The Rolex Metals Series: Stainless Steel -

The Rolex Metals Series: Stainless Steel

Traditional watchmaking is a fantastically complicated activity. Even the simplest movement, for example, will contain at least 100 separate components, all of which have to work together within tolerances measured in microns.

But just as important as the underlying mechanics is selecting the right material with which to make all the various aspects—from the tiniest wheel inside a caliber, to the housing of the watch itself.

At Rolex, the brand has always produced cases forged in a variety of different metals, from the hardwearing but humble stainless steel, to the shimmering opulence of platinum. In between, gold in all its flavors and purities have made an appearance at one time or another.

In this series, we are going to explore the various alloys Rolex has employed over the years, as well as the watches cast in that particular metal.

To start off, we’ll take a look at the most widely used; steel.

Rolex Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is so prevalent in watchmaking for a number of reasons. It is, firstly, an especially strong metal and so, as far as Rolex are concerned, it is the perfect choice for their collection, whether the industry-leading tool models or even the dressier pieces. It is a much harder material than gold or platinum, making it a more durable option for a watch meant to be worn everyday.

It is also the least expensive of all the metals used which, technically speaking, should make the steel models the cheapest to buy.

However, as anyone who has fancied grabbing themselves a steel Daytona or GMT-Master II in the last few years will tell you, that often isn’t the case.

Certain steel Rolex sports watches are massively popular, leading to huge shortages at authorized dealers for new models, and wildly ballooning prices, often outdoing gold or Rolesor versions of the same model, as secondary buys.

What Steel Does Rolex Use?

One of the most talked about developments at Rolex in the modern era was their transfer to a new grade of steel.

Up until the late 80s they, like the rest of the watchmaking industry, used what is known as 316L steel. Alternatively known as marine grade or surgical steel, 316 is the second most common type of the metal, and 316L is the low carbon version of it. It is made up of iron, chromium, nickel and molybdenum, with trace amounts of silicon, phosphorus and sulphur.

Extremely strong and durable, it has been used for decades across numerous fields, including the chemical and petrochemical industries, as well as in medical and food processing applications. Its resistance to corrosion also makes it an excellent choice for maritime functions—but, as Rolex found out, it is not infallible.

The company discovered that their dive watches, those that got particularly heavy use, were still susceptible to deterioration and pitting within the screw threads on the case backs. Salt water and sweat could eventually cause a decay, which wasn’t an issue with the watches made from gold and platinum.

The answer was a different type of steel, one which upped the amount of nickel and chromium, and also added copper. 904L was the clear choice, the extra elements giving it even greater resilience to chloride solutions, along with superior protection to sulphuric, phosphoric and acetic acids. It also had the bonus of being completely antimagnetic in all conditions, and it was able to hold a far greater polish than the previous alloy.

Its downsides were mainly the cost (about 2-3 times greater than 316L) and the fact that it was more difficult to work with, requiring expert technicians and more sophisticated machining.

In 1988, Rolex unveiled their first 904L steel model which was, fittingly enough, the Sea-Dweller. The novel material helped to separate Rolex even further from their competition, and also kept them a step ahead of one of their biggest problems; counterfeiters. Working with 904L is so difficult, expensive and specialized that practically no other legitimate watchmaker (with the exception of Ball) has taken it on, let alone the forgers.

In 2003 Rolex, at huge cost, switched their entire production line over to 904L, what they have recently dubbed Oystersteel. Like every other metal they use, it is forged in their own foundry, giving them the ability to completely regulate everything that goes into their products. That, and their unfailing quality control, is what continues to keep the brand at the forefront of the business.

Rolex Stainless Steel Watches

Almost every watch in the Rolex collection has been released in stainless steel.

For some, it is the only option available; for others, it is just one in a diverse range.

As a general rule, the sports/tool models will have been first released in steel, with the most popular (Submariner, Daytona, GMT-Master, etc.) then graduating to precious metal options later on.

At the more dressy end, certain pieces, like the Day-Date, have never had any steel anywhere in their makeup. But something like the Sky-Dweller or Yacht-Master, which were originally exclusively gold watches, have been issued in more recent years with a steel case, topped with a gold or platinum bezel. These are still commonly referred to as the ‘steel versions’.

You can tell the different types of metal a Rolex watch is forged from by its individual serial number. Depending on the age of the model, the number will be between four and six digits long and, apart from the very earliest examples, the last number signifies the material. In the case of stainless steel (either 316L or Oystersteel) that number is 0.

Below, we look at which models Rolex has released in steel, their reference numbers and years of production.

The Air-King

Ref. Year
1401 1943-1945
4365 1945-1946
4925 1945-1946
4499 1946-1953
6552 1953-1957
6652 1953-1957
5500 1957-1989
5700 1958-1963 (Air-King Date)
14000 1989-2000
14010 1989-2000
14000M 2000-2007
14010M 2000-2007
114200 2007-2017
114210 2007-2017
116900 2017-Current

The Date

Ref. Year
6535 1950-1962
1500 1962-1983
1501 1962-1983
1503 1962-1983
15000 1983-1991
15010 1983-1991
15200 1991-2014
115200 2014-Current

The Datejust

Ref. Year
1600 1959-1977
1603 1959-1977
16000 1977-1988
16030 1977-1988
16200 1988-2006
116200 2006-2019
126200 2019-Current
126300 2016-Current (Datejust 41)

The Datejust II

Ref. Year
116300 2012-2015

The Daytona

Ref. Year
6239 1963-1969
6240 1965-1969
6241 1965-1969
6262 1969-1970
6264 1969-1972
6263 1971-1988
6265 1971-1988
16520 1988-2000
116520 2000-2016
116500LN 2016-Current

The Explorer

Ref. Year
6298 1953-1959
6350 1953-1959
6610 1959-1963
1016 1963-1989
14270 1989-2001
114270 2001-2010
214270 2010-Current

The Explorer II

Ref. Year
1655 1971-1985
16550 1985-1989
16570 1989-2011
126570 2011-Current

The GMT-Master

Ref. Year
6542 1954-1959
1675 1959-1979
16750 1979-1988
16700 1988-1998

The GMT-Master II

Ref. Year
16760 1983-1989
16710 1989-2007
116710 2007-2018
126710 2018-Current

The Milgauss

Ref. Year
6543 1954-1956
6541 1956-1960
6019 1960-1963
1019 1963-1988
116400 2007-Current

The Oysterdate

Ref. Year
6094 1953-1955
6294 1955-1956
6494 1956-1958
6694 1958-1989

The Oysterquartz Datejust

Ref. Year
17000 1977-2001

The Oyster Perpetual

Ref. Year
1002 1959-1988
1003 1959-1988
1005 1959-1988
1007 1959-1988
1018 1965-1968
114200 2014-Current
114300 2015-Current
116000 2014-Current

The Sea-Dweller

Ref. Year
1665 1967-1983
16660 1978-1989
16600 1989-2009
116660 2008-Current (Deepsea)
116600 2014-2017
126600 2017-Current

The Submariner

Ref. Year
6204 1953-1954
6200 1954-1955
6205 1953-1957
6536 1955-1959
6538 1955-1959
5510 1958-1959
5508 1958-1962
5512 1959-1978
5513 1962-1990
5514 1972-1978
14060 1990-2012
14060M 1998-2012
114060 2012-Current

The Submariner Date

Ref. Year
1680 1967-1979
16800 1977-1987
168000 1987
16610 1987-2010
116610 2010-Current

— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.

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