Despite their current standing as the most successful watchmakers of all time, Rolex in their formative years were no strangers to the sting of failure. The models offered in their lineup today are the cumulative result of generations making, learning, improving and perfecting—building on the elements that worked, discarding those that didn’t.
The subjects of this Grail Watch post are a pair of timepieces released in the same decade that experienced two different levels of failure; one abject, the other redemptive.
Each fascinating in their own way, they were both aimed at highly specialized yet relatively under populated niches. This goes at least some way to explaining their lack of success.
Of course, where Rolex is concerned, the word failure is very subjective. There have been a series of missteps over the years. Everything from the paint used on certain dials to inconsistencies in text. But it is these errors, and more specifically, the speed with which they were usually corrected, that have given the current vintage market some of its rarest and most sought after pieces.
The first of the often overshadowed Milgauss series, and the one and only version of the unusual Tru-Beat watches, are among the hardest to find classics; produced in tiny quantities and so long ago that very few examples still remain in circulation.
But, with their quirkiness and scarcity, coupled with fascinating backstories, they rank as true grail watches.
The Rolex Tru-Beat ref. 6556
Rolex watches do not tick. We all know that. Take a look at any model past or present, and particularly from the mid-seventies onwards when the company brought in their first high-beat mechanisms, and you will see a seconds hand that glides effortlessly around the dial in a graceful sweep.
It is, of course, an illusion. The hand is actually ticking, except so quickly (eight times per second with a modern 28,800bph caliber) that our eyes can only register it as one continuous movement.
If, for whatever reason, you want a Rolex watch with a definite jumping tick, you have three options: One, buy one off that reputable looking fella selling them from a tray on a beach in Thailand. Two, get hold of an Oysterquartz Datejust from the dark days of the 1970s. Or three, hunt out one of the few remaining Tru-Beats.
We have long since grown accustomed to associating a flowing seconds hand with high quality mechanical watches. A dead-beat tick is the product of electronics, and cheap electronics at that. Except, with the ref. 6556 released in 1954, Rolex purposely fitted an additional complication to their already renowned Cal. 1030 automatic caliber precisely to give it that singular motion, and for a specific reason.
Much like the Art Deco-inspired Rolex Prince from three decades before, the Tru-beat was aimed at doctors, with the ticking seconds hand intended to make the taking of a patient’s pulse easier and more accurate.
Equipped with a special train with a jeweled lever, slotted in between the winding mechanism and the normal seconds drive, the renamed Cal. 1040 operates in a similar way to an old clock. The escapement features an anchor that behaves like a pendulum, swinging back and forth, engaging and advancing the gears once each second.
Ironically, the Tru-Beat represents a significant mechanical innovation in order to look old fashioned. It stands as a true complication, from a company that, until very recently, has had little to do with them. The Cal. 1040 was the only movement to ever receive the addition and it was a short-lived venture; the caliber, and the Tru-Beat, were discontinued in 1959, a full decade before the emergence of the quartz technology they so closely resembled.
As if the brief five year production run wasn’t enough to make finding a vintage example of this notable slice of Rolex history difficult, many of the models sent in for servicing had the dead-beat caliber removed entirely and swapped for the original Cal. 1030, eliminating the jumping tick and restoring the sweep. A move taken to not only improve accuracy and ease maintenance, but also a necessity, with spare parts for the unique mechanism becoming unobtainable at any price over the years.
The Accessible Classic
It means that tracking down an unsullied example is an increasingly arduous undertaking, but one that is well worth the effort. The Tru-Beat is a grail watch that is actually attainable.
A ticking Rolex is usually the reddest of red flags to a collector and the ref. 6556 is not a well enough known reference, even amongst some brand experts, to be worth taking a risk on. That has kept prices on the vintage market particularly low for such a rare piece.
However, as is the way with all things vintage and Rolex, today’s overlooked novelty could very well become tomorrow’s must-have. As aficionados turn their sights to the next big thing after the supply of Submariners and Daytonas runs dry, those holding something other than one of the usual suspects can often find themselves with a winning hand.
It may have been an uncharacteristic slip-up on its release, but there really is no such a thing as a failed Rolex if you just wait long enough.
The Milgauss ref. 6541
Big brother to the Tru-Beat, the first of the long-running yet habitually undervalued Milgauss series emerged in 1956, as an antidote to one of the biggest hazards faced by mechanical watches.
As the world entered the Atomic Age, scientists and engineers working in environments with strong electromagnetic fields were finding their traditional watches severely affected, and often ruined completely, by prolonged exposure.
To counter the problem, Rolex developed a soft iron, or Faraday, cage to shroud the delicate inner workings of their new model’s caliber, a contraption that redistributed harmful magnetic forces away from any of the susceptible components. It worked so well that they were able to guarantee a resistance to any charge up to 1000 gauss, the unit of magnetic flux density and originator of the watch’s name.
Most other timepieces of the same era could be influenced by fields as low as 60 gauss, which is about the strength of the average fridge magnet. So clearly, as 1950’s homes started to fill up with more and more electronic gadgetry, each producing a relatively high force of their own, a watch that could remain impervious to their destructive effects would enjoy a vast additional market beyond the laboratory.
Except, it didn’t. The Milgauss was, and still is, the perpetual have-not. It faced the same tribulations as those experienced by the Tru-Beat—namely an image problem and, ironically, competition from within.
The Losing Battle
It is the bad luck of both models that they were released in the first real golden age of Rolex. If the brand had introduced just those two during the 1950s, they would have undoubtedly fared much better, but they had to go into battle against not only the new flagship Day-Date but also a pair of the most iconic sports watches of all time; the GMT-Master and the Submariner.
In terms of functionality, there was little to choose between the professional models. The Milgauss and the Sub even looked similar, with the first of the ref. 6541 examples fitted with a very familiar black rotating bezel.
To some eyes, the Milgauss actually has more aesthetic charm, with its distinctive lightning bolt seconds hand as a nod to its science-based credentials and an attractive honeycomb effect on its dial—a practical as well as visually appealing feature, as the crisscrossed metal strips acted as a further antimagnetic shield.
But watches aimed at transatlantic airline pilots and underwater adventurers are always going to out-sexy those aimed at the white lab-coated world of the scientist. Sex sells and the Milgauss didn’t.
The ref. 6541 went through some changes to its appearance during its short-lived stint. The Submariner-esque bezel was replaced with a fixed, domed surround and the bolt-shaped seconds hand was swapped with a straight one, topped with a red arrow. It made little difference.
Even when the ref. 6541 was superseded by the ref. 6019 in 1960 and Rolex enlisted the help of physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, to rigorously test and confirm the watch’s performance, it did nothing to help its image.
The Milgauss limped on until 1981 when it was finally scrapped altogether, with most thinking that was that for the scientist’s watch. But, with typical Rolex marketing dexterity, an all-new model was unveiled in 2007 to coincide with the completion of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the 27-kilometer long particle accelerator buried beneath Geneva.
In a familiar pattern, a modern-day reissue roused interest in its genetic blueprint and vintage Milgauss’ started to garner a cult following. Although it could never reasonably expect to compete with the likes of the Daytona or any of the dive watches in the popularity stakes, purists were attracted by the watch’s utilitarian roots. Many collectors are fairly vocal over Rolex’s supposed professional models being released in precious metal versions, or with gemstone-enhanced dials and bezels, arguing, with some justification, that the basic tool-like essence of the pieces has been lost over the years.
With the Milgauss it was always practicality first and foremost—and you could argue that it is the watch that has the most relevance to contemporary living. While we can all quite easily avoid deep-sea diving or competing in an endurance motor racing event, we don’t have any choice over being exposed to electromagnetic fields on a daily basis, by everything from computers to cell phones and even hairdryers.
Although they may not be strong enough to push the Milgauss anywhere near its limit, in the same way no one will ever test the true capabilities of the Sea-Dweller’s water resistance, it’s comforting to know it can handle far more than anything the average wearer will experience.
Zero to Hero
The ref. 6541 has become the most sought-after of the series, an ultra rare watch from the brand’s heyday and one that has not only survived its perpetual underdog status but actually reveled in it. Every family needs its black sheep and, for Rolex, the Milgauss is it.
Finding one of the original pieces on the vintage market is not easy and prices have recently started entering fantasy territory. Examples selling at auction regularly top six figures but, if that is within your budget, you could do a lot worse than acquiring yourself one. The steadily increasing reputation of the ‘failed’ Rolex makes it both a fascinating slice of history as well as a secure investment.