The Most Popular Rolex Watches of the 1950s
The American Dream
While there’s healthy debate over whether the 1950s was, in fact, the greatest ever decade, one thing is undeniable; the world was owed a holiday after suffering through the horrors of the deadliest war in history.
It was an era that certainly had plenty going for it, in America particularly. After years of financial penury, the US economy skyrocketed with huge growth and low debt. Also, unemployment was at its lowest level in generations.
The American Dream was in full flow, translating into a massive explosion in purchasing power. People suddenly found themselves with money to spend, and were looking for ways to spend it.
WWII Boosted Rolex Reputation
The Second World War had been kind to Rolex in a number of ways. Firstly, as Switzerland had stayed officially neutral during the conflict, their watchmaking industry had powered on as usual. In the rest of the world, watch factories were appropriated by the war effort, more or less ending them as competition. It left the Swiss firms with the market practically to themselves at the end of hostilities. It was something they took full advantage of.
And secondly, Rolex’s conduct throughout WWII only added to their reputation. However, not just as manufacturers of the highest quality, but also as a company with a strong sense of morality. The firm’s flagrant support for the allies was something not soon forgotten. In fact, everything from their anti-Nazi marketing stance to their help for captured POWs brought them an appreciative and fiercely loyal fan base. Learn more about this fascinating time period for Rolex and their vintage Rolex watches 1940s era.
Popular Vintage Rolex 1950 Watches
Of course, the peerless creations emerging from behind the curtains of rolex HQ helped it along. Whether or not the 1950s was America’s best decade, for the crown, it is hard to think of one better or more successful.
Names that have since passed into watchmaking folklore made their first appearance in the 50s. In fact, of the five most popular vintage Rolex 1950 watches ever, three were born in this one decade alone.
A New Age
With its mood of unbridled optimism and adventure, the post-war years brought a new age of exploration; of brave pioneers tackling the planet’s most extreme environments and pushing themselves to the limits. And whether at the top of the world or the bottom, their trusted companion was Rolex.
Below, we’ll look at some of the most popular watches from perhaps the brand’s most important decade.
The Explorer ref. 6350
Of all Rolex’s sports watches, so often overlooked, it’s the Explorer that has the longest and richest history. And it all started on top of the highest peak on earth.
Rolex had been sponsoring expeditions to conquer Mount Everest since 1933. They attempted to collect important data on the performance of its watches in the harshest conditions imaginable. This was also the kind of brand advertising that money can’t buy.
By 1953, it had backed a total of nine abortive efforts. These included one a year before featuring Tenzing Norgay. He got within an agonizing 300 meters of the summit. The Nepalese Sherpa gave a gold Datejust from the company for his efforts.
Sir John Hunt’s Expedition
Sir John Hunt’s expedition of ’53 saw a small group of 15 tackle the ascent. This included Norgay and New Zealand mountaineer, Edmund Hilary, finally conquering the summit at 11.30am on the 29th May. The pair wore Oyster Perpetuals supplied free by Rolex. This was on the condition they would be sent back to Geneva for testing once they returned home. The climbers duly sent both watches back after their successful attempt, along with letters of thanks.
The Oyster Perpetual Explorer Launch
The notoriously secretive watchmaker never revealed what tests were performed on those fabled timepieces. Yet, within a few months, the first Oyster Perpetual sporting the Explorer name launched, with the reference number 6350.
It was the start of a series still going strong today, more than 60 years later, and with a design that, even by Rolex’s standards, has barely altered. In stylistic terms, the Explorer range is among the simplest three-hand watches in the brand’s lineup; a perfectly legible, starkly beautiful example that has avoided the precious metal versions and gemstone enhancements of the rest of the sports collection. For true Rolex purists, the Explorer is the last of the real tool watches, and the one that has stayed closest to the company’s original philosophy.
Rolex 6350 Set the Standard
Those first 6350 references set the standard the rest of the range has followed ever since. Always with a black dial and the characteristic 3,6,9 Arabic numerals, even the case size has only undergone minor changes. Where the first examples were a traditional 36mm, today’s Explorer has stubbornly resisted the current trend for oversize watches and stayed sub-40 at 39mm.
The legend that started on top of the world shows no signs of stopping; the Explorer will always be the watch that conquered Everest.
The GMT-Master ref. 6542
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. WWII had been the first conflict to see aerial combat play a major role in total victory and the speed of aircraft development had been immense, as both allied and axis powers fought to maintain supremacy of the skies. While turbine engines had come too late to play a significant role in piloted aircraft, the jet-powered German V-1 and V-2 rockets had decimated London.
As the 1950s dawned, so did the jet age. The new engines opened up transcontinental routes, as airliners were able to fly much higher, faster and further than ever before.
Pan Am Airways
One side-effect of this revolution was the phenomenon of jet-lag. Passengers and crew alike struggled with the effects of travelling between different time zones. In an effort to help their pilots, Pan-American World Airways, known to you and me as Pan Am, approached Rolex with a request for a watch that could display both the local and home time simultaneously.
In 1954, Rolex obliged with the first of the GMT-Master series, the ref. 6542. It was an immediate hit with business travelers as well as professional aviators. The combination of a 24-hour hand and the two-tone bezel representing night and day were ideal tools. These helped combat the psychological strain of international travel.
The Popular Pepsi
Although that first reference had only a relatively short production cycle, they replaced it in 1959 by the long-running and hugely popular ref. 1675. Its distinctive looks, so different than anything that had come before, secured the GMT-Master’s reputation. They immediately nicknamed the blue and red color scheme ‘Pepsi’. Even today, it is still one of the most recognizable watches in Rolex’s catalog.
It was short-lived, thanks mainly to the need for crown guards and for the fragile Bakelite bezel to be swapped for an aluminum one. However, the ref. 6542 did find one superstar endorsement. In that greatest of all Bond movies, Goldfinger, the titular antagonist’s female pilot sports a ref. 6542 as she fights a losing battle against the super spy’s prodigious charms.
The first of the GMT-Master series, therefore, will forever be known as the Pussy Galore.
The Day Date ref. 6511
Until the mid-fifties, the Datejust had been considered Rolex’s flagship—a watch worn only by the privileged few, with its status cemented by its place on the wrists of such luminaries as Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1956 however, Rolex outdid themselves. As if to celebrate their rank as the most respected and aspirational watchmakers in the world, they released an unashamedly elitist new creation, a piece that symbolized success more than any other.
The Day Date was and is, for Rolex, a complicated watch. On its launch, the ref. 6511 became the first timepiece from any manufacturer to display both the day of the week written out in full as well as the date. The additional mechanics needed to facilitate all this led to an uncharacteristically bulky appearance for a dress watch, and the initial reference spent only about 12 months in production. Its ref. 6611 replacement was ostensibly identical but enjoyed a more svelte, slimmed down profile.
The Prestigious President
Regardless, the Day Date immediately became a must-have for those who shaped the destinies of companies or entire countries. Owning the most prestigious watch from the most prestigious watchmaker was seen as the ultimate statement of intent. Soon it was found at the head of every boardroom table in every size and shape of office—including oval.
The Day Date’s nickname, the President, was adopted after Lyndon Johnson officially became the first commander in chief to wear one in 1963. Technically, Kennedy had taken ownership of a yellow gold example, albeit briefly, 12 months before, when Marilyn Monroe presented one to him as a gift following her scandalous rendition of Happy Birthday Mr. President.
“JACK, with love as always from MARILYN”, it said on the back.
“Get rid of it”, said JFK to an aide.
The President Bracelet
While the President name has never been formally linked to the watch itself by Rolex, it was indeed the name the company gave to the bracelet specially designed for its launch. The semi-circular, three-link design of the President bracelet is a mixture of elements from the two other metal Rolex bands, combining the elegance of the Jubilee and the masculinity of the Oyster. It is an unmistakably luxurious addition to the brand’s premier watch, and is always fitted with the Crownclasp, giving it a seamless connection.
The Jewel In The Crown
The Day Date, like its bracelet, has only ever been crafted from platinum or 18k gold. Today, the vast choice of styles available reflect the different tastes of the President’s wide-ranging and diverse admirers. Everyone from heads of state to hip hop moguls wears Rolex’s finest with pride, and the Swiss giants accommodate their individual sensitivities with models of the utmost subtlety through to brash showstoppers dripping with gemstones of every color.
Whichever of the dozens of varieties it comes in, the President Day Date remains in the same position it has occupied for the last 60 years; as the absolute jewel in the crown’s crown.
The Submariner ref. 6204
Any list of the most important and popular watches, from any manufacturer of any decade, must include the Rolex Submariner.
The blueprint for virtually every dive watch that followed, it would be rude to say its design has been plagiarized by legions of competing brands; perhaps ‘emulated’ would be a kinder word.
Rolex already had a long history of creating waterproof watches by the time the first Sub put in an appearance. The revolution of the Oyster case had played a major role in propagating the wristwatch as a concept for men way back in 1926. Then in the 30s, they partnered with fellow Swiss maker Panerai in supplying timepieces to the Italian Navy.
Learning from these various experiences, and with the encouragement of Rolex director and keen amateur diver Rene-Paul Jeanerret, the early fifties saw the company set out to create a true tool watch to survive the trials of a life aquatic. And the Submariner ref. 6204 was the result.
Auguste and Jacques Piccard
True to form, Rolex had tested the prototype of the watch to the extremes. In 1953, father and son duo Auguste and Jacques Piccard set a world diving record when they took their bathyscaphe to a depth of 10,335 feet, with a specially made version of Rolex’s newest creation strapped to the hull. The watch, with the reference 6200, was functioning perfectly on its return to the surface.
A further marketing coo took place the same year when legendary underwater innovator Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a close friend of Jeanerret, wore one of the first models prominently in his Oscar-winning documentary The Silent World, about his adventures exploring the ocean depths.
So when the Sub made its debut at the 1954 Basel Watch Fair, it was already a highly sought after piece. It was the first watch to boast water resistance of 100m. The ref. 6204 was tough enough to satisfy those indulging in the popular new sport of SCUBA diving while, crucially, being stylish enough to wear to just about any occasion.
Today Most Iconic and Timeless
Pretty soon, it was the only watch to be seen with. Its discreet, minimalist design somehow spoke volumes, identifying wearers as men of both action and excellent taste. The first reference was in production for only a year. Subsequently, it set the basic DNA for every model that has since come along for the last 60 years.
Put a 6204 next to one of today’s range of Subs, and the similarities are glaring. That famous bezel may be made of ceramic now. The proportions have beefed up somewhat. But a 21st century Submariner is still recognizably a very close relative to the 1950s original. It is perhaps the most iconic and timeless watch design ever created.
Birth of the Milgauss
The 1950s was a golden era for Rolex, a decade when they could simply do no wrong. Together with the emblematic pieces we’ve looked at above, it also saw the birth of the Milgauss. This included its huge anti-magnetic resistance and the introduction of the Cyclops lens that magnified the date window in a number of their models.
Next week, we’ll groove into the sixties and the first sighting of Rolex’s fabled chronograph.
— Featured and Body Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.