Review: The Rolex Day-Date ref. 18238
Rolex weathered the quartz crisis of the 70s and 80s better than most. Their commitment to the utmost quality, coupled with the strength of their reputation enabled them to ride out the worst of it, while all around them their watchmaking compatriots were dropping like so many Swiss flies. However, there is evidence they were not completely immune to the effects and were called on to make at least some effort to keep their heads above water.
The most obvious is the two Oysterquartz watches released in 1977; extremely accomplished battery-powered models based on the Datejust and Day-Date.
But further proof can be found with how often they felt compelled to upgrade the mechanical versions of those same two dress pieces during the era.
The year the quartz watches emerged, Rolex also launched a new generation of both conventional models, driven by the ranges’ first high beat calibers. The series prior to that had been in production for over two decades but, perhaps with one eye on the precision of the new high tech electronics coming in from Japan and America, the brand decided to renew the movements again a mere 11-years later in order to ensure they remained as accurate as is possible with gears and springs.
So 1988 saw the introduction of the ref. 182XX family of the Day-Date, taking over from that relatively short lived ref. 180XX (and for the Datejust it was the ref. 162XX replacing the ref. 160XX). Externally, there was very little to tell one from the other and, in truth, their calibers shared far more similarities than differences too. The outgoing Cal. 3055 was superseded by the Cal. 3155, offering a few modernizations in performance, along with one very welcome extra convenience.
But by this point in its aesthetic development, the President was the President, its character and contours set in stone and its place as Rolex’s flagship unassailable. And the most classic interpretation of the Day-Date was the ref. 18238, a bold, brazen watch which was unmistakable in any company.
Below we take a look at this emblematic offering in a bit more detail.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18238 Metals and Bezels
The ref. 18238 was, as all Day-Dates up until 2008 were, available only in a 36mm case size. Typically that would have made it a man’s watch, but in recent times it is enjoying a role as more of a unisex offering. Tastes in dimensions have been on the increase for the last 20-years or so, but arguably, the ref. 182XX series was the last of the Presidents to have such a versatile appeal. The contemporary lineup has been given slightly chunkier lugs and is somewhat wider than previous iterations. The trimness of the ref. 18238, and its highly flexible President bracelet, means it is able to hug wrists of any size.
One thing which has never changed with the President line however is the range of metals from which it has been made. Underlining its status as the watch for the elite, stainless steel has never had a place in its history, only the three flavors of gold along with platinum on those particularly special occasions.
The ref. 18238 is forged from 18k yellow gold from head to toe, right down to the clasp. With the cushion-shape case and integrated end links on the bracelet, the watch gives the impression of wearing one continuous golden band. Finishing the design is a traditional fluted bezel, one of the oldest styles Rolex uses and perfect for the Day-Date, with its tooth-like facets catching the light on what is already a very noticeable timepiece.
In all, this is a model for those comfortable with standing out in a crowd and who appreciate the heritage of the brand.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18238 Movements
As we said at the beginning, the ref. 182XX generation of the Day-Date was released in order to introduce a new caliber. The Cal. 3155 was the double calendar version of the legendary Cal. 3135, a movement which, incredibly, is still powering the current Submariner date, some 30+ years after it debuted.
In fact, the Cal. 3155 itself was in service right up until 2019. It replaced the Cal. 3055, the mechanism which first brought the 28,800vph balance frequency, and its associated silky smooth seconds hand sweep, to the family.
With one notable exception, the differences between the 3055 and the 3155 are fairly negligible. The longstanding setup of a free-sprung Nivarox hairspring with Breguet overcoil, and a Microstella-regulated Glucydur balance wheel were all carried over. The escapement was now secured to a full balance bridge rather than a balance cock to aid with stability, but things like the power reserve stayed the same, at a reasonable 48-hours.
The big change though, and really the last great landmark moment for the Day-Date, was the inclusion of the Double Quickset.
The retiring Cal. 3055 had been what is known as a Single Quickset, giving the ability to set the date independently of the main hands by just winding the crown. The next obvious evolution was for the day of the week, in its 12 o’clock aperture, to be granted similar control. This is the Cal. 3155’s party piece. Pulling the crown out to its second position and turning it forwards advanced the date numeral in the three o’clock window, and twisting it backwards changed the day.
It is really Rolex at its best, making those small incremental, yet somehow vital, improvements to keep its products at the leading-edge of what can be done.
The extra complication bumped the jewel count up to 31 from 27, but somehow the Cal. 3155 is actually very slightly slimmer than its predecessor and measures 28.5mm by 6.0mm, losing about 0.3mm off its midriff.
COSC-certified, as you would expect, it remains accurate to within -4/+6 seconds a day.
One of the all-round greats from a brand not short on superb movements, the Cal. 3155 is an exceptional engine.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18238 Dials
Solid yellow gold Day-Dates are seldom bought by the world’s wallflowers. Recognizing that fact, Rolex issued the majority with the champagne dial, matching the case and bracelet in tone and attracting attention like no other. It is the quintessential look for the watch and the one found on the wrists of many actual presidents.
Toning down the look a little, black and white dials were also popular choices as were, to a lesser extent, silver and blue.
More unorthodox options can be found in examples sporting faces crafted from mother-of-pearl or other semiprecious stones, such as lapis lazuli. Each of these, by their nature, offered the appeal of being completely unique.
Other unusual, and fairly rare, variations include vignette dials, which feature a brighter central portion that darkens to black around the edges, or the Jubilee dial. These were originally introduced to the Datejust to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 1985 and have the Rolex brand name repeatedly monogrammed across the whole face. They were well enough received enough in the logo-fixated 80s to make it onto the Day-Date range as well and provide an attractive three-dimensional texture.
Hour markers come in either Roman or Arabic numerals or the standard plain stick batons. You will see plenty of diamond indexes too, with this reference being one of the top of the line models.
The ref. 182XX range started off with a choice of 24 languages for the day of the week display, rising to 25 by the end of production.
And covering it all is a sapphire crystal, complete with Cyclops; the former acrylic having been replaced during the previous generation’s run.
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18238 Bracelets
As it should be with the Day-Date, the ref. 18238 is most commonly found on the 18k yellow gold President bracelet from where the watch takes its nickname. Featuring three staggered semicircular links, it is widely accepted as the finest of Rolex’s trio of metal bands, with all the strength of the Oyster and the suppleness and comfort of the Jubilee.
The outer, brushed links are solid, as are the end links, while the center links are polished and hollow. Fixing it all is the renowned Crownclasp, providing an invisible closure with just the Rolex coronet marking the break point.
In 2000 the range was renewed again, changing to the ref. 118XXX series which brought with it an uprated bracelet with all solid links as well as a new version of the clasp, with a hook-and-beak fastening. It also added a certain amount of weight because of the extra gold in use, so the band fitted to the ref. 18238 fits nicely in the middle ground of being both sturdy and secure as well as lighter on the wrist.
Another option provided was a selection of leather straps with special end pieces. These could make a huge difference to the overall look of the watch, leaving it significantly more discreet and unassuming than with all that gold.
By this stage in the Day-Date’s development, lug holes had been phased out, so swapping and changing bracelets became a little more involved.
Perhaps the ultimate in status symbols, the Rolex Day-Date is as big a statement as you will find anywhere in the industry. The ref. 18238, in its all yellow gold, is like wearing a solid ingot and is a definite attention-grabber.
Its good looks are matched only by its engineering prowess, and the watch is powered by a movement deemed good enough, even by the manufacturer’s own uncompromising standards, to remain in service for 30-years.
Best yet, examples in great condition are still available for under $20,000—which, for a model sitting at the top of the tree from the world’s most successful watchmaker, seems highly reasonable.