Rolex Tool Watches And Their Original Roles
One of the many many areas of dispute among the watch collecting fraternity centers on the, ‘who invented the tool watch?’ debate.
The more stubbornly traditionalist members will often point to the Flieger models built for the German Luftwaffe in the Second World War as the earliest examples, or even the initial chronograph stopwatches made by Breitling and others from the 1910s onwards.
But, if we are talking about modern tool watches, it is hard to argue about it all originating over at Rolex.
From the 1950s up to the end of the ‘60s, the brand unleashed an entire swathe of world beating models designed to do more than tell the time, or at least, carry on telling the time in incredibly inhospitable conditions.
With them, they conquered land, sea and air, providing professionals and hobbyists alike with a reliable, robust and stylish companion.
However, by the end of the 1960s, Rolex had changed tack. While the watches themselves were still as superbly made as they had always been, and only getting better with time, they were being seen more as status symbols than pieces of vital equipment. Solid yellow gold divers began appearing, along with similarly extravagant models for both pilots and race car drivers.
The corresponding hike in prices meant that, even though the watches themselves were as capable as ever, it would be either a very brave, very rich or very foolish person who used them for their intended function.
These days, Rolex’s Professional Collection are tool watches in name only. The company’s focus since the end of the quartz crisis in the ‘80s has been to reposition themselves as the ultimate lifestyle brand. Although many of the pieces look similar to the references which started it all, owners still employing them in their original roles are minimal to say the least.
We’re not that prone to sentimentality over these things, but even so, we thought we would take a look back at just why many of these pieces came into being in the first place.
So below, we have listed Rolex’s watches that used to have a job to do.
The Rolex Explorer
Arguably the first tool watch to emerge from Rolex, the Explorer had its start on the highest peak on Earth.
The brand had sponsored eight unsuccessful attempts on Everest’s summit by the time Hillary and Norgay finally triumphed on 29th May 1953. On the pair’s wrists were two Oyster Perpetuals, issued by Rolex on the condition they would be returned for research purposes after the ascent. They would go on to form the basis for the Explorer, a model which has stayed in production ever since.
Yet, apart from the characteristic and highly readable 3/6/9 dial, the watch had no real special talents to justify the name. The earliest references could be ordered with a new type of low viscosity lubricant designed to perform in extreme sub-zero temperatures (in case customers fancied a crack at the mountain themselves) but other than that, this was just a simple, starkly beautiful, three-handed timepiece.
In truth, that is what it has stayed. One of the few to resist the allure of precious metals or diamond hour markers, the Explorer was only a stainless steel model until 2021, and one of the closest we still have to a true Rolex tool watch.
The Rolex Submariner
Probably Rolex’s best known creation, and unquestionably the most famous luxury dive model ever made, the Submariner is where many believe the term ‘tool watch’ was born.
Built to cater to the explosion in popularity of recreational Scuba diving after WWII, the Sub can name the legendary underwater pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau among its collaborators.
Commercially available from 1954, it not only brought over the rotating bezel concept from the previous year’s Turn-O-Graph, it was also the first watch rated as waterproof down to the magic number of 100m.
Those two factors put the Submariner in a league of its own as far as being the ideal dive watch was concerned; the case was strong enough to withstand any environment and the 60-minute engraved scale on the turnable surround provided the easiest and most reliable way to keep track of elapsed time.
The appeal was instant, and the Sub was a success from the beginning, its reputation not hurt in any way by becoming James Bond’s timepiece of choice over several movies.
But for some people, the model started to erode its tool watch status the moment the ref. 1680 arrived at the end of the 1960s. The first example with a date display, it was clearly set up to be a luxury watch rather than full-blooded sports model, with divers having very little need of knowing what day of the week it is while exploring the undersea world.
The range split from then on, with both date and no-date examples, the former released in all sorts of golden finery, while the latter remained in steel only.
Even so, with prices now starting from the $8,000 mark for the base, no-date piece, there aren’t many willing to risk them aboard the average dive boat.
The Rolex GMT-Master
Because it was originally designed to cater to the long-haul airlines of the 1950s, during the Golden Age of aviation and all its associated glamor, the GMT-Master can be forgiven more than most for crossing the divide into status symbol territory.
The collaboration with Pan Am Airlines was intended to help crew and passengers stave off some of the more debilitating effects of jetlag, with an additional hour hand and another type of rotatable bezel (this time marked with a 24-hour scale) allowing wearers to monitor a second time zone. Doing so meant they could mentally prepare themselves for whatever hour it might be in their eventual destination.
Almost as big a hit as the Submariner on its release, the GMT-Master was actually the first Rolex sports watch to be issued in a gold version, with the debut ref. 6542, from about 1958 onwards.
Today, it is to pilot’s watches what the Sub is to dive watches, with a legacy of luxuriousness that does nothing to distract from the brilliance of its original concept.
The Rolex Daytona
Rounding out the most famous and iconic trio of ‘tool’ watches from any brand, the Rolex Daytona is the one which has gone furthest down the opulence route.
And, as with the GMT, the chronograph’s affiliations with the impossibly glitzy environs of professional motor racing means it gets cut plenty of slack.
Launched in 1963 as a rebuttal to the Omega Speedmaster, the Daytona likewise moved its tachymetric scale to the bezel, used a tricompax arrangement of sub dials and was powered by a manually winding movement. Unlike the Speedy however, the Rolex was a complete flop.
It would take a quarter of a century before the Daytona started coming into its own, but when it did, it would become possibly the most desirable sports watch of all time.
In truth, there was very little you would describe as rough and ready about the watch from the get-go. Unlike others, there has been a solid gold version of practically every reference since the first and diamonds started appearing as early as the 1980s—and were put on the bezel in place of the speed measuring markings, thereby negating most of the watch’s reasons for being made in the first place.
With the current series, although it might be in possession of one of the finest and most accurate mechanical chronograph calibers of the era, the Daytona is far more likely to be given away as a prize for winning an endurance race than worn by a driver taking part.
It doesn’t matter. Whether you describe it as a tool watch or not anymore, the Cosmograph has earned its place on the horology podium.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller
When it arrived in 1967, the Sea-Dweller was possibly the tool-iest of Rolex‘s tool watches to date.
Built for, and in conjunction with, some of the most demanding diving professionals in the world, it was designed to survive almost unimaginable pressures. Originally rated down to 2,000ft, that doubled to 4,000ft within its first decade in production with the ref. 16660 (or The Triple Six).
But its prowess on the way down was only half the story. The buildup of helium, from the breathing gases pumped into a saturation diver’s deep underwater habitat where they might live for weeks at a time, eventually seeped inside the watch case. On the way back to the surface, the helium bubbles would expand, blowing the crystal off the watch face and causing havoc.
The HEV, or Helium Escape Valve, was the simple and effective solution, allowing the gas to leak back out before it could destroy the watch.
The Sea-Dweller remained the ‘serious’ Rolex dive watch for many years, watching on from its all-steel shell as precious metal, gemstone-encrusted Subs came and went. That was brought to a halt in 2019 with the wholly unexpected release of a two-tone Rolesor Sea-Dweller, its bezel, crown, guards and central bracelet links picked out in 18k yellow gold.
Even so, it could be argued that the SD is still the best of both worlds. Smart and versatile enough as an everyday wear, but undeniably tough enough to still wear its tool watch tag.
The Rolex Explorer II
In fairness to Rolex, the Explorer II has always felt like a proper tool watch to me. While it’s true you still may not get any change out of $8,000 for one, its defiance of any form of opulence over the years, coupled with its workmanlike aesthetics, means it can claim the badge quite rightfully.
Stemming from 1971, it came into being to cater to perhaps the most niche group of adventurers who have ever had an entire watch dedicated to them; spelunkers.
The Explorer II’s fixed 24-hour bezel and extra hand gave it the ability to keep cave divers in tune with whether it was day or night up on the surface. But its lack of utility compared to the GMT-Master (which was a genuine dual time zone watch thanks to its turnable surround) and its more functional looks, has led to it constantly playing second fiddle.
Now, as times and tastes change, the Explorer II has become increasingly sought after as collectors long for models which adhere more closely to Rolex’s original roots.
Only ever issued in all-steel versions, could that be about to change? 2021 marks the model’s 50th birthday, usually the cue for Rolex to do something dramatic. Is a Rolesor Explorer II just waiting in the wings? Personally I hope not, but then, I’m seldom consulted on these things!
The Rolex Milgauss
When it was released in 1956, the Milgauss’s party piece set it apart from the vast majority of watches on offer. Designed for use by scientists, engineers and medical professionals working with newly introduced, state-of-the-art technology, the Milgauss’s second internal case protected its movement from the harmful effects of the equipment’s strong magnetic fields.
Yet despite that undeniably useful talent, and the fact the debut references looked almost identical to the extremely popular Submariner, the Milgauss was a flop of Daytona-esque proportions.
Even giving it its own visual identity, swapping the engraved rotating bezel for a smooth fixed one and adding a choice of black or white dials, did nothing to help its image either. The Milgauss, always one of the real underdogs in the collection, was eventually discontinued in 1988 and wouldn’t be seen again for nearly 20-years.
The modern version still claims the same magnetic resistance of 1,000 gauss (from where we get the watch’s name) and achieves it in the same way, via an inner shield. However, although Rolex doesn’t publish its numbers on the subject, it is likely most of the rest of their output is similarly impervious due to their use of movement components such as the completely antimagnetic Parachrom Bleu hairspring.
But, like the Explorer II, the Milgauss is another model whose time seems to have come. Its USP may be shared by other Rolex watches, but its quirky design flourishes and unpretentiousness have given it a strong cult following.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.