Rolex’s Most Impressive ‘Off-Catalog’ Watches
Unlike virtually every other luxury watch manufacturer, Rolex has never really gone in for special editions.
The likes of Omega seem to launch a limited variant of their Sea or Speedmaster every other week, usually stretching the meaning of the word ‘limited’ to breaking point. Even the highest of high-end brands, like Patek Philippe, have produced plenty of special editions over the years, while Richard Mille make practically nothing else.
However, Rolex do indeed produce some truly exceptional versions of a handful of their finest creations, and in extremely small quantities. The biggest difference between them and those offered by their competitors is that Rolex’s don’t appear in their catalog, and as a result, not many people know about them.
These are the watches which are either made exclusively for a specific market, generally the Middle East, or else for individual clients—those with a long and tremendously prolific relationship with the brand. authorized dealers may grant the opportunity of acquiring one of these watches to their VIP customers privately, usually those who are spending seven figures a year with them. Even then that application has to be approved by Rolex themselves and will be judged on the person’s purchase history. And seeing as most of these models come swamped in precious gemstones, the accompanying price tags are always severely eye-watering.
The upside is that the chances of that client meeting another one-percenter sporting the same wrist ornament is so low as to be basically negligible. And there is nothing else which so appeals to the ultra-wealthy as exclusivity.
Below we take a look at some of the most impressive of these incredible watches.
Rolex ‘Rainbow’ Daytona ref. 11659XRBOW
Rolex are rightly proud of their racer’s chronograph, and that is demonstrated by just how many variations there have been of it over the years. The standard production portfolio currently holds more than 40 different models which, although not rivaling the Datejust or Day-Date for selection, is still far more than anything else in the Professional Collection. The next most stocked series is the Yacht-Master, with just 17 ranged across the original and its sequel, the Yacht-Master II.
In truth, we could do an entire post on off-catalog Daytonas alone. It is one of the watches most often chosen for some bespoke tailoring and is no stranger to a bit of bling. There has been a gold option for almost every reference dating all the way back to its debut in 1963, and diamond-encrusted bezels initially appeared in the early 1980s, while it was still in its underperforming first generation.
However, few of these gem-drenched models were as well received as the so-called Rainbow Daytonas which, unusually for watches never seen in the official lineup, are actually fairly well known.
There were three types in total; yellow (ref. 116598RBOW) and white gold (ref. 116599RBOW) versions released in 2012, followed by an Everose piece (ref. 116595RBOW) in 2018.
Each followed a similar pattern, although there were small differences between the last piece and the two earlier ones. The lugs and crown guards on all three were set with 56 brilliant-cut diamonds which came in various sizes depending on their location. In addition, the white and yellow gold models used a further eight square diamonds as hour markers, while the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock indexes were applied Arabic numerals. The 12 o’clock was filled by the Rolex coronet as usual.
But on the Everose model, those diamonds were replaced by either square or baguette-cut sapphires (depending on whether the sub-dials encroached or not).
Sapphires to diamonds might sound like a downgrade, but Rolex’s reasoning was spectacular. Fitted around the bezel on all three references were another 36 multicolored sapphires, from which the model drew its ‘Rainbow’ name. And on the Everose piece, the shade of each of the gems acting as indexes was mirrored exactly by the stones adjacent to it on the bezel.
The time, skill and expense required to find precisely the right color sapphires to achieve the effect really cannot be exaggerated. Not only was there the perfect match between the bezel and hour marker stones, but the graduation in hue of one sapphire to the next encircling the surround was completely faultless.
It explains why so few of the Rainbows were produced. Even with the sort of financial clout wielded by Rolex, there are only so many of these gems in the world for them to buy up.
There were other outstanding touches too. The Daytona’s tricompax arrangement of chrono counters were finished in what the brand described as ‘Gold Crystal’, an alloy of the precious metal given a granulated texture and color matched to each watch’s case. The rest of the dial was in the model’s traditional black although, again, the Everose example differed slightly and had the option of a full-on pavé dial, with the entire surface drenched in diamonds—just in case owners were worried they weren’t standing out enough. These pieces also carried the stones down to the Oyster bracelet’s center links.
As you might imagine, none of this came cheap—which was rather the point.
At the time of their release, the yellow and white gold models were sold to select clients for around $90,000, with the Everose going higher still at $97,000.
Today, however, you will need to set aside the business end of half a million to get your hands on one.
Rolex Submariner ref. 116659SABR Blue Dial
Like the Daytona, the Submariner is also technically a tool watch, although whether any Rolex is used for its originally intended purpose anymore is a question for another day.
But one off-catalog Sub from 2018 you would certainly hope has never accompanied a Scuba diver into the murky depths is the ref. 116659SABR.
At its heart, this is the white gold, blue dialed version of the Submariner ref. 116659LB, better known among cognoscenti as The Smurf.
You might think the only difference between that watch and this is the inclusion of the brand’s meticulously selected gemstones. And in fairness, there are a lot of them to catch the eye. The fully functional unidirectional bezel is fitted with 36 dark blue baguette sapphires, with the first nine slightly lighter to act as the hashed 15-minute markers on the Sub’s traditional timing scale. Interspersed at the 10-minute intervals are a total of 11 baguette-cut diamonds, with a further triangular one at the zero position. In addition, there are another 92 brilliant-cut diamonds flooding the case and crown guards, bringing the total weight up to 3.90 carats of sapphires and 1.72 carats of diamonds (incidentally, this is where Rolex take the ‘SABR’ designation on the reference number; SAphirs and BRilliants).
Yet as remarkable as all this ice is, it isn’t the only departure from the standard watch. The model came with the choice of two dials; a full diamond pavé including eight sapphire hour markers, or a beautiful deep blue with a sunray finish. Each included the Cyclops lens over the date window, but there were omissions elsewhere. Neither variant included the 300m depth rating anywhere, and the diamond-drenched piece also left off the ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially certified’ text as well.
However, as both models were built around a standard 40mm Oyster case with Triplock crown, and were powered by the in-house Cal. 3135, those qualifications can be taken as read.
Fancy one for yourself? Preowned examples of this stunning watch are currently on offer starting at around $200,000.
Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126755SARU
The world’s favorite traveler’s watch has had a number of different color combinations on its bezel since its introduction in 1954. The most famous, however, has always been the original—the blue/red split known colloquially as The Pepsi. And if you spotted the ‘SARU’ designation at the end of this particular iced-out piece’s reference number, you probably know what you’re in for.
The ref. 126755SARU is the latest in a series of ultra high-end versions of the GMT, a trend which began all the way back in 1979. In fact, that model, the ref. 16758SARU really marked the start of Rolex adorning their sports watches with stunning gems rather than just the more dressy models such as the Datejust and Day-Date.
Released in 2019, the ref. 126755SARU is, underneath, a 40mm Everose gold watch, its lugs and crown guards here finished with a total of 76 brilliant-cut diamonds. As with the Submariner above, clients could choose between two dials; the classic black or full diamond pavé. And, as before, the latter held just two gold plates reading ‘Rolex’ and GMT-Master II’ rather than the full ‘Superlative Chronometer’ text.
But most people’s attention was drawn, as with any GMT really, to the bezel. The upper half displaying the nighttime hours was filled with 18 SApphires, with the lower half consisting of a further 18 RUbies, all flawless in quality, cut and color. Punctuating each five-minute point were 12 more diamonds.
For some additional emphasis of the wearer’s net worth, an Oyster bracelet with diamond-encrusted center links could be specified.
At around $245,000, that must surely make the ref. 126755SARU the most opulent GMT-Master II of all time, right? Well, no actually.
Some 12 years before that piece was unveiled, Rolex produced their most expensive timepiece to date, of any description; the ref. 116769TBR.
Costing, at the time, around $485,350, the GMT-Master II ‘Ice’ was, apparently, a white gold watch. Yet you would never know it, as every millimeter of surface area, bar the crown and knurled bezel edge, was swamped in some 30 carats of diamonds. Perhaps the most striking aspect of what is a quite insane-looking watch is the dial, with countless tiny examples of the precious stone set painstakingly in a series of waves across its face.
Both of these breathtaking pieces were powered by the same Cal. 3186 as the regular versions, meaning they could, technically, be used as genuine dual time zone watches. However, as any bezel numerals were lost under an ocean of gems, it was unlikely.
That is, of course, beside the point. All of these watches, and plenty of others created over the years, represent the ultimate in collectable Rolexes. They are made for people for whom only the best of the best is approaching good enough and with the kinds of bank balances which rival those of small countries.
For the rest of us, whether this level of bling is to our tastes or not, it is impossible not to at least grudgingly admire the dedication, expertise and sheer audacity of Rolex’s gemologists, and the timepieces they produce.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.