Rolex’s Most Affordable 2019
The range of price points across the Rolex portfolio is vast. At the very top end, it is possible to spend the kind of money that would buy you something very nice to drive, or even somewhere pretty nice to live.
However, it is by no means necessary to be among the 1% to secure yourself a model from the world’s most successful watchmaker. Far from it, in fact. There are some of the biggest names in the business at the most affordable end of the scale—iconic timepieces well within reach of more realistic budgets, but still held to the same uncompromising standards of design, precision and fastidious engineering prowess upon which the brand first made its name.
Below, we’ve listed some of the timepieces that are of Rolex’s most affordable current offerings as of March 2019.
1. Oyster Perpetual 36mm $5,400 (39mm $5,700)
For the sake of argument and conciseness, I’m going to stick with those watches traditionally targeted, dimensions-wise, at a male audience, as that is the fan base Rolex has long catered to the most.
The Oyster Perpetual family actually comes in five sizes in the modern lineup. The 26, 31 and even the 34mm are now touted more as ladies models, leaving the 36mm and the relatively new 39mm for the men. This all gets a bit blurry these days as more and more women wear bigger watches, but there we are.
Known as the entry level Rolex, it is as simple a timepiece as it is possible to get. No date function, no rotatable bezel, no chronograph—actually no bells and whistles of any kind. Instead, what you get for your $5,300 is three hands to tell you the time, controlled by a faultless Perpetual movement and protected by an Oyster case (if you were wondering where the name came from).
Effortlessly stylish and endlessly versatile, it is the watch you buy for one of two reasons; either as the first step along the way to amassing a collection, or because you want just one watch that will last forever and go with anything.
2. Air King $6,200
Historically, the Air-King has had almost as long a production run as the Oyster Perpetual. Released just after WWII as part of a series of ‘Air’ watches, it was made as Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf’s tribute to the heroics of Britain’s RAF pilots.
And just like the OP, it is a modest but elegant three-hand, no-dater, but with something of a party piece. Sharing both a movement and a case with the Milgauss (which we will come to later) its internal movement is actually shielded by a soft iron Faraday cage, protecting it from the effects of magnetic fields. With the cockpits of modern aircraft sources of high electromagnetic forces, the extra safeguard is vital for a watch intended for professional aircrew.
Unlike the Oyster Perpetual however, it is available in just one size, a very wearable 40mm, and in a single configuration; stainless steel and black dial, with perhaps the most legible face of any in the Rolex stable.
3. Explorer $6,550
It was the Explorer which really marked the start of the tool watch genre, a world Rolex would come to dominate over the following 60+ years.
Based on the standard Oyster Perpetual models worn by mountaineering legends Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay as they conquered Everest, it was released as an accolade to their incredible achievement.
The latest example is very similar to the 39mm Oyster Perpetual, sharing a bracelet, steel case and movement, the Cal. 3132 and, like the Air-King, is available in just one getup.
Perhaps the Explorer’s most recognizable feature is the celebrated 3/6/9 Arabic numerals on its black dial, a small distinction from the OP, but one that lends it a surprising amount of distinctive personality.
4. Datejust 36—$6,800 (41mm $7,450)
What is there to say about the Rolex Datejust? The model that did more than any other to set Rolex on the path to world domination, it was a revolution on its release in 1945.
The first automatic, waterproof wristwatch in the world to display a date function, it was and has forever been the most emblematic creation to ever emerge from the Geneva giants.
Like the Oyster Perpetual, it can be had in five different sizes. The 36mm has always been with us and is seen as the quintessential Rolex, joined by 34, 31 and 28mm examples in the current catalog. The recently introduced 41mm rounds out the group and has broadened the old warhorse’s appeal to a new and younger audience.
Coupled with that is the simply bewildering number of different connotations of dial color, metal, bracelet and bezel type, and you have one watch that can suit literally everyone.
No Rolex collection can be called complete without at least one Datejust; the definition of a legendary timepiece.
5. Submariner No-Date $7,500
Speaking of which…
Where the Datejust is the archetypal Rolex dress watch, it is the no-date Submariner that defines the essence of the brand’s professional models.
The diver by which all others have been judged since it arrived in 1953, it is the most emulated, copied and counterfeited watch in the world.
Its brilliance lies in its simplicity and the timelessness of its design. There is nothing in its minimalist aesthetics that can become dated as the generations go by, and the latest iteration looks, while not identical to the debut reference, similar enough for there to be no doubt where its origins lay.
But while the visuals may be comparable, it is still cutting-edge where it counts. The trademark bezel is now Rolex’s own Cerachrom, a fade-resistant and nigh-on unbreakable ceramic. The 40mm Supercase is forged from the insanely tough 904L stainless steel, what we now have to call Oystersteel. And although the Cal. 3130 may be celebrating its 20thbirthday this year, it has been subjected to the brand’s typically relentless incremental upgrades over its two decades.
A watch that could only have come from Rolex, there is nothing else quite like the Submariner.
6. Explorer II $8,100
Sharing a name but practically nothing else with the Everest watch, the Explorer II is one of the unsung heroes of the Rolex fleet.
Similar in function to the quintessential dual time zone watch, the GMT-Master, the Explorer II has always been somewhat in its shadow. It is actually something of an irony too, as it was designed precisely for people who spend most of their lives in the gloom.
With its extra hour hand and fixed engraved 24-hour bezel, it was released to cater to cave divers and those who venture out into the frozen wastelands of the Poles, where constant darkness makes losing track of night and day almost certain.
For most of its run it has had a movement in common with the GMT, only the most recent version being granted its own caliber, the Cal. 3187.
Although its lack of a rotating surround has made it more of an AM/PM indicator rather than a true travel companion, its strictly utilitarian character has garnered it a loyal cult following of late. It is one of those which has stuck closest to the true spirit of Rolex’s tool watch glory days and is all the more loved for it.
A tough, uncompromising bruiser of a piece, its day in the sun is just beginning.
7. Milgauss $8,200
Like the Explorer II, the Milgauss was aimed at a fairly narrow niche and has always stayed under the radar as a result. Debuting around the same time as illustrious names such as the Sub, the GMT-Master and the Day-Date didn’t help with sales much either.
The Milgauss was born to serve the needs of the world’s scientists at the dawning of the 1950s Atomic Age. The explosion in scientific research post-WWII brought with it new techniques and new equipment, leading to a new problem; electromagnetic radiation. The strength of these fields were more than enough to warp and even destroy the delicate components inside mechanical watch movements, and so Rolex’s solution, as we saw earlier with the Air-King, was to shroud the most susceptible parts inside a separate case.
While it worked particularly well, shielding the caliber from forces up to 1,000 gauss (giving the watch its name; millebeing the French for 1,000) it lost out in the glamor stakes to its compatriots.
Yet the contemporary models have proved extremely popular, thanks in large part to their atypical, for Rolex at least, use of color. Available in two variants, a black dial model and the much admired Z-Blue, with its electric blue face, both pop on the wrist with bright orange, lightning bolt seconds hands and hour indexes, under a distinctive green tinted sapphire crystal.
More daring than the monochrome tones of the Sub or Explorer, the Milgauss pair are for a new generation of Rolex fan.
8.Submariner Date $8,550
Although this may seem like a cheat seeing as we covered the Submariner already, the addition of a date function to the classic diver has split opinion so much since it first happened in 1966 that it can almost stand as its own entity.
In fact, as if adding the window at three o’clock wasn’t controversial enough among traditionalists, who argued a true tool watch had no need for such things, placing the Cyclops lens over the top was a step too far.
While there’s no denying that knowing the date is handy, and magnifying it makes it easier to read, some quarters thought it ruined the perfect symmetry of the dial. Whatever your opinion, the Submariner Date is the most popular iteration of the world’s favorite sports model, and has been released in a slew of different guises.
You can take your pick of white and yellow gold versions, as well as half-and-half Rolesor examples, giving us pieces with bezels and dials in blue, known colloquially as the Smurf, and green, nicknamed the Hulk.
But it is the classic steel black watch that is the most affordable of all, identical in every other respect bar a tweak to its caliber to its no-date sibling.
As sought after today as at any time in its long history, there is no better representative for the brand.
9.Yacht-Master 37mm Rolesium $11,050
While the Batman and Pepsi GMT-Master IIs fill the price gap between this and number 9, it is the Yacht-Master awarded last spot on the list as it signifies a different model. (Plus, best of luck getting yourself either of those other two at retail!)
The Yacht-Master was originally brought out as the more luxuriously appointed Submariner—a watch to be seen riding on top of the ocean waves rather than exploring below. But it managed to set itself apart by quietly pioneering several innovations.
It was the first of the sports collection to be offered in three sizes; the full 40mm, a mid-size 35mm and a ladies 29mm. It was the first model to feature a new metal combination, with a steel body topped by a platinum bezel, known as Rolesium. And it was the watch chosen to trial Rolex’s inaugural rubber strap, the Oysterflex.
These days the range has been reduced to two sizes, with the 29mm done away with altogether and the mid-size now coming in at 37mm.
And it is that model, in its Rolesium outfit, which is the most accessible.
Beautifully appointed, the precious metal bezel manages to stand out from the case and bracelet, even though similar in tone, with platinum’s unmistakable vibrancy shining through and adding a definite richness.
The dimensions, although considered on the small side for a contemporary man’s watch, don’t distract, and it retains the more elegant profile of older, pre-Supercase Subs.
Topped off with a dark rhodium dial, a cobalt blue title text and seconds hand give the monotone look a welcome snap of color and the whole thing is driven by one of Rolex’s newest generation of engines, the Cal. 2236.
The only watch to wear while striding across sumptuous teak decking, the Yacht-Master is one of the brand’s more recent triumphs.
— Featured Photo and Body Photo Credits: Rolex Archive.