Review: The Rolex Date ref. 1501
Even if you had very little interest in horology, chances are you would recognize the Rolex Datejust, if not by name then at least by sight.
One of the most famous watch series ever made, it was the first to marry together an automatically winding movement and a date function inside a waterproof case. These days, it is still as illustrious as ever, some seven decades after its release.
But there is a version of the Datejust which is almost as old that has never received anything like the same kind of attention. Practically indistinguishable in every respect bar the case size and some of the bezel styles it has long been the underdog, even though, it could be argued, shaving a couple of millimeters off its dimensions gives it a wider potential audience.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date was first launched in 1950, five years after its larger sibling, and measured just 34mm against the Datejust’s 36mm.
The Date’s dimensions weren’t particularly small for a man’s watch of the era, being the same as Rolex’s Air-King range. Today however, modern trends mean they are more suited to men with slender wrists, and are also finding an enthusiastic fan base among women. Although 2mm doesn’t sound like much, it can make a big difference.
The ref. 15XX family arrived in 1962 with the Date ref. 1500, and a year later it was joined by the ref. 1501. Fitted with an uncommon style of bezel, one no longer produced by Rolex, it was produced in lower numbers, making an already relatively rare watch even rarer. But it still stands as a highly affordable vintage purchase and a great investment.
Read on below for more details.
Rolex Date ref. 1501 Metals and Bezels
Even though the Rolex Date watches have always been somewhat in the shadow of the Datejust, they were still issued with plenty of variety. The 15XX series was given to yellow gold models, in both 14k and 18k, as well as Rolex’s own gold and steel blend known as Rolesor, and all stainless steel. The number ref. 1501 was actually used for watches in all those metal types, with Rolex’s referencing system being far less regimented back in the day than it is now.
Topping it off is an engine-turned bezel which, on the ref. 1501, features raised tabs at the hour markers with hash marks in-between. This engine-turned bezel can be found on various vintage Rolexes, in differing designs. For example, on the comparable Datejust of the same era, the ref. 1603, it bears a strong resemblance to the traditional fluted style still used today. The brand likely used dissimilar varieties to avoid any confusion between the two series.
The bezel adds a welcome touch of vintage flamboyance, the detailing adding a beautiful radial effect that catches the light and draws the eye.
Engine turned bezels were gradually phased out by Rolex and were no longer used by 2005. Interestingly, it was the modern Date model which was the last to have one.
Rolex Date ref. 1501 Movements
The Date ref. 15XX series was only the second generation of the watch, taking over from the original ref. 6534. As is the way at Rolex, the primary reason for the new reference was to accommodate an updated caliber, in this case going from the Cal. 1035 of the initial run to the Cal. 1565—the engine which had been driving the four-digit Datejusts since 1959.
It represented a major reworking over the older mechanism, introducing both the cam and jewel arrangement that produced the instantaneous midnight change to the date, as well as the Microstella screw system which made regulation far easier.
Both the outgoing and incoming movements had an 18,000vph frequency however, producing a five tick per second beat.
But in 1965, shortly into the ref. 1501’s run, the caliber was swapped again for the Cal. 1575, similar in virtually every way save for a faster balance speed of 19,800vph. This uptick gave an increase in timekeeping precision as well as stability overall.
A hacking function was added in 1972, granting the wearer the ability to stop the seconds hand by pulling out the crown, to help set the time more accurately.
The ref. 15XX range would keep the Cal. 1575 up until when the watches received Rolex’s first true high beat caliber, the Cal. 3035, working away at 28,800vph; the now standard rate across the whole portfolio.
Unlike several vintage models from the period, such as the Air-King and Oysterdate, the Rolex Date only ever had chronometer-rated movements, but neither the Cal. 1565 or Cal. 1575 possessed a Quickset. The feature that allows for independent control over the date in the three o’clock window first arrived with the Cal. 3035, meaning to advance the day of the month on the ref. 1501, it was necessary to wind the main hands through 24-hours.
Rolex Date ref. 1501 Dials
With the ref. 1501 cast in so many different metal types, the dials with which it was issued are also especially varied.
The models with yellow gold, either solid or the two-tone Rolesor, are most commonly fitted with the champagne dial, its tones matching the case exactly.
Elsewhere, you are likely to find faces in black, white, silver and grey, particularly on the stainless steel pieces. Hour markers and hands are similarly unassuming, with the usual options of Roman or Arabic numerals or plain stick batons.
On the preowned market, though, there are many examples which have been customized, which is something that happens fairly often with the most affordable Rolex pieces.
Here you can have dials of just about any color, and many with diamond accents on the indexes. If one of these takes your fancy, it is important to remember that you will have to hunt out your own maintenance center to service the watch as Rolex considers any piece not in its absolute original condition to be a counterfeit, but these facilities are easy enough to find.
There were also a number of limited edition models of the ref 15XX series, those cobranded with the logos of various organizations as gifts for retiring executives, or else with the emblems of a number of military forces across the world. However, it was most often the smooth bezel ref. 1500 used for this type of thing, with the engine turned surround of the ref. 1501 deemed a little too unusual, so finding a vintage example of the watch with one of these special dials is a real rarity.
Another scarce variant are the Sigma dials. In the 1970s, Rolex began using 18k gold for hands and hour markers, both for its non-corroding properties compared to the previous steel, and also to add a touch of opulence. To subtly advertise the fact, the brand added a tiny (σ) symbol, the Greek letter Sigma, at the very bottom of the dial, mainly on their steel watches, as a way to distinguish between the metal used on the case and bracelet and the white gold detailing. They had stopped including the symbol by the 80s, meaning these variants are especially uncommon and sought after.
And covering the dial on all models of this vintage is a Plexiglass acrylic crystal, the modern sapphire still being some way off.
Rolex Date ref. 1501 Bracelets
You would normally most associate the Rolex Date with the intricate five-link Jubilee, the bracelet created especially for its bigger brother, the Datejust, back in 1945. And there are certainly plenty out there fitted with it, but because of the down-to-earth nature of the ref. 1501, there are just as many wearing the far simpler three-link Oyster. They are each considered to be excellent bands, offering a great amount of comfort and security, with the Jubilee bringing a little more formality and sophistication and the Oyster adding a tool watch air. We are still in the days before all solid links though, with those in the center on both types being hollow, so they are not as heavy as their modern day equivalents. Older examples may also exhibit a slight stretch.
And this is also the last generation of the watch to all have lug holes on the case, something that Rolex started to scale back with the next iteration.
The Rolex Date is a strangely overlooked entry in the brand’s catalog, more or less exactly the same as the all-conquering Datejust, but slightly smaller.
The ref. 1501 is an especially interesting and charmingly nostalgic piece, fitted with elements not made anymore, in its engine turned bezel and plastic crystal.
It and the others in the series make ideal purchases as either an entry into Rolex collecting or for those looking for the one watch that will last them a lifetime, and it looks as well on a male or female wrist.
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