Anyone with even a passing interest in fine watches knows the name Daytona. For Rolex fans it’s the word that will forever define this year, with that holiest of all holy grails, the example once belonging to Paul Newman, becoming the most expensive watch ever when it sold for $17.7m in October.
It was an unprecedented sum, paid out for an extraordinary watch; made all the more remarkable when you consider the Daytona’s painfully slow start in life. Originally appearing in 1963, what is now the most sought after model in the Rolex lineup was met with a cold collective shrug of indifference by the watch buying public.
Initially fitted with the Cal. 72 movement, sourced from legendary manufacturer Valjoux, it was always a superbly reliable and accurate timekeeper but was, critically, manually-wound. By the sixties, people were very much used to the convenience of automatically winding watches, thanks in no small part to Rolex themselves and their Perpetual calibers. As such, the first references of the Daytona were far more likely to be seen gathering dust on dealers’ shelves than worn behind the wheel of endurance race cars. There were even stories of beleaguered sellers using them as enticements, thrown in free with the purchase of other, more popular, offerings.
It wasn’t until 1988, when the heavily-modified, self-winding El Primero movement from Zenith replaced the Cal. 72, that the upswing started. The Daytona, with its handsome features and bombproof reliability, became both a vital accessory for racing professionals and a true statement piece. With Rolex hampered on how quickly they could produce the watch by their reliance on outside contractors, demand soon started outstripping supply to such an extent that waiting lists stretched off into years.
While an enviable position for any company, Rolex’s satisfaction over the sudden success of their once ugly duckling was tempered by it being the only watch in the range powered by someone else’s movement. The brand has always been fanatically insular, and having the heart of their world-beating chronograph delivered to them by outsiders stuck in many a craw inside their Geneva compound.
The Rolex Caliber 4130
Finally, in 2000, the Daytona received its first in-house automatic caliber. Rolex unveiled the Cal. 4130 with the ref. 116520, the result of five years of painstaking innovation and refinement.
As is typical with the brand, famed for the minimalist, uncomplicated nature of their designs, it’s what they took out of the Cal. 4130 that is as interesting as what they put in. With just 201 separate components, a 60% drop on its predecessor, they have crafted a movement with the fewest parts of any modern chronograph mechanism.
By stripping back to just the essentials, the Rolex engineers have been forced to extract every last ounce of efficiency from the pieces that remain. In some places that has involved consolidating several different elements into a single unit, revolutionizing the internal functions or introducing entirely new materials.
The Cal. 4130 vs. the Cal. 4030
The forerunning Cal. 4030, the name Rolex gave to Zenith’s El Primero after they had finished reworking it, was already a highly respected engine. While it had been considered good enough to run the show for the Daytona for over a decade, its replacement is now considered the finest mechanical chronograph movement ever made.
The differences between the new Cal. 4130 and its predecessor are considerable, and all designed to deliver the highest performance in the simplest manner possible. Whereas, for example, the Cal. 4030 had two separate mechanisms controlling the minute and hour chronographs, and placed one on each side of the caliber, the Cal. 4130 combined them both into a solo module. It means regulating the stopwatch function of the Daytona can be achieved with adjusting just one screw, as opposed to the previous five. Across the board, the new caliber uses only 12 different screws, rather than the 40 of the El Primero.
Uniting the chronograph components also frees up enough room to pack in a larger mainspring, raising the power reserve from 50 to 72 hours and, should it ever need replacing, it can be done without taking the movement out of the case—the Cal. 4130 is a big favorite with watch repairers.
That first of the new wave of Daytonas, the ref. 116520, also saw the debut of Rolex’s patented Parachrom hairspring. Made from a niobium and zirconium alloy of their own invention, it is impervious to the effects of magnetism and temperature variation, two of the biggest challenges to accuracy in a mechanical movement, as well as offering up to 10 times more shock resistance than traditional materials. In 2005, an upgraded version of the spring, with an oxide coating to further protect the metal’s surface, brought us the distinctive color of the Parachrom Bleu—and it found its way into all Daytona movements since 2007.
The self-winding system received a significant revising too, with modernized reversing wheels and, for the first time, the use of ceramic ball bearings granting a 68% increase in winding efficiency.
But out of all the improvements heaped into the Cal 4130, the most telling is the substitution of the traditional lateral, or horizontal, chronograph coupling system with a vertical one. The assembly involves a pair of discs, one on top of the other, in constant mesh with the drive train, engaged and disengaged with a clutch. It gives the advantage of precise starts and stops of the seconds hand, without the juddering backlash common with lateral clutches, as well as the ability to use the chronograph function for long periods without it affecting the watch’s timekeeping precision. In addition, the Cal. 4130 helps its reputation as the watch repairer’s friend by making its vertical clutch serviceable, unlike those of rival manufacturers. It can be removed, disassembled, lubricated and replaced relatively easily, prolonging its life and ensuring its reliability.
Other alterations included fitting a larger balance wheel and upping the jewel count to 44 from the previous 31. One of the few similarities between the outgoing caliber and its successor is the 28,800bph frequency that provides the sweeping seconds hand of all modern Rolexes. Interestingly, the original El Primero on which the 4030 is based was initially a 36,000bph movement. Rolex reduced the rate to help increase its robustness and reduce the amount of servicing it needed.
When Rolex at long last brought the Cal. 4130 to life, it marked their first new caliber for 50 years. It also elevated them into the rarefied company of one of the very few watchmakers who manufacture every caliber used in their range themselves.
While it took them an uncharacteristic length of time to accomplish, the movement they produced is a true technical marvel. Its precision, efficiency and performance have rewritten the rule book for what a mechanical chronograph can achieve—so it is only fitting that it powers a watch as legendary as the Rolex Daytona.