The Beckertime Comparison Series: The Rolex Day-Date Vs. The Vacheron Constantin FiftySix Day-Date
Most of the big names in horology, and many of the little ones, produce a model displaying both the date and the day of the week.
As complications go, it is hard to think of any which are more useful than the double calendar, and the way that information is displayed differs from brand to brand.
Rolex were the first to create a watch with the day spelled out in full, sitting in its own aperture at the 12 o’clock, when they debuted their original Day-Date in 1956. It was the natural progression from the Datejust, launched a little over a decade before, which holds the distinction of being the first automatically-winding model with a date function.
The Day-Date, perhaps better known these days as the President or the Presidential, has been the Rolex flagship ever since, a watch cast exclusively in precious metals and with a long and well-earned association with the great and the powerful—everyone, from leaders of nations, to boardroom czars, to hip hop moguls and TV gangsters has worn a Rolex Day-Date.
By comparison, the most recent collection presented by Vacheron Constantin, the FiftySix, is really their entry level series and includes a day-date of its own.
Although both brands are undoubtedly luxury watchmakers, Vacheron exists on an altogether different plane to Rolex. Founded in 1755, it is the oldest maison still in existence today, and every one of the mere 20,000 pieces they produce each year is painstakingly built and exquisitely finished by hand, using mostly traditional techniques.
They are noted for their extremely complex models, with a portfolio brimming with tourbillons, minute repeaters and perpetual calendars; all the stuff of haute horlogerie.
Rolex, by contrast, has always been a mass-producer, albeit one which maintains an incredible level of quality. It operates some of the most sophisticated, vertically-integrated industrial facilities in the world, building somewhere in the region of 1,000,000 watches annually.
Notwithstanding the recently introduced Yacht-Master II or the Sky-Dweller, the modest functions of the Day-Date actually makes it one of Rolex’s more complicated offerings, in a catalog heavy on simple time-only or time-and-date icons.
Nevertheless, the top-of-the-line Rolex against the gateway into Vacheron is a pretty even match in many ways. Below, we take a look at each in a bit more detail.
The original Day-Date emerged during a glorious 10-year period for Rolex where they could do virtually nothing wrong.
Although the Datejust had put them on the map in 1945, it was the 50s which saw the debuts of the Submariner, the GMT-Master, the Explorer, the Milgauss and (to a lesser extent) the Turn-O-Graph.
With that inventory of legends ensuring the newly created genre of the ‘tool watch’ was all sewn up (that genre more or less created by Rolex themselves, in fact) the stage was set for them to secure the dress watch category as well, and the Day-Date slotted right in.
The first references, the ref 6510 and ref. 6511—with either a smooth or fluted bezel respectively—were available in 18k gold in its trio of flavors or platinum, and in 36mm only. They arrived sporting an all-new bracelet, confusingly titled the President (which is sort of where the watch gets its nickname) with three, semicircular links, putting it halfway in-between the Oyster and Jubilee.
They were clearly positioned to take the reins at the head of Rolex’s top table, with the model which had previously filled that role, the aforementioned Datejust, becoming more of an everyman watch. Where the Day-Date was for the elite, cast in the finest precious metals or nothing, the Datejust was given both two-tone Rolesor and all-stainless steel versions to keep costs down and sales up.
It has been that way ever since. The Day-Date has thrived on its exclusivity, the most expensive model in the Rolex catalog, earning itself the reputation of the watch you buy only once you have genuinely ‘made it’.
What form that ‘making it’ takes has differed over time though. Earlier references had a particularly sober set of options when it came to dial color and material, the watches destined for the dark corridors of power and its conservative tastes.
But as the acclaim of the President grew, a more varied fan base necessitated some wildly diverse looks. The Stella dials of the 1970s are the most obvious examples; flamboyant reds, greens and blues which shook things up nicely. Lashings of precious stones started finding their way onto bezels and hour markers too, as well as paving the entire face on the most extreme examples.
Throughout it all however, the basics have remained consistent. The Day-Date’s fundamental shape goes virtually unaltered between generations, with the only major changes being to the movements, in an effort to make them even more reliable and convenient. A hacking function was introduced in 1972, followed by a Quickset and then a Double Quickset feature for the two calendar complications by the end of the 80s.
It would take until 2008 before anything truly noteworthy occurred to the President, that being the year the Day-Date II arrived, with a 41mm case. Yet, although the extra wrist presence was a welcome addition for the modern era, the individual proportions of the watch were something of an opinion-splitter, and the model gave way in 2015 to the Day-Date 40. This was very much just a scaled-up form of the classic 36mm range, and the two collections have run side-by-side ever since to great success.
Today, the President is as it always has been; the premium offering from the most renowned watchmaker of all time, and the number one choice of leaders in every field.
The FiftySix Day-Date
By contrast, the FiftySix series from Vacheron Constantin is only a couple of years old, having been brought out in 2018.
Even more striking than the difference in heritage though is the distinction in rank between the two watches.
Where Rolex’s Day-Date represents the very highest point in the brand’s hierarchy, the Vacheron models are their least expensive, aimed more at a young, hip audience than pillars of the establishment.
The FiftySix collection as a whole totals a mere 12 pieces, with the Day-Date making up just two of those. To further highlight the gap between them and the Rolex, one of the pair is in stainless steel.
Most of the FiftySix range measures a thoroughly modern 40mm, with a top end tourbillon going up to 41mm. As a whole, the underlying architecture of the series is based on a vintage Vacheron from (you guessed it) 1956, the ref. 6073. The nostalgia-inspired pieces have been specifically designed for versatility and everyday use; they are at home in any and all environments the wearer might find themselves in, whether that’s the office, the bar or the after-work event.
It is rather uncharted territory for the brand, one not especially known for their relaxed or lighthearted output. A look through the rest of Vacheron’s catalog shows some genuinely incredible artisan timepieces and demonstrates why they occupy the very highest rung of the industry’s ladder as one of the so-called ‘Holy Trinity’, alongside Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet.
So on the face of it, our two Day-Dates wouldn’t seem to have that much in common. Let’s see how they face off in reality.
The Rolex Day-Date
This is about as one-sided a competition as pitting the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters.
In fairness, the Rolex has had more than 60-years to populate its roster with different versions of the Day-Date, and today the collection is about 160 models long, split across the two sizes. There are pieces in 18k yellow, white and Everose gold, together with 950 platinum. You can have fluted, smooth or gem-set bezels, dials of every color and type, and various styles of hour markers, including diamonds.
Both the 36mm and the 40mm sit exclusively on the President bracelet, with neither the Jubilee, the Oyster or a leather strap currently an official option. The only outlier is a varied form of the President with the center links encrusted with precious stones, usually mirroring other heavily bejeweled parts of the watch.
The variety on offer means, although it may have started out aimed at the solemn bureaucrat, the President is now a watch meant for everyone—everyone with a healthy bank balance anyway.
The FiftySix Day-Date
As already stated, there are a grand total of two FiftySix Day-Date models. Both 40mm, the cheapest is the steel piece while the other, in 5N pink gold, is nearly twice the price.
5N pink gold is an alloy made up of 75% gold, with 20.5% copper and 4.5% silver. Throughout the rest of the jewelry trade, 4N is more common, where the amount of gold is the same, but the proportion of copper is just 16% while silver is 9%. The ratios Vacheron uses ensure a richer color, characteristic of the brand.
As for the dials, both are in silver, but the steel watch has matching handset and indexes resulting in a cool monochrome, whereas the pink gold model has its hour markers and hands in the same metal as the case to create a pleasing two-tone.
The layout of the dial has raised some eyebrows though. Looking like a chronograph at first glance, the watch’s duo of sub dials are actually used for the twin calendar functions; day of the week on the nine o’clock counter, day of the month on the three o’clock.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Like we said, different brands display their features in different ways and, while not as easy to read as Rolex’s straightforward pair of windows, the FiftySix is still legible enough. What has caused a fair amount of pushback is the somewhat crowded, disorderly look overall.
Those sub dials are conspicuously large, as they must be obviously, but they seem just a little too close together, both kissing the central spindle and leaving the watch looking somewhat cross-eyed.
There’s also a power reserve meter, which is crammed in above the lower index. And those hour markers themselves are an unorthodox combination of Arabic numerals and batons which adds even more clutter to an already busy façade.
Comparing the Vacheron to the Rolex, it is the latter’s dial which comes out on top for both clarity and class, even with the forever provocative Cyclops lens over the date.
Where the FiftySix claws back some ground is in its profile. Basing its styling on the brand’s Maltese cross logo, those tapered, curled-under lugs are a joy, sweeping down into a slightly asymmetrical case that flares on one side to accommodate the inset winding crown.
The Rolex is the same as it has always been; as basic a shape as a watch can be and a blank slate onto which every wearer stamps their own personality with their dial and bezel choices.
The beating heart inside every one of the contemporary Rolex Day-Date collection, 36mm and 40mm, is the next generation Cal. 3255.
As with all Rolex engines, it is there primarily to do a job rather than look pretty. The form-following-function approach has been a constant throughout the brand’s history, with the priority always on not only timekeeping precision but also a robust resilience. It is why you won’t find any Rolex watches with display case backs to allow you to watch all the technicality and artistry unfold.
What they do manage to do however is keep ticking, pretty much forever. Components are kept to an absolute minimum, as the fewer the parts, the less there is to go wrong. They are also physically large, relatively speaking, which imparts an inherent strength.
The Cal. 3255 builds on the base, time-only Cal. 3230 and adds on day and date modules. It comes with the proprietary Parachrom Bleu hairspring and nickel-phosphorus Chronergy escapement, packs in a 70-hour reserve and qualifies for Rolex’s own Superlative Chronometer status, with an accuracy of -2/+2 seconds a day.
The FiftySix Day-Date
Vacheron, in comparison, has built much of its reputation on the immaculate level of finishing to all elements of its watches, and its movements in particular.
The Caliber 2475 SC/2 is a case in point, a 27-jewel, 4Hz engine that does everything the Cal. 3255 does and throws in the power indicator as well. In addition, its beautiful Côtes de Genève striped bridges and circular grained plates are visible through the sapphire back, along with the 22k gold, skeletonized rotor complete with Maltese cross.
Like the rest of the FiftySix series, except the cheapest Self-Winding models, the Day-Date’s movement holds the coveted Geneva Seal. That marks the 2475 SC/2 out as having passed a strict set of accuracy standards similar to those of the COSC, but unlike those, the seal is only awarded to those which have attained a certain level of fine decoration as well.
It is certainly a wonderful looking engine, even though it does seem a bit small for the case, and it manages to give a 40-hour reserve.
It seems a little unfair to set the two watches against each other on price, seeing as the Rolex has so many more variants on offer than the Vacheron, but here we go.
The most accessible Rolex Day-Date (I can’t bring myself to use the word cheapest) costs around $32,200—that’s for a 36mm model, in yellow gold with fluted bezel.
At the other end, a 40mm platinum watch with pavé dial and diamond bezel costs somewhere in the region of $150,000.
For the Vacheron, the steel version is currently $19,800, with the pink gold coming in at $38,000 or so.
So none of them are likely to be impulse purchases for many people. That is perfectly in keeping with the Rolex’s character. The President is as aspirational as the brand gets, and buying one should be seen as a significant landmark in someone’s life.
The Vacheron FiftySix series, on the other hand, is the bargain basement offering. Although the Day-Dates aren’t the least expensive in the range, they are pretty close and it gives an idea as to just what level the maison is operating at.
*One other thing to bear in mind; while gold Rolex dress watches don’t perform as well financially as many of their steel sports models, they are likely to hold their value better in the long run than the Vacheron.
So there we have our comparison of two luxurious Day-Date watches. One is an icon in the horology world, with a legacy six decades in the making.
The other is the virtual newcomer, aimed at an audience possibly unfamiliar with (and priced out of) the brand before this.
They may both do the same job, but they do it in very different ways. The Rolex, as you would expect, is the more pragmatic and straightforward of the two. It couldn’t be any easier to read the information, while the Vacheron requires a bit more work.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two lies in the perception. Everyone knows the Rolex Day-Date is at the very upper echelon of the most well-known brand in the world, and it is a undeniable status symbol.
Only those with a reasonably thorough knowledge of watchmaking will have even heard of Vacheron Constantin in the first place, and if they have, chances are they will know the FiftySix is the entry level, no matter how expensive they are.
It will always come down to a personal choice, but if it was my money, it would have to be Rolex all the way.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.