The Used Rolex Buyer’s Guide
Rolex has been in operation for well over 100-years now. If you take into account the sheer volume of watches they have produced in that time, spread across the huge variety of different models, it is no wonder choosing your first, or next, can get a bit confusing.
The good news is, it is practically impossible to make a bad decision. Rolex has a reputation like no other; the most well-respected timepiece manufacturer in the world, their name a byword for luxury, achievement and good taste. In addition, their overarching design philosophy has long been to create models not confined by their role. So, a watch originally created for diving, or timing race laps, or withstanding fierce magnetic fields, is still stylish enough to be worn in any situation, and tough enough to do it everyday.
So, with all that being said, we have put together this guide to help you try and make sense of some of the options available. Not just one watch against another, but also important questions such as modern versus vintage, new or preowned, standard or customized, right through to considerations such as future investment potential.
Hopefully it will prove an invaluable resource, but don’t forget, staff here at BeckerTime are always on hand to answer any specific queries you may have, either by phone or email.
Ask anyone to name the first luxury timepiece manufacturer that springs to mind, and you can be pretty sure nine times out of ten, you’re going to get Rolex as the answer.
The company left behind the mantle of mere watchmaker a long time ago and is now the ultimate lifestyle brand—the quickest and easiest way to demonstrate you have reached a certain level of success.
That alone would make them the most prosperous business in the industry. But their portfolio of models, past and present, embody some of the most well-made, beautifully engineered and iconic watches ever created.
From names such as the Submariner, GMT-Master and Daytona, through to the Datejust and Day-Date, they are pieces that have consistently led the way for others to follow, and with designs that make them utterly timeless.
Yet, while the aesthetics might alter only slightly from one version to the next, inside, Rolex watches are kept right on the cutting edge.
They are one of the very few brands that builds every movement that goes into every one of their watches themselves. Each component is made in-house, with the company able to exercise complete control over the whole process and the incredible tolerances needed. Additionally, all metals are forged in their own foundry, for the same reason.
It is why Rolex watches last as long as they do, routinely passed down as family heirlooms to delight a new generation.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent as you delve into the world of luxury watches is, there is always a more expensive option! It is possible to spend enormous sums of money on a Rolex, either at the very top end of the contemporary lineup, or else on an especially rare vintage example.
However, to think of the brand as ‘expensive’ isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, if you have just started your search and have seen some of the prices being charged, the buy-in might seem high. But go after the right model and you could well be pleasantly surprised at just how attainable they are. And, as we will explore in more detail a bit later, with a little homework, you will be very unlikely to lose money on it.
For those looking for their entryway into Rolex ownership, there are plenty of possibilities. The brand built their reputation on simple and elegant three-hander or time-and-date watches, and classic examples of a number of these—the likes of the Air-King, Datejust or Oyster Perpetual from the 1960s and 70s—represent some of the least costly models to buy. And with the glacial rate of change to the external designs that Rolex is famous for, a vintage piece looks very similar to a brand new one.
As a starting point, setting aside somewhere in the region of $3,000 to $5,000 will secure you a watch from the archives in excellent condition, significantly less than buying even the cheapest one brand new.
After that, the sky really is the limit. Each model has its lowest price of admission, based more often than not on its popularity rather than anything else.
Buying preowned, the least expensive no-date Submariner, undoubtedly the most famous dive watch ever made, will cost more than, say, the least expensive Milgauss (another fine model with a party piece of its own; resisting magnetic forces up to 1,000 gauss) mainly because the Sub has always been more fashionable. It’s the same story with the likes of the GMT-Master versus the Explorer II; two watches that largely do the same job, but you will pay more for the GMT as it has a greater recognition.
All the true legends in the canon will have larger price tags attached than the often overlooked models.
One other thing might strike you as odd as well on the secondary market. With the big hitters, i.e. the tool watch collection, the fully stainless steel versions might well cost more than an example with precious metal, either solid gold or Rolex’s own half gold/half steel concoction known as Rolesor. This too is down to demand, with a greater number of people wanting the all-steel model.
But there really is a Rolex watch at just about every price point. At the very top end, watches can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, some even reaching into the millions. Ultra rare models with great stories attached are becoming virtually priceless—but the preowned industry is vast and you will find a fantastic watch no matter what your budget.
Vintage or Modern?
Perhaps the biggest question to ask yourself, after working out how much you want to spend, is whether to go for a vintage model or a modern one.
Note, modern in this case doesn’t mean brand new from the store. There’s some debate as to exactly how old a watch has to be before it can be described as vintage, with no strict definition being agreed on. Many think any piece aged more than 20 or 30 years qualifies, with anything newer than that labeled as modern. (In some cases, it can come down to when a certain innovation first made it onto the particular watch in question, such as the introduction of sapphire crystals over acrylic marking the start of its modern era. To be honest, it is likely one of those disputes that will never end).
If you are just starting out as a collector, or if you were only after that one watch to last you the rest of your life, you are probably better off staying at the more modern end of the market.
Vintage Rolexes undeniably have a certain something about them, that intangible quality that just makes them, for want of a better description, cool. However, just like with a classic car, an older watch takes more looking after than a later one and you need at least a little experience with mechanical watches to know what that entails.
A modern watch won’t be maintenance free by any means, but it will generally be easier to live with on a daily basis. It will benefit from a more up-to-date set of components to keep it running for longer, and will generally have better accuracy.
If you do decide you must have that retro charm you only get from a vintage Rolex, you should factor in a more frequent service schedule to ensure you can keep enjoying the watch for the long term.
New or Preowned?
Another very important consideration; should you go for a brand new model from your local Authorized Dealer, or buy from the preowned market?
In many ways, this is actually one of the easier questions to answer.
The preowned Rolex market is huge these days, and its success is based on a number of factors.
Perhaps the biggest is price. Anything bought new, and especially a luxury item, will inherently depreciate once you leave the store with it. While that’s bad news for the first owner, it does mean that, once they decide to sell it on, the next in line stands to take advantage of a significant reduction in cost. In the case of the average Rolex, it can be as much as 20%, or even more in certain circumstances.
However, that isn’t a blanket rule right across the board and it ties in with the second reason for the current health of the preowned industry; availability.
The quartz crisis of the 70s and 80s forced Rolex to change their business model, going from being the manufacturer of fine watches and becoming the makers of luxurious symbols of status and achievement. The timepieces have continued to be improved year after year, but they are sold now with a greater emphasis put on their exclusivity factor, and in order to ensure that, the brand has ruthlessly restricted the supply of their most popular models to their own retailers.
Walk into any Rolex AD today and ask to buy a new Daytona or Submariner and you will quickly be informed that it will entail a long time spent on a waiting list, which could range anywhere from a few months to several years. In some cases, dealers won’t even be willing to add your name, with the list already too long.
That lack of accessibility has been driving the growth of the preowned market. Those unattainable watches are being snapped up by people with longstanding relationships with the dealers and substantial buying power, who immediately resell them after adding their own weighty premium to the price. Some of the most in-demand pieces, like the latest GMT-Master II ‘Pepsi’ models, now go for double or even more their official retail, and with no shortage of buyers waiting in the wings.
Go to an authorized Rolex store and it can be quite a shock to see how sparse the selection actually is. It is quite unusual to see any of the Professional Collection for sale, especially in steel. You will find mainly Datejust and Day-Date models, two absolute mainstays in the portfolio, along with maybe one or two sports watches, most likely in precious metals.
Of course, if you want any model which has since dropped out of production, then the preowned market is your only choice. Vintage or neo-vintage watches (those about 10-20 years old) or indeed any piece no longer made by the brand will only be obtainable as a secondary buy.
So what are the advantages of buying a brand new Rolex? Probably the most enticing is the question of authenticity. We’ll go over it in a bit more detail later on, but Rolex do hold the dubious honor of being the most counterfeited watchmaker in the world—the downside of also being the biggest. There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your money from running foul of a dishonest seller when buying preowned, which we’ll cover, but purchasing your watch brand new from an Authorized Dealer gives the most peace of mind.
In addition, all new models come with an industry-leading five-year warranty and you will be perfectly assured there’s no damage to the piece, either inside or out. Plus, there is just something really satisfying in being the first person to snap the clasp on a box fresh luxury watch and filling in your name on all the paperwork.
However, you do have to measure all that against the considerable amount of money you are likely to save going preowned, as well as the far broader range of options.
And speaking of options…
Rolex’s catalog contains more than a dozen models, with a huge number of variations. Some watches have only one or two available alternatives in terms of metal type or dial color; others have an exhaustive selection to appeal to any taste.
The brand uses a range of different materials in the production of their output, and below we give a quick rundown of each.
Oystersteel: Immensely strong, part of the 904L family of stainless steel more commonly found in the aerospace and chemical engineering industries, Rolex are just about the only mass producer of watches to use the metal. First found on the Sea-Dweller in 1985, it has since been rolled out across all the steel models and offers a higher corrosion resistance than the 316L employed by the rest of the world’s watchmakers. It also holds a distinctive polish, further separating Rolex from the crowd. It, like all the materials the brand uses, is forged in the company’s own foundry.
18K Yellow Gold: You will find vintage Rolex watches in 9K, 14K and 18K gold. These days only 18K is deemed good enough, and it gives off a classic hue.
18K Everose: Rolex has long used red gold in its designs, but in 2005 they created their own proprietary blend, adding copper to pure gold to give the distinctive warm color, and platinum to ensure it remains looking the same for a lifetime. The resulting metal has been christened Everose.
18K White Gold: A very popular choice for its versatility, white gold has palladium and beryllium added to pure gold to achieve the mix. Unlike some manufacturers, Rolex’s white gold watches are not rhodium-plated, guaranteeing they will stay the same color forever. The metal has also been used to ring hour markers and handsets since the mid-80s to prevent them from corroding.
Platinum: The king of precious metals, Rolex uses 950 platinum (95% pure, with 5% ruthenium) on a small and select number of watches. Among the heaviest, densest and most expensive metals in the world, it is reserved for the very top end of the portfolio.
Rolesor: First patented in the 1930s and in constant use since the 1950s, there is no other visual more ‘Rolex’ than their own Rolesor concoction. A mix of gold and steel elements, giving a two-tone watch, it is a signature look of the brand.
Cerachrom: Another innovation from 2005, Cerachrom is a ceramic alloy used for the bezels of many of Rolex’s sports watches. Extremely tough and hardwearing, it is guaranteed fade proof and scratchproof.
Luminescence: Rolex, and the rest of the watchmaking fraternity, have used and experimented with many different types of luminescence for hands and hour markers over the years.
The earliest examples you will find will have radium, introduced before the harmful effects of its radioactivity were fully known.
That was replaced with tritium in the 60s, still radioactive but at a far lower and much safer level. Then, from the end of the 1990s to the present day, the brand has gone through three other forms; first was Luminova, a photoluminescent material that was completely non-radioactive. That was quickly replaced by SuperLuminova, basically the same but made by a Swiss company.
The contemporary watches have a lume called Chromalight, made by Rolex themselves, which glows blue rather than the green of all the former materials. It is also said to start glowing quicker and last longer than previous types.
Rolex also offers different options in various other elements that come with their watches, each one imparting its own personality on the model as a whole.
There are six different Rolex bracelets (not including the Cellini models).
The Jubilee: Made especially for the first ever Datejust in 1945, the Jubilee is possibly the most formal of Rolex’s metal bracelets. Its five-link construction makes it particularly supple and comfortable.
The Oyster: The most widely-used and sporty band, the Oyster’s three flat links are perfect for a sports watch, but have also been used successfully on the dressier models.
The President: Created for the Day-Date, the President features three semi-circular links and comes with the concealed Crownclasp.
The Pearlmaster: Made for the highly ornate versions of the Datejust (also called the Pearlmaster series) the bracelet has an elegant offset five-link structure and it too is finished off with the Crownclasp.
The Leather Strap: Not a common addition, but found on some older examples, Rolex’s leather straps come in a range of different colors and hides.
The Oysterflex: Rolex’s first attempt at a rubber strap, the Oysterflex is actually a high-tech polymer over a titanium/nickel blade. It means the band has the strength of any of the brand’s metal bracelets, and will mold to the shape of the wrist with use.
Modifying a standard-issue Rolex into something unique and personalized is becoming an increasingly attractive option to many people.
Customization can take several forms, not all of them radical or permanent. It can be as simple as swapping the bracelet which, although it doesn’t sound like much, actually has a disproportionate effect on the overall look—with the added bonus that it can be switched back easily.
At the other end of the spectrum, blinging a watch up with diamonds or other precious stones on every surface makes it a definite statement piece, and not one for the average wallflower.
Between those two extremes, any visual element of a model can be altered or replaced; dials can be changed for a different color, the indexes given gemstone accents or a different bezel can be substituted.
The components can either be sourced from Rolex itself, or supplied by a third-party manufacturer; the latter of those will be by far the least expensive option.
There are a number of independent centers who can take on the work for you, and some in-depth research will turn up the best of them. Your first stop should be one of the many forums that cater specifically to Rolex owners. Asking the other members for recommendations is a smart move.
The most important thing to remember is, as soon as you change any part of your Rolex, the company consider it inauthentic and will refuse to service it for you. If the replaced part can be swapped back easily, that is probably the best way to go—returning the watch to its factory settings and sending it away to an official maintenance center.
If, however, that isn’t an option, if you have had the case engraved or the whole thing swamped in diamonds for example, you will need to search for an alternative. Fortunately, there are plenty of facilities more than capable of doing the work.
As lovers of fine watches for their own sake, we would never advise buying any model merely as a future potential asset. Any piece should be bought because it appeals to you and your own tastes.
That being said, there is no escaping the fact that certain Rolex watches have rocketed in value in recent years.
We’ve already covered the current steel sports pieces, the likes of the GMT-Master II and Daytona. If you were able to get your hands on one of those at retail, you can practically guarantee making a very healthy profit selling it on.
But what about older watches?
Prices for the most sought-after vintage Rolex models continue to climb year after year, until those at the top are changing hands for truly incredible sums of money. However, the market for classic pieces is immense, with many still perfectly attainable and which could easily become the next big thing at some point. So how do you spot them?
There’s no hard and fast rules here unfortunately, but there are some qualities to look out for which might work in a certain reference’s favor later on.
Probably the most important is scarcity. All Rolex collectors want to get hold of that piece no one else has. With the brand being a mass producer, building huge numbers of watches a year, finding the rare models isn’t always easy. Yet there are some iterations of popular pieces that were only made for a short period before being replaced with another, usually because of an upgraded movement or some other alteration. Sometimes called ‘transitional references’ these can make an attractive proposition for those with one eye on future financial performance.
Another type to look out for are those which have particular elements that are no longer part of the lineup. Vintage examples of the Day-Date and Datejust, for instance, had what were known as ‘pie-pan’ dials, where the outer edge was recessed, looking like an inverted plate. They were phased out in the 70s when they became completely flat, but many fans love the retro look and actively seek them out. The same applies for things like acrylic crystal instead of sapphire ones, or the no-longer made engine-turned bezels.
Similarly, the final versions of many of the tool watches before Rolex switched to the Supercase can make attractive speculations. Modern Submariners, Sea-Dwellers, GMT-Masters and Explorer IIs have lugs and crown guards twice the width of before to add a little more wrist presence. But the older traditional shapes are still appreciated by purists for their elegance.
Perhaps the best bet is a reference that combines all those factors—one which was only in production briefly and saw out a well-loved feature. An example that immediately springs to mind is the Sea-Dweller ref. 116600.
Launched in 2014, this was the comeback version of the watch after it was retired a few years previously to make way for the enormous Deepsea. Although hugely well-received, it was only built for three years (2014-2017), giving it an inherent rarity. In addition it was the last of the 40mm models (the latest have increased to 43mm) and it was also the last to not have a Cyclops over the date. The magnifying lens has been a bone of contention since it was introduced in the 50s, with some feeling it ruins the symmetry of the dial. The Sea-Dweller was often bought in favor of the Submariner solely because it was without it.
All those considerations working together make the ref. 116600 a very possible long-term investment. But like I said, there are no rules to this and even the top experts admit it is more a case of educated guesswork than anything concrete. The good news is, any preowned Rolex tends to hold its value better than any other make of luxury watch, with the possible exception of Patek Philippe, and the entry price there is on another plane entirely.
The crucial thing to remember is to buy the watch you love, and if it accumulates in value at some point down the road, that is nothing but a great bonus.
A Word About Authenticity
Finally, one of the major headaches in buying Rolex watches these days. The drawback of all the brand’s success is the problem of counterfeiting. As we already touched on, no other watchmaker has more forgeries in circulation than Rolex. In fact, some believe there are more fakes on the market than the real thing.
Back in the day, spotting them was easy, but as technology has advanced, we have now reached the point where you practically need to be a trained technician to tell the real from the imitation.
It has reached the point where even the box and papers are being recreated to add another level of deception.
The most effective defense against getting lumbered with a phony is to be able to have complete trust in your seller.
While there’s no shortage of the unscrupulous out there, the good guys do still certainly exist, it is just a matter of seeking them out.
Dealers who specialize only in Rolex are generally preferable. They will have the skilled staff who take the time to inspect and qualify all the watches they sell—study up on those vendors being suggested and check for things that will put your mind at rest.
Top of the list should be a guarantee of authenticity. If the watch is found out to be fake after you’ve bought it, you will want some sort of route to be reunited with your money.
Similarly, a rock solid returns policy, if you either discover something mechanically or visually wrong with the watch or you just change your mind, is an important consideration. Likewise with a warranty. You will want to have something in place to certify the watch will be repaired or replaced if the movement stops working.
The best suppliers will also have their own inducements which can prove very valuable, such as loyalty programs. At BeckerTime, we have what we call our Lifetime Trade-up Guarantee. We give you back the price you paid for a preowned model bought from us to offset the cost of a new watch. It doesn’t matter if it was bought last week or decades ago, it makes upgrading in the future far easier on the bank balance than buying through another dealer.
Purchasing your first Rolex watch is a great milestone in anyone’s life and, as such, is not something to jump into in a hurry. Take the time to uncover the perfect model for you, your tastes and your lifestyle, and decide whether you want to go vintage or modern, brand new or preowned.
The available selection will be far greater on the secondary market, and you will get a lot more watch for your money. But don’t neglect to do your homework on the retailer as well. More than nearly anywhere else, the phrase ‘buy the seller’ applies to the preowned Rolex industry.
— Featured & Body Photo Credits: Pixabay (cc) & BeckerTime’s Archive.