History of the Rolex Cellini
Perhaps the least known out of all Rolex’s many creations, the Cellini stands apart from the rest of the watchmaker’s output in a number of ways.
Rather than being a name that describes a single series, such as the Datejust or the Daytona, Cellini has long been a catch-all term for any of the brand’s ultra luxury dress watches, available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and styles.
They have been a catalog inclusion, albeit a somewhat underrepresented one, since the earliest days of the company, but the exact year of their debut is difficult to pin down. The creation of Rolex director Rene-Paul Jeanneret, it was his idea in the 1960s to offer something different to the crown’s roster of tool models—a genre which was also Jeanneret’s brainchild. Rather than a watch designed for a definite purpose, meant for divers or for scientists for example, the Cellini pieces were all about elegance and sophistication; the finishing touch to a stylish outfit.
Unlike the Oyster watches on which Rolex has built its unsurpassed reputation, where form has constantly followed function, the styling of the Cellini range has always focused strictly on aesthetics. As such, they have come in a diverse assortment of designs over the years, unencumbered by the restrictions inherent to the Professional collection. Made solely to be worn as dress pieces, none have needed to be built around the brand’s revolutionary waterproof Oyster case, and the vast majority have been powered by manually wound calibers, rather than Rolex’s similarly game-changing Perpetual automatic movement.
While they have usually been at the more conservative end of the spectrum, the 1960s and 1970s gave Rolex’s watch shapers free rein to experiment with something altogether more avant-garde.
Chief amongst these is the King Midas, an extravagantly unorthodox asymmetrical piece with an integrated bracelet, which may or may not (depending on who you believe) have been dreamt up by the legendary Gérald Genta, of AP’s Royal Oak and Patek’s Nautilus fame.
Clocking up a whole host of precedents, it became the first Rolex fitted with a sapphire crystal; the first made in a left-handed version; it was, in its day, the heaviest gold watch money could buy, weighing in at around 200 grams and was also the priciest item in the Rolex catalog.
Originally released in 1964 as a limited edition of 1,000 before going into production as part of the Cellini lineup, it will forever be associated with one man—Elvis Presley. His model, number 343, was a gift from grateful organizers of the Houston Astrodome Livestock Show and Rodeo, where he had just played six days of sell-out concerts. Unashamedly flamboyant and defiantly flashy, it was the perfect present for the great showman.
From the end of the 70s onwards, the Cellini series settled into a more unified visual. The extremes of earlier times were subdued and the collection tended more towards understated refinement rather than eye-catching extravagance.
Models such as the Danaos and the Cestello harked back heavily to Rolex’s formative years—case sizes in the mid 30mm range and with gently rounded curves very reminiscent of the original Bubblebacks.
At the start of the new millennium, the Cellini Prince made a welcome return, an almost identical looking watch to its ancestor from the 1920s. That piece, a rectangular Art Deco masterpiece, featured a separate sub dial for the running seconds hand, a fairly novel inclusion for the era that led to it being dubbed the ‘Doctor’s Watch’, as physicians found it a helpful feature when timing a patient’s pulse. It was also one of the more expensive watches available at the time, and set Rolex down the path to becoming the aspirational brand they are today. (Al Capone, if rumors are to be believed, wore a Prince).
The four rereleased versions from 2005, two in white gold and one each in yellow and Everose, were of an extremely select number of Rolex watches to feature a display case back to show off their hand-wound and exquisitely finished movements.
The contemporary group of Cellini models are all based around four pieces with identical 39mm cases, each with its own functionality. The Time is a simple three-handed edition, while the Date includes a small sub counter at the three o’clock to display the day of the week. The Dual Time also has a second dial, now at the six o’clock, to show an additional time zone, while the final model features something not seen on a Rolex watch since the 1950s. The Cellini ref. 50535 houses a moonphase complication, astronomically accurate for 122 years, along with a pointer date feature, all housed in a beautiful Everose gold shell. Driven by the brand’s own patented caliber, it is about as complex as the crown gets.
The Cellini range has a long and incredibly varied history, and one that is little known even to Rolex devotees. The watches share so little in common with the sports models, and even dressier options like the Datejust and the Day-Date, that they could almost come from a different manufacturer. But the fastidious designs and peerless engineering are consistent with the other true Rolex icons, and they remain an intriguing alternative to the better known names—a collection of stunning watches for very special occasions.
Rolex Cellini Milestones
|1960s||Rolex director Rene-Paul Jeanneret decides to take the company in a different direction and offer something other than their range of world beating sports models. A new line of jewelry watches for both men and women is introduced, crafted in gold and often with gemstone enhancements, called the Cellini series, named after Benvenuto Cellini, a 16thcentury renaissance goldsmith, painter and sculptor.|
|1963||The King Midas, originally a limited edition piece rumored to have been designed by Gérald Genta, and bearing many of his favored styling cues, is released. Inspired by the myths of ancient Greece and with a highly unusual case design based on the Parthenon Temple in Athens, it is later incorporated into the Cellini range. Its radical look exemplifies the excesses of the era.|
|1970s||The bold, angular lines of the preceding range are tamed, and Rolex bring in a more cohesive aesthetic. Drawing on their earliest watches, the new models have a decidedly vintage appeal, with soft, cushion-shaped cases and restrained sizes.|
|2005||The Cellini Prince is revived, a faithful recreation of a watch from 1928. Its large rectangular case is a significant departure for a modern day Rolex, and its four separate versions all feature display case backs. It remains in production until 2015.|
|2014||The contemporary lineup of Cellini’s is released, featuring the Time, the Date and the Dual Time, all measuring 39mm in diameter.|
|2017||Rolex launch the Cellini Moonphase, the first watch from the brand to feature the complication since the 1950s.|
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Photo Archive.