The Comparison Series: The Rolex Datejust Vs. The Vacheron Constantin FiftySix
On the surface of it, there don’t appear to be a whole host of similarities between Swiss watch brands Rolex and Vacheron Constantine.
The former is most renowned for its sports collection, an iconic lineup of mechanically simple, robustly built and enduringly designed models. They are a mass-producer, albeit a luxurious one, of timepieces, building around a million every year. They are also, by an unfathomable distance, the most recognized name in the industry, and one of the most well-known manufacturers of any kind.
By comparison, Vacheron is the pinnacle of haute horlogerie, the longest continually operating watchmaker in the world, having set up in business in 1755. Their catalog is exemplified by the ultra complicated, the exquisitely finished and the extremely expensive. Far from being an assembly line, every one of the mere 20,000 pieces they make annually is built by hand, using techniques perfected over the last two-and-a-half centuries.
But while the two companies seem to do a similar job in quite dissimilar ways, there are certain model lines within the respective portfolios which can be pitted against each other, comparable on elements such as style, function, material and price.
One such competition vies Rolex’s perennial Datejust, the oldest name in the brand’s books to remain in constant production, against the virtually brand new FiftySix collection from Vacheron Constantine, the maison’s entry level creation.
Below we take a look, side by side.
As we pointed out, the Datejust has been around a long time. Originally emerging in 1945, it was Rolex’s 40th anniversary pat on the back to themselves.
Almost comically modest today, the watch’s single complication was a revolution at the time, and the Datejust became the first waterproof, self-winding wristwatch ever made (thanks to Rolex’s two other groundbreaking innovations; the Perpetual movement and the Oyster case) to display a date function.
It also debuted an all new type of bracelet. With five semi-circular links giving it a buttery-smooth suppleness, it was called, fittingly enough considering the occasion, the Jubilee.
Yet although it was briefly the brand’s top-of-the-line model, the Datejust swiftly gave up the title to the Day-Date released about a decade later, and became something of a jack-of-all-trades. It, like the Day-Date (which would become better known as the President) could be had with a truly bewildering array of different dial, bezel and bracelet combinations. Unlike the President however, the Datejust wasn’t averse to the utility of stainless steel, either on its own or else coupled with various flavors of gold to create Rolex’s own Rolesor blend. That pragmatic touch gave the Datejust a virtually unlimited potential audience and it would become, and stay, one of the brand’s most consistent best sellers.
Today, it remains the first watch most people think of when they hear the name Rolex, and the current lineup comprises nearly 800 different variations across the model’s five sizes.
Whichever way you slice it, the Datejust has been an overwhelming triumph, and there is no reason to imagine that won’t continue.
With Vacheron Constantin’s FiftySix collection only being around since 2018, it is obviously too soon to tell whether it will enjoy anything like the enduring success of the Datejust.
In truth though, it is highly unlikely. Although the brand makes up one third of the fabled ‘holy trinity’ of watchmaking (alongside Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet), there really is no equating it with Rolex in terms of recognition. In fact, Vacheron officially sits at number 15. The average person in the street has heard of Rolex. Unless they have a particular interest in horology, they probably won’t have heard of Vacheron.
Nevertheless, the FiftySix does have the same party piece as the Datejust. Based on a vintage model, the ref. 6073 released, not unexpectedly, in 1956, its elegantly relaxed styling is designed to fit in anywhere, regardless of dress code. Home, office, beach, cocktail party—you are covered with one watch.
It too is available in a variety of metals, both precious and non. Refreshingly for such a high end maison, Vacheron aren’t averse to using steel either. (They even—whisper it—have quartz watches in their stable. In the women’s ranges anyway).
The FiftySix series consists of just 12 pieces, clearly not even in the same league as the Datejust as far as choice goes, but it wins out on complications.
As well as the standard time-and-date watch, called the Self-Winding, there is also the Day-Date and the Complete Calendar, which adds a moonphase accurate to 122 years. On its own at the very top is the FiftySix Tourbillon.
So if we go like-for-like as much as possible, how do these two measure up? Let’s look at the Datejust 41 against the FiftySix Self-Winding.
Rolex’s Datejust is currently issued in a total of five sizes; 28mm (the Lady-Datejust), 31mm, 34mm (known simply as the Date), 36mm (traditionally the largest) and the comparatively recently introduced 41mm.
All told, the watch’s share of the Rolex website is 54 pages long!
However, as the 41mm model was only brought out in 2016 (as a replacement for the short lived Datejust II), there are ‘only’ around 100 or so variants offered.
These are split between all steel watches and Rolesor pieces. There are currently no all-gold models in the largest three sizes.
Rolesor is Rolex’s own name for a visual they originally came up with in the 1930s, where the main case and outer bracelet links would be formed in stainless steel, while the bezel, crown and inner links were cast in gold. The most emblematic two-tone look for the Datejust as a whole is arguably in yellow Rolesor, but red and white gold are used almost as frequently. (White Rolesor is slightly different, in that only the surround is formed from the precious metal).
There is also a choice in bezel, either smooth or fluted. The smooth type can be had in steel or gold, of whichever color, but fluted Rolex bezels have always been made exclusively in gold.
Dials run a wide gamut. Although not peppered with the same sort of eccentricities you might find in some of the other sizes, there is still plenty of diversity. Colors range from the smartly conservative to the subtly eye-catching. Unlike generations past, there are no real exotic materials to speak of bar a couple of models with mother of pearl dials. Likewise, diamonds feature only sporadically. You will find watches with gemstone hour markers, but even these are commendably understated. Diamond encrusted bezels don’t exist in the contemporary collection of the Datejust 41 either.
As for the bracelets, you can pick between the Jubilee or the Oyster, each imparting its own personality on the watch. The intricate Jubilee is the formal, dressy choice while the three-flat link Oyster has a more sporty, casual aesthetic.
In short, while not the most comprehensively stocked series of Datejust, the 41 has just about all the bases covered when it comes to selection.
Vacheron’s piece is a one-size-only creation, that size being a still fairly humble 40mm. (The whole range has the same dimensions except for the flagship Tourbillon model, which comes in at 41mm).
Neither brand has ever fallen into the trap of producing oversize watches, a fad which started at the end of the 80s and seems to have finally run its course. Even Vacheron’s extraordinary Traditionnelle Grandes Complications manages to fit all 602 parts of its caliber inside a 44mm case.
The FiftySix Self-Winding features just five different models, three in steel and two in 5N 18K pink gold. (Generally, the 18K pink gold used throughout the jewelry industry is known as 4N. This has a ratio of 75% gold, with 16% copper and 9% silver to give it its color. 5N is an alloy where the amount of copper is raised to 20.5% and the silver reduced to 4.5%. This results in a richer, more distinctive hue and a harder metal overall).
The dials too break few boundaries. The steel pieces have the option of either silver or blue, while the gold models are in blue or the newly announced sepia brown, all with a beautiful satin finish.
But they have caused a little controversy among Vacheron disciples. The sector dials are being seen as something of a mishmash, with the jumble of Arabic numerals and batons giving a confused, almost amateurish look, which is strange for a manufacture which has been doing this longer than anyone. The Day-Date version is even worse, with a pair of sub dials which are far too close together.
In the Self-Winding’s favor is the date display, another element which often splits opinion. Though a handy feature, including it on a watch dial without ruining the balance is always a challenge, but here it’s about as subtle as you could hope for while still being readable. And unlike the Datejust, there is no magnifying lens over the top, something which seems to rile fans like nothing else.
Perhaps best of all is the case. Taking its design cue from the Maltese cross logo of the brand itself, the bold shape, sweeping into its unique lugs, is a real touch of class and something to set the watch apart. Marginally asymmetrical, the right side swells slightly to accept the recessed crown.
And finally, there is a choice of bracelet here as well; either a range of Mississippi alligator leather straps complementing the dial color or else a stainless steel bracelet which, with its seven staggered links, is somehow even more elaborate than the Jubilee.
The Datejust has been used as something of a test bed throughout its life, with any major advances Rolex cares to try out usually making their debut here.
Nowhere is that more in evidence than in their movements, which are at the absolute cutting-edge underneath that stoically conventional body.
The Datejust 41 was among the first to be given the brand’s next wave of calibers, the Cal. 32XX series, and it is driven by the simple time-and-date variant, the Cal. 3235.
It is the replacement for the legendary Cal. 3135, recognized as perhaps the finest mass-produced movement of its type since it launched in 1988 and one which was still powering the 36mm DJ up until last year (and the Submariner until just a couple months ago).
Rather than just being an upgraded form of that mechanism though, the Cal. 3235 contains about 90% new components, including a radical overhaul of the Swiss lever escapement, the Chronergy. A lightweight, stripped bare reworking, it gives a 15% increase in efficiency over the traditional system. All told, the Cal. 3235 is the holder of 14 new patents, has a 70-hour reserve and conforms to Rolex’s own draconian standard for precision, the Superlative Chronometer certificate, accurate to within -2/+2 seconds a day.
The FiftySix Self-Winding
With Vacheron’s peerless credentials in highly complicated watches, something as straightforward as the Self-Winding range obviously wasn’t going to present too much of a challenge.
However, inside is the Cal. 1326, which is based on the Cartier 1904, built by the Manufacture Horlogère ValFleurier and finished, assembled and regulated by Vacheron themselves.
So it is basically a third party movement, and one that doesn’t even have the Geneva Seal, yet another thing which has upset the faithful. The Geneva Seal, like the COSC, is a set of essential standards for watch calibers. Unlike the COSC however, it is concerned not just with timekeeping but also the level of finishing. In addition, the movement has to have been made in the canton of Geneva.
While the other watches in the FiftySix series all contain mechanisms which have gained the certification, this entry level piece hasn’t. It is still a perfectly good engine, a workhorse like the Cal. 3235, and its fine decoration can be seen through the sapphire case back, including the 22k gold open-worked rotor.
But for the price, the fans clearly wanted more.
And speaking of…
This talk of ‘entry level’ and ‘gateway into the brand’ is all well and good, but both watches still require significant outlays.
Brand new, the most affordable Datejust 41 comes in at around $8,500. That is for steel head to toe, with a smooth bezel.
At the top end, an Everose Rolesor piece, with mother of pearl dial, diamond indexes and Jubilee bracelet costs about $19,600.
So it might be just about the most plentiful model out there, but it is still a Rolex and has the price tag to prove it.
The good news though is two-fold. First, actually buying one from an official AD isn’t out of the realms of possibility as it is with some models, mainly the steel sports watches. Rolex has never really restricted the supply of the Datejust to drive up demand, so there are usually at least a few in stock.
And secondly, they are more likely to hold their value than pieces from most other brands. Again, the Datejust doesn’t traditionally perform as well as some of the tool models, for the same reason we saw above, but they can still be looked on as a decent investment.
Cost of admission for the Vacheron starts at $14,500. As a watch marketed to a more youthful audience than the brand’s usual demographic, it seems like a lot, especially considering the non in-house movement.
Again, that is for a steel model, with a leather strap. For the metal bracelet version you will need $16,000.
Top of the class are the pink gold pieces, both of which come in at a shade over $24,000.
So we are obviously stretching the term entry level to breaking point here but it is worth remembering that the brand is recognized as one of the ‘Big Three’, among the trio of the most ultra high end Swiss maisons in existence. Is that worth the extra money? Up to you of course.
So we have two functionally simple but luxurious watches, each representing at or near the most accessible points of their respective makers.
The Datejust is so firmly established in the horology psyche that it really needs no introduction; a vitally important chapter in both Rolex’s story and the industry as a whole.
The FiftySix Self-Winding is the newcomer, one that has possibly not found its final identity yet, but which comes with an unbeatable legacy behind it.
As far as making your choice goes, the Rolex is cheaper nearly across the board, has a manufacture movement and a massive amount of variety.
The Vacheron has a refreshed, modern look that seems to appeal and repel in equal measure, but with the level of exquisite finishing you would expect from a marque of this caliber.
Whichever you decide, you get a versatile, multi-talented watch, that will never leave you looking out of place.
Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.