In Rolex’s more than a century of existence, they have given the world great armfuls of designs that can only be described with that most overused of words: iconic.
They have created pieces that are so well known, even people with no interest in the art and science of watchmaking can confidently name them at a glance.
However, models that are now accepted parts of the horological landscape didn’t just appear out of thin air. They are the end result of generations of relentless experimentation, development and improvement.
Those forerunners to the pieces we all know and love today, many little more than prototypes produced in numbers that barely broke double figures, represent some of the rarest and most valuable Rolex watches money can (just about) buy.
With the ever increasing popularity of the vintage watch market, we are seeing these blueprint models come up for auction more often, but with the flipside being the cost of owning one becomes the sole preserve of the super-rich.
Of course, Rolex is also famous for forever tinkering with their own designs once they have become established. The minutest variation to a dial or font leaves us with tiny subsets of otherwise mass produced watches, with a value that is completely disproportionate to the scale of the alteration.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the exceptional ancestors of a few modern favorites, as well as some incredibly scarce examples of some celebrated names.
Antimagnetique ref. 4113
Rolex had already been dipping their toes into the world of the chronograph for decades before the Daytona made its first, underwhelming, appearance.
In truth, none of the brand’s previous efforts were particularly successful and the company lagged a good way behind other manufacturers, preferring to get the three-hand basics right first before launching into stopwatch complications.
One of the exceptions was the ref. 4113 Antimagnetique from 1942. Believed to be only 12 in existence, they were never made available to the public and were instead given away as gifts to some of the era’s top motor racing teams and their drivers.
It ranks as the only split second chronograph Rolex has ever produced and, at 44mm, is also one of the biggest models to emerge from the company.
To date only eight have been located, all of them made from stainless steel, with silvered matte dials and raised Arabic numerals and baton markers in rose gold.
Although its styling is a long way from the Daytona’s design, it is easy to see the influence the Antimagnetique had on the later reference 6234, more commonly known as the pre-Daytona. Lay those three chronographs side by side and it is like watching evolution in action.
The ref. 4113 stands as one of the rarest of all watches from the brand, and the second one made held the record for most expensive Rolex to be sold at auction not once, but twice. The last time it went under the hammer in 2016, it fetched an incredible $2.4m
Zerographe ref. 3346
When you think of Rolex watches with rotating bezels your mind immediately goes to one of three models; the Submariner, the GMT-Master or, if you are a little bit more of a nerd, maybe the Turn-O-Graph, the first serially-produced example to feature the revolving surround.
But preceding all these, and by a long way, is the prototype Zerographe produced in 1937.
Not only was it the piece to debut a feature that would go on to become one of the most iconic (there’s that word again) elements of Rolex’s sports watches, it also stands as their very first Oyster chronograph with an in-house movement. To put that in perspective, the next all-Rolex chronograph caliber was the Cal. 4130, built for the Daytona 63 years later.
As a watch, it is even rarer than the ref. 4113 above. It is estimated that Rolex made somewhere between seven and 12 of the ref. 3346s, with only four known to still exist.
While it may be a chronograph in spirit, it bears little resemblance to the word as we understand it today. There are no sub dials, for instance, and instead the ref. 3346 has a constantly running central seconds hand which can be made to reset to zero and instantly restart with a press of the ‘mono-pusher’, the single button above the crown at 2 o’clock.
By modern standards it is somewhat primeval, but then we are looking at a watch that is over 80 years old. A flyback mechanism in pre-war times is still pretty impressive.
Rolex has never been recognized as the most forthcoming company in the world with regards to information about its past, and as such, not a great deal is known of the Zerographe. It is not only perhaps the rarest of their vintage pieces, but also one of the most mysterious.
What we do know is that an example with a black lacquered California dial, with an unusual mix of Roman numerals and Arabic hour markers, was sold at Philips’ START-STOP-RESET auction in 2016 for CHF389,000.
It is rare to say about a watch that costs more than a house, but for such an important slice of Rolex history, that almost sounds like a bargain.
The Rolex Milsubs
In truth, any number of ultra rare Submariners could have made it onto our list here. There are several versions that feature a prestigious jeweler’s stamp on the dial, such as Cuba’s ‘Joyeria Riviera’, that you could spend several lifetimes searching for and never find.
But perhaps the Subs with the best backstories, the ones with real character, are the ones issued to the UK’s military forces. These models, known colloquially as Milsubs, span four incredibly scarce and extremely valuable references of the world’s favorite dive watch.
Starting in 1954, Rolex supplied the British Royal Navy with 50 examples of their ref. 6538, nicknamed, appropriately enough, the Bond Sub.
After extensive field testing that lasted several years, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) suggested just two improvements; a redesign of the bezel to make it easier for divers to manipulate while wearing gloves, and replacing the standard spring bars attaching the bracelet with a solid bar soldered to the lugs.
The upshot of both alterations was the A/6538, the very first so-called Milsub which was issued exclusively to the Royal Navy.
That was joined a few years later by the ref. 5512, complete with its new crown guards. By that time Rolex had incorporated the MOD’s recommendations for the bezel into the standard Submariner available to the general public—the new style of surround overhung the edge of the case to make it simpler to turn. So the only difference between the military and civilian versions of the watch was the welded bars.
However, by the end of the 50s, the dangers of Radium, the luminescent material used on the Sub’s hands and hour markers, were becoming apparent and so all the Navy’s A/6538s and 5512s were recalled and sent to government contractor Burford, to have the radioactive lume stripped and replaced with the much safer Tritium.
These reworked watches were given a tiny letter ‘T’ in a circle on their dials, setting them apart as military issue.
Fast forward to the 1970s and Rolex again received a call from the British military, this time to supply their special forces regiments, the Army’s SAS and the Navy’s SBS, with Submariners.
Between 1972 and 1979, the brand furnished them with around 1,200 specially modified versions of the ref. 5513, complete with, on many examples, oversized Gladiator hands for better legibility and bezels which were graduated for the full 60 minutes, rather than the standard watch’s 15.
Along with the same circled ‘T’ on the dial, the case backs were also engraved, unlike the civilian Subs. Those issued to the SBS had the 0552 designation before their individual part number; those for the SAS were marked with W10.
By the end of the 70s, Rolex introduced the ref. 5517, a Milsub which was only ever supplied to the military, not the general public. Every example of this reference had bezel markings spanning the entire circumference as well as the large, flat, sword-style hands. In between, there were a tiny selection of ‘double references’, identified as ref. 5513/5517.
As you would imagine, any Milsub is incredibly rare. There are, for example, an estimated 12 of the original A/6538s still going.
The limited production numbers, coupled with the tortured existence any frontline equipment endures, means many more were made than survived. In addition, being military issue led to the watches getting sent away for servicing far more often than a civilian model would, so very few remain in their original form. The hands especially tended to be replaced as they were liable to oxidization and general damage.
Even so, the occasional one will surface now and again, and if you are thinking of heading to the auction house be prepared to bring plenty of cash with you. Prices for a Milsub, in as good a condition as you could expect, tend to start in six figures.
Of course, with that kind of money being offered, along with the relative ease of making a standard Sub look like a military one, fake Milsubs abound on the vintage market.
Have your heart set on one of the rarest examples of perhaps the most famous watch ever made? Do plenty of research.
Space Dweller ref. 1016
When you have built a reputation like Rolex have, through consistent excellence and groundbreaking design, you can forgive yourself the odd misstep. The Space Dweller is one such lapse of judgment.
Released on the back of the heroic exploits of NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts, and more importantly, the frenzy which greeted them on their global goodwill tour, the Space Dweller was, in fact, nothing more than a Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 with the name replaced.
It was launched as a test in 1963, and only in Japan, where the reception for John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the rest had bordered on mania.
But while America’s spacemen certainly had the right stuff, the reaction to the watch Rolex had chosen to commemorate their achievements was decidedly muted. The Explorer’s (sorry, Space Dweller’s) utilitarian design was just a little too down-to-earth, a little too simple for a world just entering the Space Age.
In Japan especially, known for its embracing of progressive technology, the humble three-hand styling was a throwback to a less advanced era and no amount of fancy name giving was going to change that.
As a result, the Space Dweller splashed down and sank without trace, meaning little more than a handful were ever produced.
Those few are now, of course, so highly sought after as to be almost unattainable.
The ref. 1016 Explorer itself is enjoying a major resurgence in popularity, as a watch that represents exactly what Rolex originally stood for—tough, tool-like reliability wrapped up in an elegantly minimalist shell. It was such a winning design for the brand that the 1016 was in production for a quarter of a century, with a change in caliber being about the only alteration deemed necessary.
It can even stake a claim to being the original Bond watch. Ian Fleming was a big fan and wore one for most of his life.
The Space Dweller then is an incredibly scarce and historically significant example of Rolex at their best. It failing to find an appreciative audience back in the day translates to a watch that today, for many, is the holiest of holy grails.