The scale of Rolex’s reputation means that just about every one of the countless models it has created could be called collectible. While the modern range is technically a mass produced item, the quality of the manufacture ensures they are able to withstand several lifetime’s worth of service and the timeless design aesthetics mean they never look outmoded.
Of course among the slew of different models going back over the company’s century-old history, there are some examples that are more collectible than others. They tend to be the rarest pieces, some little more than prototypes, released to test the waters with the watch buying public before going into full-scale production.
Others are those models that were never offered to the public in the first place; watches created specifically for military personnel or as special editions for the higher-ups at international conglomerates.
These are the timepieces that are often seen as the ultimate grails for enthusiasts, many of whom can go their whole lives without even seeing one, let alone adding them to the collection.
Below, we’ll take a look at the most important and sought-after versions from among some of Rolex’s biggest hitters.
The Rolex Submariner
With ten separate references of the Sub released in its first decade of production, it is obvious that several examples of the world’s favorite dive watch were going to be here and gone in the relative blink of an eye. Originally emerging in 1954, several of these early models were made for less than a year before being replaced or upgraded, leaving just a tiny number of each available on the open market for collectors to fight over. And within those already extremely rare versions are Rolex’s usual array of minute styling discrepancies, with some now so scarce they can be counted on one hand.
It was all part of the brand’s ongoing experimentation to find the best mix of elements, and it has elevated several specimens to near-mythical status.
So, for instance, it is estimated that only 100 pieces of the fourth Sub reference, the ref. 6536 from 1955, were made in total. Of those 100, only about 10 have the ‘Submariner’ tag picked out in red. Scarcer still are the Explorer dial examples—the one or two pieces fitted with the 3/6/9 Arabic markings instead of the typical mix of round indexes and stick batons we associate with the watch today.
But away from the very first models is another subgroup that tops the list of most hardcore collectors not just for their rarity (although they certainly have plenty of that) but also their backstory.
Starting with the ref. 6538, Rolex supplied the British Royal Navy with Submariners, originally equipping them with 50 watches which were tested in the field and then modified, very slightly, with fixed bars for the straps and a refashioned bezel. These, the first of the so-called Milsubs, were christened the A/6538s, and only about a dozen still survive today.
Equally hard to find are the other references issued to the UK’s military; altered versions of the ref. 5512 and 5513, differing from the civilian issue on most pieces by the addition of oversized sword, or ‘Gladiator’, hands and the graduations on the bezel continuing round for the full 60 minutes as opposed to just the first 15. The dials were also stamped with a small letter T in a circle, indicating that the hands and indexes had been filled with Tritium rather than the hazardous radium of early models.
The ref. 5517, the last of the Milsubs released at the end of the 70s, was made exclusively for the armed forces and was never made publically available.
The timepiece of choice for the SAS and SBS, these are watches with fascinating histories and represent perhaps the most coveted examples of the legendary diver.
The Rolex Daytona
Well, there’s no prizes for guessing themost important Daytona of the lot! Paul Newman’s personal wrist attire recently shattered the world record for most expensive watch ever sold, clocking in at $17.8m last year.
But there are legions of the iconic chronograph that hold a special fascination among knowledgeable collectors. Again, like the Submariner, the earliest examples will always be lusted after.
The original introduced in 1963, the ref. 6239, was dubbed the Double Swiss Underline. Before it had even adopted the name ‘Daytona’, the watch was officially just called the Cosmograph, the space-age term a result of Rolex’s competition with Omega at the time to supply NASA—a race they ultimately lost to the Speedmaster.
So, under the two-word title is a small hash mark. At the bottom, under the lower of the three sub dials, is the word Swiss, for obvious reasons. But the eagle-eyed will also notice the word printed a second time, barely visible, below that. It marks that particular version as one of the true rarities, made for a little over a year and commanding huge prices on the vintage market.
Another early and especially revered example is the Big Red, the ref. 6263 from 1965. Now officially called the Daytona (after a brief flirtation with the name Le Mans) this is the first reference to be fitted with screw down pushers to operate its stopwatch counters. As such, it was a far more waterproof watch than the previous examples with their pump pushers and was able to carry the word Oyster on its dial. The Daytona title, big and bold, is displayed wrapped around the top of the 12-hour sub dial at the six o’clock position.
Of course, the ‘Paul Newman’ pieces, with their stark black and white faces and Art Deco-esque fonts, remain amongst the most desired. The exotic dial models that officially qualify to be named after the legendary actor are the ref. 6239, 6241, 6262, 6264, 6265 and the 6263. All with the manually-wound Valjoux movement and with asking prices far above those of the standard issue versions.
However, if dropping six figures on a historic Daytona is a little too much to bear, there is a later version that is becoming increasingly sought-out which is slightly more attainable. If you consider around $25,000 as a starting point attainable, that is.
The Patrizzi dial models are restricted to the ref. 16520, one of the initial Zenith Daytonas released in 1988. Powered by an automatic chronograph movement for the first time (the El Primero), a fault in the paint Rolex used on the outer rings of the watch’s trio of sub counters has caused them to oxidize and turn brown over time, giving each one a unique and distinctive chocolaty coloring. A cumulative process, it means they will continue to change through the years, and collectors are increasingly starting to seek them out.
Many experts credit the Daytona with ushering in the modern obsession with vintage watch collecting, and its popularity only seems to be increasing. It has been released in a mind-boggling assortment of different versions and continues to be the mechanical chronograph against which all others are judged.
The Rolex GMT-Master
Alongside the above pair of watches, the GMT-Master has to go down as one of the all-time most emblematic creations Rolex has ever produced.
Changes in proportions and calibers aside, it is a piece defined by its bezel. That (sometimes) bi-colored, soda-inspired surround, was primarily designed to help wearers tell at a glance whether the watch’s extra hour hand was pointing out night or daytime, but ended up giving the GMT a look so distinctive it has been endlessly emulated and often downright plagiarized.
There are several references that will always head any fan’s bucket list. The very first, the ref. 6542, hit the market with not one but two troublesome features. The Bakelite used initially for the Pepsi (red and blue) bezel proved too fragile and would easily crack, particularly in excessive heat. Not only that, but the etched numerals around its circumference had been filled with Radium, the dangers of which weren’t fully understood in 1954, the year of the watch’s release. However two years later they certainly were, and all 605 examples that had been sold in the U.S. had to be recalled to swap the insert for an aluminum replacement.
Yet, there are still a slack handful of Bakelite bezeled GMTs floating around, with the original material giving them a charm all their own, but there is a particular variant of that very first reference that is so seldom seen it has reached almost fairy-tale status.
The watch itself was created in conjunction with Pan-Am and the airline commissioned a range of black dialed examples to give their pilots. In addition, they also ordered around 100 with white dials which were presented to the company’s top executives. These ‘Albino GMTs’ are a very big deal in the vintage Rolex world and seem to come to light about as often as Brigadoon.
The next in line, the ref. 1642, was a fantastically successful player and stayed in production for some 21 years, making it a fairly easy find on the pre-owned market. While there are some with the typical Rolex subtleties in dial font and text that make them especially uncommon, there is, again, one version in particular that is incredibly rare.
Dubbed the ‘Blueberry’, it was a standard ref. 1675 but with an all-blue bezel, one never officially offered for sale by Rolex through their authorized dealers. It was instead produced in extremely small numbers, either as a special order from some very select retailers (think Tiffany’s or Cartier) or else for various global militaries. The French and UAE Air Forces each had their own, with the UAE going as far as including their own logo on theirs.
Today, the real Blueberries, as opposed to the predominance of fakes that flood the market, are among the most elusive finds in the business.
With over one hundred years of relentless innovating and perfecting, there are standout versions of many of Rolex’s big name creations. It is what makes the practice of collecting watches from the world’s most famous manufacturer so engrossing. For a pick of the best, authenticated examples of some of your favorite models, check out our online store.