Aspirational Vintage Rolex Timepieces
The 1950s had been a decade of incredible inventiveness and creativity for Rolex. It saw the Swiss giants bring us a series of watches that would become benchmarks. Not just for the brand itself, but for watchmaking in general. Names such as the Submariner, the President, and the GMT-Master represented the pinnacle of engineering excellence. These were among the most coveted and aspirational timepieces in production.
As the 1960s arrived, Rolex set about the process that has secured them as the most successful watchmakers on the planet to this day. They were persistent with their never-ending improvement of their already state-of-the-art designs.
The pace of change at Rolex is relentless. Their constant evolution in technology and performance saw the 1960s produce some of the most well-loved and collectible versions of their signature models.
But the decade also saw one more iconic watch launched on an unsuspecting public. It was the last all-new creation to emerge from the company for more than 30 years. And it was something very special indeed.
We’ll save that one till last, as we look at some of the most popular Rolex watches of 1960s.
The Submariner ref. 1680
Rolex’s relationship with the ocean goes back almost to the formation of the company. The Oyster became the first commercially viable waterproof case in the 20s, proving its worth on Mercedes Gleitze’s cross-channel swim. Buoyed by early successes, Rolex challenged itself to produce the ultimate companion for divers and all underwater explorers. The Submariner was the result.
By the time the ref. 1680 first appeared in 1969, the Sub had already been through several revisions following its 1953 debut. So what makes the 1680 so special?
To start with, it was the first of the series to feature a date function. They magnified the window at 3 o’clock by a Cyclops lens set into the Plexiglas crystal. To accommodate it, they replaced the caliber in the previous model, the Cal. 1570, by the Cal. 1575. This was identical in every way save for the new complication.
All About The Dial
However, what really sets the 1680 apart and makes it one of the most desirable of the early Subs and something of a gateway into the heady world of vintage Rolex collecting, is the dial.
For devotees, the dial is everything. In fact, a subtle feature of the text on the 1680’s face puts it near the top of the list for ardent fans. With the rest of the writing in traditional white, the name Submariner is picked out in red. It’s just a single line but it makes the 1680 a highly prized and cherished edition. It is known universally as the Red Submariner.
Although the reference was in production for 10 years, only the models released before 1973 featured the different color text. Also, their relative scarcity only added to their value. In addition, they released it with seven dial variations during its run. Each had just enough subtle distinctions to confuse all but the most obsessive.
Numbered Mark I to Mark VIII, they released two of the dial versions, II and III, simultaneously. Because of a manufacturing flaw, several of these earlier dials faded from black to brown, an imperfection so rare it makes them the holy grail for Submariner collectors.
Water Resistance to 200m
But beyond all the minutiae, the 1680 remained completely true to its pedigree. While it may have had the all-encompassing good looks that go with anything from business suit to jeans and t-shirt, it was still the ideal watch to accompany enthusiastic divers—with its rotatable bezel helping keep track of immersion time and its waterproof rating now upped to 200m.
Rolex produced their most successful and emulated creation in hundreds of different versions during its lifespan. However, the 1680 remains a standout example.
Sea-Dweller ref. 1665
Although the diving communities preferred the Submariner as the companion for those embarking on the new sport of recreational SCUBA diving, the professionals who made their living working at the fathomless depths of commercial saturation diving needed something more. A lot more.
In much the same way as Pan Am nearly 10 years previously, French deep-sea specialists Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises) partnered with Rolex in 1963 in the design of a watch able to withstand the rigorous demands of their profession.
With Comex’s crews needing to spend many hours deep underwater breathing helium-rich mixtures, the gas’s tiny molecules would penetrate the cases of their standard issue watches. These bubbles would expand rapidly upon ascent and the pent up pressure eventually blew out the watch’s crystals, often with significant force.
Helium Escape Valve
To combat the problem, Rolex devised the Helium Escape Valve, or HEV. This was a mechanism to allow the steady release of the gas before it caused any damage. Also, they retrofitted the first HEV to the ref. 5513 Submariner, renamed the 5514. This proved so successful for Comex it paved the way for the Sea-Dweller series.
The official name of the first reference, the 1665, was the Sea-Dweller Submariner 2000, alluding to the watch’s uprated water resistance of 2000ft. Like the Submariner ref. 1680 we looked at above, it garnered an unofficial nickname by picking its title out in red text on the dial, this time over two lines—the 1665 is known to collectors as the Double Red Sea-Dweller, or DRSD.
Double Red Sea Dweller (DRSD)
To further distinguish it from its smaller sibling, and leave no one in any doubt over its capabilities, the DRSD adopted a thicker case and a domed crystal to give an extra dimension of protection against the crushing pressures of deep sea operations.
In production until 1977, when it was replaced by the Great White, the Double Red also went through a number of variations. The first generation was only produced for a year and in severely limited numbers. Some estimated that not more than 100 were ever made. The ‘patent pending’ engraving on the case back, referring to the new HEV technology, is the easy way to spot these especially desirable rarities.
Although with a more niche audience than the all-conquering Submariner, the Sea-Dweller has proved extremely popular among Rolex fans. While the Sub has gone on to become almost a fashion statement, released in precious metal versions and with eccentric color schemes, the Sea-Dweller has doggedly remained a watch for serious professionals.
Strong enough to withstand practically anything, it is a hugely impressive example of fine watchmaking.
The Daytona ref. 6239
There was once a time when the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona didn’t exist. Even more unbelievably, there was also once a time when nobody wanted to buy one.
Rolex launched their current hottest property in the horology world in 1963. However, it was met with a huge collective shrug of indifference. Rolex dipped its toe into the world of the chronograph before, but they were relatively half-hearted attempts. The brand preferred the simplicity of the three-hand watch. Other manufacturers had been making chronographs better for longer.
But, much like their connection with the pioneers of underwater exploration, Rolex also had a long and fruitful association amongst those with an unquenchable thirst for speed.
Sir Malcolm Campbell
Sir Malcolm Campbell, the British land speed record holder, had become the first male sports testimonee for the company in the 30s, piloting his Bluebird racer to greater and greater feats, and wearing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual as he did so. He broke his own record on the hard packed sands at Daytona Beach, Florida a total of five times.
By 1962, they replaced the sands with a Super Speedway, and Rolex was sponsoring their annual 24-hour endurance race, an event as important in the motor racing calendar as the legendary Le Mans. To celebrate, Rolex launched their new flagship chronograph. The earliest examples actually featured the name Le Mans before it was changed to appeal to a larger American audience.
Manually-Winding Valjoux Movement
The initial reference, the 6239, debuted with a manually-winding Valjoux movement. They heavily modified it, particularly with the inclusion of Rolex’s own shock absorption system. Additionally, it stayed as the engine inside the Daytona until 1988. Then, Rolex replaced it with the watch’s first automatic caliber, the El Primero, from Swiss watchmaker Zenith.
And that was the problem. Manually-wound watches were becoming old fashioned even as the Daytona was making its entrance. As a result, dealers found themselves barely able to give the watch away. Examples that are now sold at auction for incredible sums sat gathering dust on shelves for years.
The Vintage Watch Market
By the late eighties, having to wind your watch daily was a relic of another time. It also was the introduction of the first automatic Daytona that opened the current frenzy. Credited with starting the vintage watch market as we know it today, the overwhelming popularity of the modern pieces sparked collectors to rediscover the earlier models.
The ref. 6239 became especially sought out. It was the genesis for the most popular chronograph in the world. Its efficient and clearly legible design and the simplicity of its operation have stayed the same for the last 50 years.
An original 6239 example is now one of the most desired classic watches among discerning collectors. Released in a number of variants, there is one particular style that stands head and shoulders above the rest, possibly the most valuable vintage timepiece it is possible to buy.
The exotic dial Daytonas, with their Art Deco motifs and multicolored dials were even more disliked on their release than the standard models. Today, they sell for figures that read like phone numbers. As a result, it is all down to their association with one man.
Movie legend Paul Newman was gifted an exotic dial ref. 6239 by his wife Joanne Woodward in 1972 to celebrate the start of his professional motor racing career. That reference, and five others with similar designs released in the years that followed, we will know forever as the Paul Newman Daytonas. If you have a spare $10m, you can bid on Newman’s original model as it goes under the hammer at auction in New York this year. During this time, the experts predicted it will become the most expensive Rolex ever sold.
The Daytona is an institution in the world of watchmaking. No longer merely the archetypal driver’s watch. It now transcended its speed king heritage to become a striking expression of status and success. The chronograph all others are compared to, it is possibly the most important sports watch ever made.
The 1960s were a decade of improvement and perfection for Rolex. Their stable was now full of timeless designs. Their brand continued to lead the way in pioneering technology. This ensured their creations stayed at the forefront of what was possible.
It is a philosophy they have followed ever since. It has also secured their reputation as the finest watchmakers in the world.