Just as there has never been an official definition of what constitutes a ‘vintage’ watch, it obviously follows that there has also never been one for when a watch can be termed ‘modern’.
With Rolex, it can be especially tricky to pin down when the change over between the two occurs. Some experts suggest the date a new feature or material is introduced marks the divide, but with the brand’s long-established ethos of incremental improvements, these are typically added to different models at different times. The Cerachrom bezel, for instance, was introduced on the GMT-Master II in 2005, but didn’t make it onto the Daytona until nearly 10 years later. So, is a 2005 GMT a modern watch but a Daytona from the same year vintage?
A Question of Size?
As a (very) general rule, Rolex watches have increased in size over the years. Models such as the Sea-Dweller and the Explorer II, both traditionally 40mm pieces, have each been granted some additional presence in their latest iterations with new 43mm and 42mm cases respectively.
Even those oldest of the old-guard, the Datejust and Day-Date, now have once unthinkable 40mm and 41mm options in the range.
Similarly, the watches that have stayed true to their time-honored dimensions on paper, such as the Submariner, have been reworked to at least give the impression of getting bigger. The Maxi case was introduced in the mid-2000s, complete with larger lugs and crown guards to add some extra heft on the wrist. Coupled with a similarly uprated Maxi dial, featuring fatter hour indexes, it has a far more substantial, muscly, and yes, modern look than before.
Keep it Simple, Stupid!
Rather than having to apply different rules for each individual model in the Rolex lineup, we are going to follow the same standards as we did with our ‘Vintage Rolex’ guide and pick 1979 as our cutoff point. It gives us nearly 40 years of incredible watches to choose from—pieces that have defined the brand as it enters its second century of production stronger than ever.
Below you will find a few examples of ‘modern’ Rolex, taken from the huge selection we currently have in stock here at Beckertime.
The original GMT-Master, the ref. 6542, was released in 1954, the first watch to display a dual time zone complication. While it was an impressively innovative and outwardly complex piece of engineering, it was actually brilliant in its simplicity.
Its combination of rotatable bezel and additional hour hand, geared to run at half the speed of the regular hand, allowed it to track two time zones simultaneously, pointing out the correct hour on the engraved surround.
Made in conjunction with Pan Am Airlines, it proved incredibly popular and continued in production, with the usual periodic refinements, all the way up until 1999.
However, in 1983, an improvement was made to the basic design that was so significant it warranted an entirely new (sort of) model name.
The ref. 16760, sometimes known as the Fat Lady on account of its generously curved case, became the first of the GMT-Master IIs. It addressed the one shortcoming of its predecessor series; the ability to the set the two hour hands independently of each other.
Now, not only could the GMT hand be adjusted instantaneously, the watch was able to keep track of three different time zones.
That model also brought with it a number of other firsts for the range, in the shape of a new black and red color scheme, nicknamed the Coke, as well as replacing the acrylic crystal with scratch resistant sapphire and introducing white gold surrounds on the indexes.
Since then, the GMT-Master II range has continued to go from strength to strength. It got its slender bodywork back in 1988 with the follow-up reference, the ref. 16710, and has been the recipient of Rolex’s relentless drive for perfection both inside and out. Along with 2005’s Cerachrom bezel, its various calibers have benefitted from the very latest in revolutionary engineering, with the Parachrom hairspring and Chronergy Escapement making their way into the most recent versions.
It is also a good example of the difficulties in defining vintage versus modern when it comes to Rolex watches. Although the GMT-Master and GMT-Master II ran concurrently until almost the start of the new millennium, with the older range remaining popular due to its near identical looks and far lower price point, there are not many that would describe the original series as ‘modern’, despite some models far exceeding our self-imposed 1979 rule.
It is just one of those discrepancies that makes collecting Rolex watches so intriguing, not to mention confusing!
It would be unkind, but fair, to say that the Explorer II has lived the majority of its life in the shadow of the GMT-Master.
Until its very latest version, it had always been given the same caliber as its aviation-styled sibling, yet, although it too has a second hour hand, it was never a true dual time watch due to the limitations of its fixed bezel. It meant it was in essence a large AM/PM indicator rather than a bona fide traveler’s timepiece, aimed at those who spent their lives in the total darkness of underground caverns, or else the perpetual sunlight of polar exploration.
Its vintage debut reference remains its most sought after. The ref. 1655 was launched in 1971 and became known as the Steve McQueen Rolex, due to the fact that he never wore one (don’t ask!)
The dark horse by nature, it has stubbornly resisted any attempt to move it away from its tool watch origins. While the GMT-Master has become evermore gentrified, with gold cases and fancy ceramics, the Explorer II was and is made exclusively from the toughest steel available. It has a definite ‘anti-Rolex’ vibe, an instrument for telling the time in the most extreme environments, rather than a statement piece for displaying wealth.
Since that initial model there have only been three additional references in the series; the ref. 16550 which uncoupled the two hour hands much like the Fat Lady, and the near identical ref. 16570 which differed mainly internally with uprated calibers.
The biggest change came in 2011 when the Explorer II was finally granted a movement of its own along with new 42mm bodywork that saw it step away from its GMT-Master shade and into the spotlight. The ref. 216570 is now giving the Explorer II some well-earned attention and turning people’s focus back to previous references, reminding them why they fell in love with the brand in the first place.
A watch for watch lovers, and one to be handed down as an heirloom for generations to come.
One of the ironies of writing about watches is that perhaps the most overused word is ‘timeless’. Yet, when it comes to the Datejust, there really isn’t another adjective that can do that design justice.
It is a shape that has been with us since 1945 and has barely changed since, mainly because it hasn’t had to.
It means that the Datejust, from just about any era, is pretty much immune to the notions of ‘vintage’ or ‘modern’. Visually at least, a Datejust is a Datejust is a Datejust.
Where the biggest differences can be felt are, again, internally, with Rolex’s famed 3000 series calibers making their entrance in 1977. Replacing the Cal. 1575, it was the Cal. 3035 that introduced the convenience of the Quickset function, allowing wearers to advance the date with a simple twist of the crown rather than spinning the hour hand endlessly through 24 hours.
It also brought us the now standard 28,800vph frequency that gives the brand’s watches that effortlessly smooth glide to the seconds hand.
That movement was replaced 11 years later with the even further refined Cal. 3135, complete with Glucydur balance wheel to better withstand temperature variations and the anti-magnetic and hugely shock resistant Parachrom Bleu hairspring.
Externally, while the basic silhouette has more or less stayed the same since the end of the Second World War, it has been crafted in every combination of metal, bezel type and dial color imaginable, making it the watch that suits every taste and pretty much every budget. You can spend enormous sums on gemstone enhanced, precious metal versions or go low-key with understated steel models.
Lately, Rolex has moved to bring the venerable Datejust to a younger, more contemporary audience with a range of 41mm pieces, cast in either all steel or their own Rolesor half and half creation.
Starting with the short-lived Datejust II, which upped the comparative dimensions of the bezel and lugs, it divided opinion too much to stick around for long. It was superseded by the Datejust 41, which kept the 36mm example’s elegant proportions, but simply enlarged them to give the septuagenarian classic a new lease of life.
Alongside the Submariner, it is the watch that screams Rolex the loudest—an absolute emblem of the brand and of watchmaking in general.
At more than 70 years of age, the Datejust still remains one of the biggest sellers, and will continue to do so long after lesser watches have been forgotten.