The Daytona, Pinnacle of 77 years of Chronographs
Rolex began making chronographs in 1937. The catalog for that year showed no less than five models. These early models were single pusher chronographs with simple start-stop-reset functioning. This went far for usability but was ultimately limiting, as the wearer could only time a single unbroken event.
Real gains were made when Rolex began using the now-standard two-pusher scheme in the late 1930s. One pusher for starting and stopping – and restarting and stopping again, as many times as the user desired it.
Production managers could stop the timer for lunch and breaks and get a more precise measure of production output. Racers could stop it for pit stops and get a better idea of average speeds, and so on. And they could all do so without resorting to ancillary calculations to account for breaks in the action.
The first Oyster chronograph, ref. 4500, appeared in the middle of WW II. As people were understandably focused on other things, it was never very popular. It was followed by two more references, the 6232 and the 3668. Unfortunately, the lack of popularity of the 4500 followed.
A string of references appeared as Rolex continued their methodical march for continuous improvement. In 1949 the ref. 5034 appeared, with the first use of both a third (hour) register and the oyster case. Between 1949 and 1964, continuous improvement produced the 6034, 6234, 6238, and finally the 6239.
The 6239 resurrected the name “Cosmograph,” which had been abandoned in 1956 with the last moon phase chrono. It also featured the first engraved bezel tachymeter. “Daytona” was also printed on some dials, a nod to the brand’s new sponsorship of the Daytona 24 hour endurance auto race.
The Paul Newman dials appeared in 1970, with red minute tick marks on a white minute track, and square markers on the sub-dials. Sub-dials were colored in contrast to the dial, in a panda (black sub-dials on white) or reverse panda (white sub-dials on black).
Rolex released the fabled 6263 in the late 1970s. This was the first Cosmograph to have screw down pushers. The Cosmograph had been touted to have water resistance to 25 feet, but operating the pushers at depth was flooding watches right and left. Screw down pushers were Rolex’s answer to the problem. When the 6263 was introduced, the water resistance rating jumped to 50 meters. A decade later, the resistance inexplicably increased to 100 meters with no noticeable changes to the watch.
The 6263 saw different specs for different case metals. Even thought they were all hand-wound Valjoux 72 movements, 18K gold models received chronometer certification. Steel cased versions did not. The 18K models were the only Rolex hand-crankers to ever be signed “Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified.”
When the Cosmograph’s popularity finally took off in the late 1980s, Rolex took notice. There had developed a gray market of sorts, with people buying every watch they could find in the U.S. and reselling it at a profit in Europe, Italy especially. Rolex briefly shut down production, promising to be back shortly.
In 1991, they released the redesigned Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. They’d switched to heavily modified Zenith El Primero automatic movements in 1988, and now ‘DAYTONA’ in red was printed on all dials. At the same time, the two-tone sub-dials appeared.
Finally, in 2000, Baselworld saw the introduction of calibre 4130, the first in-house movement Rolex had used in the Daytona. In development for five years, the 4230 had about 20% fewer parts than its predecessor calibre 4030 and was much easier to service.
Nowadays, the Daytona has gone platinum and ceramic, with a classic and unique chestnut brown Cerachrom ceramic bezel and ice blue dial (a color which Rolex reserves for their platinum watches). Not quite a racer’s or production supervisor’s watch anymore, but inside beats the heart of a timer, pure and simple.
And so there you have it, the back story to one of Rolex’s most iconic – and most popular – timepieces.
Ever wonder about the backstory of your favorite Rolex? Well, stick with us. This is the twelfth in a series of posts featuring histories of significant Rolex models. In all, Rolex has introduced nearly three dozen models since 1950. Over the next several weeks, we’ll touch on each. You’ll find all the reference numbers connected with each model here.