The Beckertime Comparison Series: The Rolex Lady-Datejust 26mm Vs. The Rolex Lady-Datejust 28mm
While the likes of the Daytona, the Submariner and the GMT-Master garner all the headlines when it comes to Rolex, it is the relatively humble Lady-Datejust which can lay claim to being the brand’s bestselling watch of all time—and by a fair distance.
It has been a staple in the collection since 1957, a scaled-down, more feminine take on the full-size 36mm Datejust, the watch that comes second in the moneymaking hierarchy, released just over a decade earlier.
The Datejust And Its Sizes
There are several keys to the incredible success enjoyed by the Datejust. When the original was first introduced in 1945, commemorating Rolex’s 40th year in the industry, its combination of a waterproof case, automatic movement and day of the month complication left it in a field populated only by itself. No other watch ever made had achieved all three revolutionary notions on a single model and the Datejust was seen as the very pinnacle of timekeeping technology.
Of course, over the years, those features would be usurped and overtaken by other, far more impressive functions. But the Datejust maintained its allure through simply becoming a blank canvas. The basic form of the watch was, well…basic. The tonneau-shaped case and restrained styling acted as a virtual clean sheet, with Rolex giving customers an almost limitless array of options on how to decorate it to their own tastes. From multiple bezel, hour marker, metal and bracelet options, through to dial designs numbering in the hundreds, the possible combinations of all the elements involved meant it was often a surprise to see two examples of the Datejust looking the same.
It was the perfect everyman watch, and Rolex decided early on to make sure it was the perfect everywoman piece as well. From the mid ‘50s onwards, the DJ has been available in an array of sizes, with the smallest, a 26mm version, being christened the Lady-Datejust.
The Lady-Datejust 26mm
The 26mm model ran from 1957 all the way up to 2015. It may have gone through plenty of variation during that time, with big changes to the materials used and the movements inside, but the size stayed the same.
Unlike many of the top Rolex names from the era, the early years of which are usually exemplified by a handful of references coming and going very quickly as fine-tuning takes place, the original ref. 65XX series of the Lady-Datejust lasted until 1970. All the engineering experimentation had taken place already on the full-size men’s watch, and so the tiny women’s model was able to benefit from that initial trial and error period—any remaining kinks had been ironed out over the previous decade or so.
1957 to 1970
The ref. 65XX family came along at around the same time as the men’s ref. 16XX collection, which was the one that really introduced the idea of the enormous range of options we now associate with the Datejust. The lady’s version also had plenty of variety on offer, and was made available in either steel, steel and 14k gold Rolesor or in 18k white, red or yellow gold.
Inside, the movements which drove all the ref. 65XX watches, the first women’s chronometers ever made to have an automatic date function, changed over the course of their run.
Starting off with the Cal. 1035, it was replaced in 1964 with the Cal. 1161; similar in most ways save for an increase in balance frequency, taking it from 18,000vph to 19,800vph. Both are very much admired in the classic Rolex collecting community, but each lacks a hacking function and a Quickset, two modern conveniences which make setting the watch easier and more accurate.
1970 to 1983
The follow-up, the ref. 69XX, was a practically identical series visually, but brought in a next generation movement, with the Cal. 2035. This was the engine to debut the now catalog-wide 28,800vph, giving the Rolex trademark smooth glide to the seconds hand. Interestingly, the Lady-Datejust got its high beat caliber a full seven years before the men’s model (the Cal. 3035 inside the ref. 160XX range).
1983 to 1999
After a 13-year run, the ref. 69XX gave way for the start of the five digit models, the ref. 691XX series. These too were virtually indistinguishable from the previous collection but, again, had a new movement. The Cal. 2135, as well as still holding the record for highest first time pass rate at the COSC, were the first calibers used in a Lady-Datejust to include a hacking feature and Quickset. This series also saw the introduction of a platinum reference and the former acrylic dial covering replaced with sapphire.
1999 to 2015
The ref. 691XX took the Lady DJ right up to the new millennium, when it was superseded with what would turn out to be the very last of the 26mm versions, with the ref. 179XX range. Only the most minor cosmetic changes were made, but (you guessed it) the movement was swapped for the Cal. 2235. Yet, this third wave in the Cal. 2000 calibers was hardly a revolution. With the exception of two more jewels, a thicker mainspring and a slightly larger barrel arbor, there was really very little to choose between it and the previous Cal. 2135. Still, these also managed to break a record at the COSC and became the most consistently accurate movements the Swiss institute has ever tested.
The Lady-Datejust 28mm
In 2015, Rolex, at long last, decided to increase the size of their golden goose to keep in line with modern tastes.
In an era when it was becoming more and more common for women to wear watches thought of as traditionally ‘men’s size’, i.e. 36mm and above, the brand increased the Lady-Datejust from 26mm to 28mm. This was after issuing a 31mm model into the range in 2012 and retaining the 34mm Date as well. That brought the number of different sizes in the Datejust family to four—28mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm—going up to five in 2016 with the unveiling of a new 41mm. All but the last appear on the ‘Women’s Watches’ page of the Rolex catalog.
There are now approaching 300 different variants of the 28mm Lady-Datejust to choose from. You can pick between five different metals (Oystersteel, Rolesor, white, yellow or Everose 18k gold), three different bezels (smooth, fluted or gem-set), an immense range of dial colors, along with diamond pavé dials, and four bracelet types. Of those, as well as the Oyster, Jubilee or one swamped top to bottom in precious stones, the Lady-Datejust is also the only other watch in the portfolio to be officially offered on the semicircular-linked President bracelet.
Created for the flagship Day-Date (just as the Jubilee was originally designed for the Datejust in the ‘40s), examples of the women’s watch on the band are known as the Lady-Datejust President. In keeping with the Day-Date’s persona, it is only available on the solid gold versions.
Inside the newest models beats the latest Cal. 2236, the first Rolex caliber to utilize a silicon, or Syloxi, hairspring. The flat component, which is able to compensate for gravitational and positional errors thanks to its geometry, is also shock resistant, antimagnetic and unaffected by temperature changes. Found in the 31mm Datejust and the 34mm Pearlmaster as well, it is believed the Syloxi hairspring even outperforms Rolex’s much-hyped Parachrom Bleu spring found in its larger watches.
The Lady-Datejust can attribute a lot of its incredible success to the same factors as the men’s version of the watch. Its minimalist yet elegant styling has left it as the horological equivalent of the little black dress—it is the watch every well dressed woman should own, backed by the biggest and most reliable name in the industry.
Like much of what Rolex produced in the 1950s, its styling was so well judged from the get-go that it has managed to remain virtually unchanged since the beginning.
The increase in size from 26mm to 28mm was just another typically well-thought out alteration, bringing the watch subtly into line with contemporary audiences, without losing any of the sheer sophistication for which it is famed.
Still the luxury women’s watch against which all others are measured, it will continue to be the number one choice for decades to come.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.