Rolex Developments, Introductions, and Innovations in the 1950s
The 1950s was a key decade for Rolex. It was during this 10-year span that Rolex introduced some of its most famous models and laid the foundation for future success by developing robust, practical, and high-quality watches. In this article, we will be outlining the models, metal styles, and key references introduced in the 1950s.
New Rolex Models Introduced in the 1950s
There is no decade that comes close to the 1950s for new Rolex models. This was a time that Rolex launched a slew of watches to serve a host of different audiences from adventures and divers to pilots and engineers to elite men and privileged women.
Rolex Launched The Explorer in 1953
Right off the heels of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic ascent to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, Rolex unveiled the Explorer watch later that year. It was a watch not only to honor the momentous mountaineering feat but also as a practical tool for avid adventurers and explorers everywhere.
Accordingly, the Rolex Explorer was crafted to be a solidly built watch in stainless steel, provide a highly legible time-only dial readable in almost any type of environment, and water resistant to withstand rough expeditions.
The Explorer remains in Rolex’s catalog until today. Despite the watch having undergone several design tweaks over the years—such as a larger case and a more luxurious dial execution—the fundamental look of the watch has stayed true. The Explorer is still a time-only watch, retains its signature 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals on the dial, and is exclusively made in stainless steel.
Rolex Launched The Turn-O-Graph in 1953
A lesser-known model in the Rolex realm is the Turn-O-Graph, which was first released in 1953. Despite its relative obscurity, the introduction of the Turn-O-Graph is a vital one in Rolex’s history as it paved the way for the company’s fleet of tool watches that would soon follow.
The Turn-O-Graph was the first serially-produced Rolex watch to feature a rotatable bezel, which turned out to be a very practical addition to a watch. Since the bezel was calibrated to 60 units and could rotate, the watch could be used as a timing device without the need for a complicated (and expensive) chronograph function. Even the United States Air Force Thunderbirds (an elite air demonstration squadron) opted for the Rolex Turn-O-Graph as their official watch—which explains why this particular model is sometimes called the Rolex Thunderbird.
The Turn-O-Graph has seen several iterations throughout its somewhat shaky history. It went from a robust tool watch to a dressy watch with rotating bezel, but it never really found its foothold within the Rolex catalog. Consequently, Rolex eventually stopped producing the Turn-O-Graph.
Rolex Launched The Submariner in 1953
It wasn’t just land explorers that Rolex was interested in during the 1950s, but also those adventurers that explored our underwater worlds. So in 1953, Rolex unveiled the Submariner watch dedicated to the burgeoning scuba diving crowd.
As a purposely-built diver’s watch, the Submariner featured a stainless steel case and bracelet for durability, a rotating bezel marked to 60 units to record immersion times, a luminous time-only dial for underwater legibility, and a water depth rating of 100 meters.
Over the years, Rolex greatly enhanced the Submariner watch by improving its water resistance, spawning an offshoot Submariner Date collection, increasing its case size, and most recently, adding a ceramic bezel. Today, the Submariner is Rolex’s flagship sports watch—and the world’s most famous diver’s watch—available in a range of metals, colors, and price points.
Rolex Launched the Date in 1955
In the mid-1950s, Rolex presented a new model dubbed the Oyster Perpetual Date. Although very similar in style to the Datejust that made its debut a decade prior, the Rolex Date features a slightly smaller 34mm Oyster case rather than the 36mm size of the men’s Datejust.
Available in steel, gold, and two-tone, some of the early Oyster Perpetual Date references from the 1950s include the Date ref. 6530 with a smooth bezel, Date ref. 6535 with an engine-turned bezel, and the Date ref. 6537 with a fluted bezel. There’s also the Rolex ref. 6518, which can have “Oyster Perpetual Date” or “Oysterdate Perpetual” on the dial.
Rolex Launched The GMT-Master in 1955
The 1950s was also the golden age of travel with commercial airlines flying further and longer than ever before. This also meant that pilots were constantly traveling across different time zones and needed a watch to help keep track of it all. As such, Pan Am airlines asked Rolex to develop a pilot’s watch with the explicit requirement of dual time capabilities. And in 1955, the Rolex GMT-Master was born.
To display two different time zones simultaneously, the GMT-Master watch had two hour hands on the dial; one for local time and one for reference time. Reference time (which for pilots was typically Greenwich Meridian Time, hence the GMT name) was read off the rotating 24-hour bezel. The two colors of the luminous Bakelite bezel served to differentiate between A.M. and P.M. since numbers on the red side represented daytime hours and numbers on the blue side represented nighttime hours. The red and blue GMT-Master bezel is commonly referred to as the Pepsi bezel.
Since the inception of the GMT-Master, Rolex has significantly improved the pilot’s watch collection with a bevy of material, bezel, and bracelet options. Furthermore, the collection eventually evolved into the GMT-Master II collection, where a third time zone could be tracked.
Rolex Launched The Day-Date in 1956
Rolex did not only focus on Professional Oyster watches in the 1950s, but also added an important dress watch model during the same era. It was in 1956 that Rolex presented the first Day-Date watch, which as its name implies, includes a pair of calendar windows on the dial to indicate the day of the month and the day of the week.
From the beginning, Rolex positioned the Day-Date as the brand’s signature status watch and even debuted a brand new bracelet style called the President bracelet. As a result, the Day-Date is often referred to as the Rolex President—a nickname that became even more relevant since the watch is favored by global politicians, captains of industry, and famous celebrities.
From the duo of apertures on the dial to the precious metal (gold or platinum) construction to the semi-circular links on the bracelet, Rolex has stuck to the essential design traits of the Day-Date President throughout the years. There have been some variations, such as different bracelet choices and larger case sizes but the Rolex President is still instantly recognizable as the ultimate symbol of success.
Rolex Launched The Milgauss in 1956
Yet another audience Rolex was looking to create a watch for in the 1950s was the scientific community. Due to the nature of their jobs, doctors, scientists, engineers, and the like spent plenty of time in magnetic fields. And if there’s one thing that can impair a watch movement, it is magnetism. Therefore, Rolex set out to develop an antimagnetic watch and in 1956, the Milgauss made its debut.
Named after the French word for thousand (mille) and the unit of measurement used to measure magnetism (gauss), Rolex built the Milgauss watch to be resistant to 1,000 gauss. This was achieved thanks to a ferromagnetic alloy shield protecting the mechanical movement inside the case. The exterior of the watch consisted of a steel case, a steel bracelet, a black rotating bezel, and a dial with a quirky lightning bolt-shaped seconds hand.
The Milgauss has undergone quite a few modifications (Rolex even stopped making for a while) over the last six decades and today’s version looks quite different to the maiden model. But what is still present on current Milgauss watches are the 1,000 gauss resistance rating, the stainless steel construction, and the distinct lightning bolt-shaped seconds hand.
Rolex Launched the Lady-Datejust in 1957
To accompany the men’s Datejust watch that made its debut in 1945, Rolex revealed the Lady-Datejust in 1957. While it was smaller in size, the Lady-Datejust preserved the essential traits of the men’s Datejust model, such as the date window, the Cyclops magnification lens, the chronometer-certified automatic movement, and the impressive water resistance.
The Lady-Datejust went on to become Rolex’s top-selling model. This women’s Rolex watch is offered in a varied assortment of metals and sizes—not to mention all the different bezel styles, bracelet types, and dial colors and/or finishes available to choose from.
New Metal Options Introduced in the 1950s
In addition to introducing many new watch models in the 1950s, Rolex also began offering existing models in new metal options.
Rolex Introduced Pink Gold, Two-Tone, and Steel Datejust Models in the 1950s
When Rolex debuted the Datejust in 1945, it was exclusively available in yellow gold. In the 1950s, Rolex began making the Datejust in a variety of metals including pink gold, two-tone steel and gold, and full stainless steel. This metal variety continues until today, as the Datejust is the most diverse Rolex collection in terms of metal choices. It’s also worth mentioning that in the mid-1950s, Rolex added the now-ubiquitous protruding Cyclops lens to the Datejust’s crystal to magnify the date window.
Gold GMT-Master Models
The first GMT-Master model was the ref. 6542 and Rolex made most examples in stainless steel with a red and blue bezel. Rolex also made very few examples of the GMT-Master ref. 6542 in yellow gold with brown bezels and in white gold with Pepsi bezels (nicknamed the Albino).
However, in the late 1950s, Rolex released a new reference of the GMT-Master. And along with the standard steel edition (ref. 1675), there was also a yellow gold version (ref. 1675/8)—which was much more widely available than the previous gold GMT-Master models.
New Rolex References Introduced in the 1950s
Not only did the 1950s bring about new Rolex models and new metal options, but several collections also had new references join the lineup.
New Rolex Oyster Perpetual References Launched in the 1950s
In the late 1950s, Rolex launched a new time-only movement in the form of Caliber 1560. As such, Rolex launched a new batch of 34mm Oyster Perpetual references to house the new movement carrying the references 100x. In true Rolex fashion, this set of Oyster Perpetual references was made in a wide array of metals such as stainless steel, gold, and two-tone configurations, along with a slew of bezel choices.
The Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002 had smooth bezels, Oyster Perpetual ref. 1003 and ref. 1007 had engine-turned bezels, and Oyster Perpetual ref. 1005 had fluted bezels. The Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1008 was a special model fitted with the so-called Zephyr dial characterized by a cross-hair pattern that divides the dial into four different parts.
New Air-King Reference Launched in the 1950s
In 1957, Rolex presented the Air-King ref. 5500. This new version of the Air-King would go on to be one of the longest-running models in Rolex’s catalog, produced for almost four decades. The watch remained largely unchanged throughout its manufacturing period, which is to say it is a time-only stainless steel Rolex, sporting a 34mm Oyster case, smooth bezel, and Oyster bracelet. The dial of the Air-King ref. 5500 is characteristically understated and inside the case is either Caliber 1520 or 1530. While most Air-King ref. 5500 are in stainless steel there are some two-tone and gold versions too.
Rolex launched a few other variations of the ref. 55xx Air-King during the era, including two-tone Air-King 5501 with a fluted bezel, the gold shell Air-King ref. 5520, the slightly larger 35mm Air-King ref. 5504, and the Air-King Date ref. 5700.
New Rolex Datejust References Launched in the 1950s
In the early 1950s, Rolex released the Datejust ref. 6305, available in an assortment of metals. (Fun fact: President Dwight D. Eisenhower wore his full yellow gold Datejust 6305 on the cover of Life Magazine in 1952). While very early examples of the Datejust ref, 6305 did not include the Cyclops, examples that were released in 1954 and after all came equipped with the new magnification lens on their crystals.
In 1957, Rolex released yet another new reference, the Datejust ref. 6605, with a new movement. The slimmer structure of the new caliber allowed the Datejust watch to have a flatter caseback.
New Rolex Submariner References Launched in the 1950s
Following the inaugural Submariner ref. 6204 in 1953, Rolex released a stack of other Submariner references that very same decade. There was the Submariner ref. 6205 with Mercedes-style hands to replace the previous pencil-style hands. Then there were the “Big Crown” Submariner references—ref. 6200, ref. 6538, and ref. 5510—with increased water resistance to 200 meters.
In contrast, the “Small Crown” Submariner ref. 6536, ref. 6536/1, and ref. 5508 models still had a 100 m water depth rating, but came fitted with different calibers than the first Submariner. And finally, at the end of the 1950s, Rolex unveiled the Submariner ref. 5512, which was the first Sub to have crown guards and a slightly larger case.
New Rolex GMT-Master References Launched in the 1950s
As previously mentioned, Rolex released the then-new GMT-Master ref. 1675 reference in the late 1950s to replace the maiden ref. 6542. The GMT-Master ref. 1675 brought about some key changes to Rolex’s pilot watch. First, the Bakelite bezel was replaced with an aluminum one since the previous material proved to be too fragile for a tool watch. Second, the ref. 1675 introduced crown guards to the GMT-Master to improve the watch’s robustness by protecting the delicate winding crown. Finally, the new 1675 reference was also equipped with a fresh movement, Caliber 1565 (which would be replaced again in the 1960s).
That wraps up our tour of 1950’s Rolex, but stay tuned for our in-depth look at what Rolex introduced in the 1960s.
— Featured Photo and Body Photo Credits: Beckertime’s Archive.