Review: The Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038
Released in 1977, the Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 is recognized as one of the best value propositions of any in the watch’s long history.
As an older model, it has become more affordable on the preowned market but it manages the tricky task of marrying both vintage charm and modern day functionality.
The first of the five-digit references, it took over from the ref. 1803, a highly popular and well-respected example which had been around since the end of the 50s. And, as so often happens with Rolex’s updates to pieces which have had their aesthetics nailed down for some time, the biggest changes between the two lay on the inside.
It introduced an all-new movement, one that came with a higher frequency, adding to the timekeeping accuracy and overall resilience. What’s more, the inclusion of a Quickset feature made operating the brand’s flagship that bit easier and more convenient.
Elsewhere though, there really was no reason to start making too many alterations. The Day-Date, otherwise known as the President for its association with the world’s elite (both famous and infamous), had set itself as the Rolls Royce of timepieces from its earliest appearance. The first automatic, waterproof wristwatch to have both a date aperture and a day of the week display written out in full, it had become the immediate go-to for those who stalked the corridors of power.
A true statement piece, especially in the ref. 18038’s glowing yellow gold, it has remained the ultimate dress watch.
Below we take a look in a bit more depth.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 Metals and Bezels
On this watch, as with every iteration of the Day-Date, there is no stainless steel anywhere to be found. Since day one the President has been an exclusively precious metal creation; all three flavors of gold, as well as platinum on rarer and even pricier occasions.
Head to toe, the ref. 18038 is cast in 18k yellow gold—not something ever likely to go by the description understated, but at 36mm it is by no means overpowering either. Nevertheless, this is a watch to draw attention, bordering on the flashy, and it earned itself another nickname in the mid-80s. With more Rolex watches being sold in the oil-rich Lone Star State than any other in the country, the solid gold Day-Date became known as the Texas Timex.
Similarly to its predecessor, the 3 in the reference number indicates the watch is fitted with a fluted bezel, an option on the brand’s models which dates back almost to the very beginning. It is a perfectly suited addition, with the tooth-like angles catching the light beautifully. There were, of course, other types released at or around the same time; the ref. 18028 had a smooth surround, for instance, while the ref. 18048 was hand set with 44 round brilliant cut diamonds. And the ref. 18078 was given an unusual tree-bark finish, very much of its time, that was echoed along the center links of the bracelet.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 Movements
The ref. 18038 was the first reference of the fourth generation Day-Dates to be issued, and as such it had the honor of debuting an all-new caliber. The Cal. 3055 superseded the outgoing Cal. 1556, bringing with it two vital improvements.
To begin with, the balance frequency earned a substantial increase, going from the previous 19,800vph up to the now standard 28,800vph. It gives Rolex’s trademark sweep to the seconds hand as well as providing the watch with a greater accuracy and more shock protection.
And secondly, it brought the Quickset feature that allowed wearers to advance the date with the crown independently of the main hands. However, to alter the day of the week in the 12 o’clock window it was still necessary to wind the hands through 24-hours. For that reason, the caliber is sometimes referred to as a ‘single quick’; it would take the introduction of its replacement, the Cal. 3155 in 1988, before both calendar displays got the function.
Beyond those two developments though, much was carried over from the Cal. 1556. The Microstella regulating system, Nivarox hairspring and Glucydur balance wheel were all retained, but the jewel count went from 26 to 27 and the inclusion of a fast rotating barrel upped the power reserve to 48 hours over the previous 42.
Although the ref. 180XX series of the President didn’t have a production run as long as some in the series, being retired after 11-years, the movement it used would only need to be evolved gently from the Cal. 3055. Rolex had found their winning formula and the next truly major change to the Day-Date’s caliber only came about as recently as 2015 with the introduction of the Chronergy escapement.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 Dials
While the Day-Date’s entirely precious metal makeup brought about a price range that inherently limited its customer base, Rolex always recognized that those wanting one still had some very diverse tastes. To accommodate as many as possible, the watch was issued with a wide array of different faces, ranging from the discreet and unassuming to the wildly grandiose.
The classic pairing with an 18k yellow gold President was, and is, the champagne dial. Matching the tone of the case and bracelet exactly, it is a bit like wearing a solid gold ingot on the wrist and is a definite symbol of luxury and affluence.
Elsewhere, the usual suspects of black and white subdued the whole thing a touch, but only relatively speaking. The ref. 18038 is a watch designed to be noticed, regardless of its dial color.
For those not so concerned with hiding their lights under any bushels, options were plentiful. Looks could range from the standard flat coloring in just about any shade, the one-offs of mother-of-pearl, semiprecious stones or wood burl, interesting Vignette dials, featuring a bright color in the center blending to black at the edges, all the way through to the so-called Stella models. These fairly short lived pieces, intended mainly for the Middle East market, were fitted with blindingly vivid dials in orange, turquoise, pink, green and a host of others. They had actually originated on the ref. 1803 and were phased out with this reference, but they are still pretty easy to find and offer a huge shakeup to the Day-Date’s usually conservative demeanor.
As for hour markers, the customary mix of stick batons or Roman and Arabic numerals are widely available but, with this being a watch representing the height of opulence, many examples have diamond-accented indexes.
A couple of differences between this reference and the former 1803 can be found in the shape of the dial itself. On the 18038, the face is completely flat, as opposed to the previous pie-pan style, and the number of languages the day of the week was written in increased significantly. The 1803 had only 11 dialects, whereas this piece was originally given 24, rising to 25 around 1984.
And making its debut, a sapphire crystal replaced the domed acrylic of all its predecessors which, together with the introduction of a Twinlock crown on the case, gave the Day-Date a water resistance of 100m for the first time.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 Bracelets
Unlike the Datejust, which offered a choice of the Jubilee or Oyster, the Day-Date was only ever released on its eponymous bracelet, the President. Little side fact, the watch itself has never officially been called The President by Rolex, it just adopted that nickname after becoming associated with various heads of state, starting with Eisenhower. The bracelet however, a three-semi-circular linked beauty, is formally called the President. So now you know!
It is a perfect counterpart to the watch, wonderfully supple and with a lovely contrast between the polished center links and brushed outers, and it came with the now iconic Crownclasp. Actually presented in 1969, it means the whole fastening is concealed apart from a Rolex coronet, offering a seamless profile all the way round.
The end links on the ref. 18038’s bracelet were solid, while the links of the bracelet were hollow, and all of them were 18k gold as on the rest of the watch. Older models will likely have a certain amount of stretch.
The Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 can almost be thought of as a transitional reference, in that it brought with it a host of improvements but wasn’t in production for a particularly long time. By 1988 it’s race was run, replaced by a new generation that was very much an evolution rather than a radical overhaul.
It has left the ref. 18038, a watch once at the top of the Rolex price list, well within reach of those with more realistic budgets. Now, excellent examples can be had for less than five figures.
At 36mm, it can be thought of as a little small for modern tastes, but interestingly, more and more women have taken to wearing them, turning the President into a true unisex option.
An absolute legend of a watch, the Day-Date deserves a place in any collection.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.