014, the white dialed version was replaced with the Z-Blue, also with the colored sapphire but the new watch also had a zirconium-coated blue dial. It has since gone on to become the most admired of the range.
Of most importance to Rolex devotees however, that unique electric seconds hand was back, this time in a bright orange.
The Milgauss is, for the first time, a sought-after watch in the contemporary lineup, ironically for the very reasons it has been shunned for most of its life. Its simplicity and unfussiness are the grassroots of the brand. They appeal to purist fans who miss the good old days when Rolex contented itself with making the finest and toughest tool watches it was possible to buy.
The admiration of the modern piece has also reawakened interest in the vintage references, and the examples that have made it to the pre-owned market are being snapped up for ever increasing fees.
If you were after a vintage watch that will both last a lifetime and land you with a healthy amount of envy-inducing exclusivity, the Milgauss could well be what you are looking for.