The History of Popular Rolex Models
Everyone, whether they are among the vast legions of horological fanatics, through to those with zero interest in watches of any kind, everyone knows the name Rolex.
For well over 100 hundred years, the legendary manufacturer has innovated and constantly redefined the concept of the wristwatch, bringing us pieces that have entered the public consciousness as the very best of their kind.
From deep underwater, to the glamor of supersonic travel to the thrills of the race track, there is a Rolex watch to match, and exceed, the highest expectations.
Visually, many have remained practically unchanged for decades, testament to the company’s ethos of crafting ageless designs and their culture of ‘getting it right the first time’.
Consistently voted the most trustworthy and reliable company in the world, no other luxury marque enjoys the reputation Rolex has, and their catalog of timepieces remain the emblem of accomplishment and achievement.
Today, they are so far ahead of the competition they have gone beyond being mere makers of watches and are now the ultimate lifestyle brand.
As far as most people are concerned, there is Rolex and then there is everyone else.
Where it all Began
Like most great success stories, Rolex had humble beginnings. Founded in London in 1905 by Bavarian entrepreneur Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, the company initially assembled timepieces from components sourced from various fine Swiss watchmakers. These completed models they supplied to a number of jewelers to sell on under their own name.
But from the outset, Wilsdorf & Davis had their eye on transforming the image of a watch worn on the arm, which at that time was a strictly female accouterment.
As early as 1910 they successfully built the first chronometer certified wristwatch, proving they could be engineered to be as accurate as pocket watches—the only acceptable timepiece for men of the era.
But it was the company’s twin groundbreaking innovations of the 1920s and 1930s that would prove the decisive turning point.
First came the Oyster case, a water and dust proof housing that shielded the delicate internal mechanisms from harm. Then, just a few years later, they perfected the automatically winding movement, dubbed the Perpetual, bringing a level of convenience not seen before. Together, the Oyster Perpetual watches would go on to form the backbone of the brand’s output, endlessly tweaked and improved on to this day.
The Birth of a Classic
While the company, which registered as Rolex in 1908, experienced significant growth early on, propped up by their unrivaled ingenuity, it wouldn’t be until the final year of the Second World War before they brought out a truly world-beating creation.
1945 saw the introduction of the Datejust, the first automatically winding, waterproof watch to display a date function. Its classic lines and revolutionary functionality made it Rolex’s immediate flagship and Wilsdorf, an unalloyed marketing genius, made sure it was seen on the wrists of the age’s greatest statesmen. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was gifted his own example, the 100,000thofficially certified chronometer the brand had produced, in 1948. A few years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower was given the 150,000th—also a Datejust, complete with its specially created Jubilee bracelet.
It was the watch that set Rolex along the path to their world dominating status, and opened the floodgates to a period of extraordinary inventiveness for the Swiss giants.
Many of the watches that today you can look at and immediately think ‘Rolex’ started life during a seven or eight year span of the 1950s.
First was the Explorer in 1953, an elegantly simple three-handed no date piece inspired by the heroics of Hillary and Norgay as they scaled the world’s highest mountain.
Next came what is possibly their most famous creation and still the last word in luxury dive watches—the Submariner. Embracing the new sport of recreational Scuba diving, the handsome model with its rotating bezel (actually a carryover from the far lesser known Turn-O-Graph from the previous year) proved an instant hit, its notoriety not at all hurt by its association with a certain fictional super spy in the movie Dr. No.
1954 brought us the first in the enduring GMT-Master series, a dual time zone watch made in collaboration with Pan-Am as a way to help the airlines’ crews fight off the effects of jetlag. Its novel two-tone bezel, half blue, half red, acted as a quick night and day reference, as well as giving the piece an unmistakable identity all its own.
The Datejust lost its flagship crown in 1956 to the Day-Date, which added a day of the week window at the 12 o’clock, the first watch ever made to have it spelled out in full. Cast only in precious metals from the outset, it is still the most aspirational name in Rolex’s extensive catalog.
That same year also saw the launch of the Milgauss, a piece created for scientists working in environments with high electromagnetic fields. As even a small charge was enough to warp the fragile components of a mechanical watch’s caliber, the Milgauss was given a second internal case, an iron Faraday cage that shielded the movement.
By the start of the 1960s, Rolex was already making what were regarded as some of the best tool watches in the industry. Their roster had achieved a unity in design unlike those from any other brand, and the decade saw them continually update and improve the majority of their timepieces to keep them at the forefront.
In 1963 they fixed the one glaring omission in their lineup, a chronograph. The Cosmograph Daytona took its name from the fabled raceway in Florida, where Sir Malcolm Campbell, one of Rolex’s first ever testimonees, had set a number of land speed records. But its manually winding caliber doomed it to poor sales from the get-go, something that wouldn’t be remedied for nearly a quarter of a century.
In 1966, the Submariner was given its first date window with the reference 1680, a controversial move that both pleased and angered fans in equal measure. Detractors felt a date function on a dive watch was irrelevant and disliked that the window, and particularly the Cyclops magnifying lens over it (a Rolex invention from 1953) ruined the symmetry of the dial.
Soon after, an altogether more grown up model was issued, destined for the perilous and demanding world of the professional saturation diver. The Sea-Dweller was made at the request of leading commercial outfit COMEX and debuted another brand innovation, the Helium Escape Valve. The HEV was fitted to the case to allow the tiny helium bubbles that built up inside the watch during prolonged missions at great depth to seep back out before they expanded during ascent, dislodging the crystal and damaging the movement. The Sea-Dweller too had a date window at the three o’clock but, with the watch rated safe down to some 2,000ft, it was unable to be fitted with the Cyclops, which would have never survived the enormous pressures. As such, it proved a popular alternative to the Submariner Date.
The 1970s marked some of the darkest days for the mechanical watch industry as the world fell in love with the precision and value for money of quartz. Rolex found their hand forced into engaging with the new technology as the crisis caused the bankruptcy of nearly three quarters of the traditional Swiss watchmaking houses around them.
After a prototype model, the ref. 5100 powered by an ensemble built caliber, sold out in pre-order in 1970, Rolex retreated to their Geneva compound to build their own movement from scratch.
In 1977, they unveiled two quartz driven versions of their Datejust and Day-Date, known as the Oysterquartz models. Although orders of magnitude more accurate than any other caliber the brand had ever produced with gears and springs, they had very little interest in electronics and produced the bare minimum.
The decade also saw the launch of the Explorer II in 1971, a watch similar in function to the GMT-Master but with a fixed rather than rotating bezel. It was aimed at the world of cave diving and polar expeditions; anywhere in fact where constant darkness or never-ending sunlight left wearers with no reference as to whether it was day or night. Although a fine watch in itself, and given a popularity boost by its association with Steve McQueen (albeit a completely erroneous one) the Explorer II lagged well behind the pilot’s watch in sales.
As the 1980s began, Rolex admitted defeat to quartz as far as timekeeping and cost were concerned and welcomed instead a new era for the company. Rather than try to compete on a coldly technical basis, they traded on the artistry, heritage and luxury of their watches. More and more precious metal versions of one-time tool models appeared, joining the gold Submariners that had emerged at the end of the sixties.
In 1983, the GMT-Master was given a movement upgrade that allowed for the two hour hands to be set independently of each other for the first time. It was such a significant step, meaning the watch could now actually track three time zones at once, that it was issued as a separate model, called the GMT-Master II. It also debuted a new color scheme on its bezel; the red and black livery garnered it the nickname the Coke, and it sat along with the original blue and red Pepsi and the yellow and gold Root Beer of previous generations.
But the biggest development of the eighties was the long-awaited self-winding movement that made its way into the Daytona. Procured from fellow Swiss manufacturers Zenith, the El Primero was heavily reworked by Rolex’s technicians, becoming the Cal. 4030 in the process. Overnight, the so-called Zenith Daytonas transformed the fortunes of the brand’s only chronograph, from the eternal underdog to the most sought after watch in the world.
The 1990s to the Present Day
Since the 1990s, Rolex’s output has reflected more their shift in focus to making aspirational status symbols rather than hard-working and necessary tools for everyday use.
In 1992, a more opulently appointed version of the Submariner was unveiled, called the Yacht-Master. Originally only available in 18k yellow gold, it also became the first of the sports watch range to be released in three sizes; 29mm, 35mm and 40mm, showcasing Rolex’s efforts to become more all-encompassing across the sexes.
The new millennium saw the Daytona receive an in-house caliber, the Cal. 4130, making the brand one of the very few watchmakers to create every one of their movements themselves.
From the second decade of the 21stcentury onwards, Rolex has changed tack again and begun issuing far more complicated watches than ever before.
It started in 2007 with the Yacht-Master II, sharing a similar name but little else with the previous nautically-themed piece. Inside the 44mm case, again, far larger than usual from Rolex, a highly complex caliber powered the world’s first ever programmable countdown with mechanical memory for the watch’s regatta timer.
The following year, they added another name to their range of dive models. Joining the timeless Submariner and actually replacing the Sea-Dweller (for a short time) the incredible Deepsea is rated waterproof to an extraordinary 12,800ft, thanks to some revolutionary engineering and cutting-edge metal alloys.
And the latest addition to the family, 2012 brought us Rolex’s most complicated creation yet, the Sky-Dweller. Equipped with an altogether different take on the GMT function, it also houses the first annual calendar the brand has ever made.
Throughout it all, the marque has led from the front when it comes to applying new technology to make their watches the best they can possibly be. They have pioneered new metal alloys, both in building cases and in their calibers, and have developed their own tests for resilience and accuracy, far beyond the standard used across the rest of the industry.
Various models have been retired over the years, with some, including the Air-King and Milgauss, making successful comebacks. But the one constant has always been the outright dedication to excellence which has kept Rolex head and shoulders above their competition, and it is a gap which only seems to increase as time goes on.
Rolex Watches Milestones
|Wilsdorf & Davis is formed in London, assembling watches from components sourced from different suppliers in Switzerland.
|Rolex produces the first ever chronometer-certified wristwatch
|1920s and 1930s
|Rolex transforms the image of the wristwatch with the invention of the waterproof Oyster case and the self-winding Perpetual movement
|Rolex celebrates its 40thanniversary with the release of the Datejust, the world’s first automatic, waterproof wristwatch with a date function
|Rolex introduces the Explorer, made to commemorate the maiden ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. The same year, the Submariner makes its debut, going on to become the most popular and recognizable dive watch in the world
|The first of the GMT-Master series is launched. Featuring a second hour hand and an engraved rotating bezel in a distinctive blue and red coloring, it is made to keep track of two time zones and help stave off some of the negative effects of jetlag
|The Day-Date, quickly nicknamed the President for its association with some of the most powerful figures of the day, is released. It takes over from the Datejust as the Rolex flagship and is the first watch to feature the day of the week spelled out in full.
The Milgauss is unveiled the same year, aimed at technicians and scientists, with a movement shielded from magnetic interference.
|The Cosmograph Daytona arrives, but its hand wound caliber, the Valjoux 72, condemns it to poor sales
|Working with highly specialized saturation diving firm COMEX, Rolex develop the Helium Escape Valve and fit it first to a standard Submariner. With that prototype a success, they build an all-new dive watch around it called the Sea-Dweller. With a thicker case and the HEV in place, it is able to withstand a depth of up to 2,000ft
|A second dual time zone model, the Explorer II, arrives. With a fixed bezel, it has a more limited functionality than the GMT-Master and remains somewhat overshadowed
|With the traditional watchmaking industry in major crisis, Rolex release their first and only quartz powered models, based on the Datejust and Day-Date. Although popular and extremely accurate, it is clear the company has very little interest in the technology
|The GMT-Master is modernized with a new type of movement that delinks the two hour hands, becoming the GMT-Master II. However, the original GMT-Masters continue to be made for a further 15 years, with their popularity sustained by almost identical looks but a cheaper price point
|The Daytona receives its first automatic caliber, instantly making it the watch to be seen with. Waiting lists stretch on into years and generate interest in previous generations of the model
|The Yacht-Master lands, essentially a more luxurious version of the Submariner
|The Daytona, after five years of exhaustive research, gets its Rolex-built movement—the Cal. 4130
|Rolex’s most complicated watch to date, the Yacht-Master II, ushers in a new era for the brand. The regatta timer has a programmable countdown and mechanical memory with flyback, and introduces the concept of the Ring Command Bezel—an analogue switch that unlocks the watch’s various different functions
|The Sea-Dweller is briefly retired to make way for the Deepsea, an enormous watch capable of diving to nearly two-and-a-half miles underwater
|The Ring Command Bezel is enhanced even further on the newest release from Rolex, the Sky-Dweller. A novel approach to the GMT complication, coupled with the company’s first ever annual calendar, makes it the ultimate luxury traveler’s watch
Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.