The Rolex Day-Date, alternatively and better known as The President, has been leading from the front for the last 60+ years now.
Launched in 1956, the flagship offering from the world’s most successful watchmaker has long been the first choice of the elite; an unashamedly luxurious statement piece and the ultimate symbol of achievement.
Everyone from hip hop moguls to…well, presidents—of both corporations and countries—have worn Rolex’s star creation, and the massive diversity across the range means there is a version suitable to be worn either on stage or in the highest seats of power.
Outshining the brand’s original front runner, the Datejust, released a decade or so prior, the Day-Date added a second complication; a notable move from a manufacturer that tends to shy away from excess functionality. So, while the Datejust became the first automatic, waterproof wristwatch to display the day of the month, the President one-upped it with the day of the week written out in full as well, in a window above the 12 o’clock index. The never-before-seen innovation, coupled with the watch’s stubbornly all precious metal construction, catapulted it instantly to the top of the tree, and it has stayed there ever since.
Rolex’s Quartz Years
However, even the very best are forced to move with the times on occasion. For the Day-Date, and for the rest of the mechanical watch industry, those times came in the 1970s, right at the heart of the quartz crisis.
The introduction of quartz technology had actually started in the 60s but, for once, the traditional Swiss firms had been caught dragging their heels. By the time they put up any serious resistance to the enormous number of cheap, battery-powered watches flooding in from Japan and America, it was more or less too late.
Around two-thirds of the country’s manufacturers, companies with generations of heritage behind them, were wiped out in short order. Twenty of those that survived, including Rolex, banded together into a conglomerate known as the CEH, or Centre Electronique Horloger. Their one aim was to develop a quartz movement of their own to even up the playing field.
The eventual upshot of the collaboration, the Beta-21, was put to work inside the watches of 16 of the CEH’s members. For Rolex, it was crammed into the ref. 5100, a model that had to be built around the movement. The awkward size and shape of the new quartz caliber meant it wasn’t able to fit into any of the brand’s existing Oyster cases, so the ref. 5100, coming in at a then-huge 40mm, was marked as ‘water resistant’ rather than ‘waterproof’.
That detail, along with Rolex’s reputation for rarely playing well with others, led to the obsessively independent brand breaking away from the CEH in 1972 to develop their own technology. Typically a company not to be rushed, it took them five years.
The Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date
In 1977, Rolex launched quartz powered versions of their two most emblematic stalwarts. The Datejust was released in three different variations; an all-steel (ref. 17000) a steel and yellow gold (ref. 17013) and a steel and white gold (ref. 17014). True to form, the Oysterquartz Day-Date appeared in precious metal only, in the ref. 19018 yellow gold and the ref. 19019 white gold.
Inside were two of the most over engineered and superbly accurate movements ever made, before or since.
While the Datejust took the Cal. 5035, with its single complication, the President was fitted with the Cal. 5055—very similar in design but with the added day of the week feature.
The Cal. 5055
While it may have taken Rolex a relatively long time to produce their two new movements, they each borrowed heavily from their mechanical equivalents. 1977 was a big year for both the Day-Date and the Datejust, with updated automatic versions as well as the quartz models all being rolled out simultaneously.
So the Perpetual Cal. 3055 inside the traditional President and the Cal. 5055 inside the quartz model shared as many components as possible, including the conventional Swiss lever escapement with its pallet fork and escape wheel. In fact, with the obvious exception of the latter’s electronics and pulse motor, the two were almost identical.
All the new movements also benefitted from a pair of features which had debuted, for Rolex at least, in the Beta-21. The Oysterquartz watches, and their Perpetual counterparts, introduced a hacking function that stopped the seconds hand while adjusting the time to allow for more precise setting. And a Quickset mechanism was introduced to allow the date to be changed by rotating the crown rather than having to spin the hour hands through an entire day.
The one unmistakable distinction between the two different types of caliber however, was in their accuracy. Whereas the Cal. 3055 more than satisfied the criteria for the COSC’s Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified tag, staying within the mean variation of +4/-6 seconds a day, the standards laid down for quartz movements were altogether more robust.
The first wave of the Oysterquartz watches were never submitted for testing, leading to the absence on their dials of the four magic words. It was only 18 months into their run, after the quartz crystal had been altered to a tuning fork shape, that Rolex put them forward for scrutiny.
Although the company has never made the results public, they were clearly well within the ± 0.2 seconds a day requirement, a performance that even Rolex’s decades of refinement couldn’t hope to match with springs and gears.
Another element carried over from the ref. 5100 onto the quartz-driven Day-Date was its styling. For that original prototype, Rolex had enlisted the help of legendary watch shaper Gerald Genta, the man responsible for the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet. The influences were immediately apparent, and Rolex kept the angular profile and integrated bracelet for their new battery powered model.
It is, purposely, a world away from the sleek, gentle curves of the traditional example. Rolex were very much dipping their toes into the murky realm of quartz under sufferance, and wanted to ensure no one was going to mistake the classic watch, cultivated over decades, with the one built for the new upstart technology.
The big, chunky quartz pieces were, and still are, an acquired taste; very much of their time, and lacking the understated subtlety that has long been the brand’s signature.
One aspect Rolex left well alone was the dial which, with the exception of the Oysterquartz text, could have been lifted straight from a regular model of the time. So the railroad chapter ring is present and correct, and the hour markers, as well as the five-point coronet logo, are all applied gold. The slim, straight hour and minute hands have a sliver of Tritium lume, while the seconds hand, of course, has the telltale one tick per second jump of quartz, and bad counterfeit, Rolexes.
The Oysterquartz duo struggled on until 2001, with the remnants all being sold out by 2003. In that time, just 25,000 examples were made, a tiny fraction of the output devoted to the mechanical models.
Of those 25,000, the majority were given over to the three separate Datejust references so, correspondingly, there are precious few of the Oysterquartz Day-Dates in existence.
Even so, finding one to buy on the pre-owned market, and at a good price, is not difficult. It is also something well worth considering as an investment.
The unusual styling of the ref. 190XX models is completing something of a full circle and becoming more and more in vogue as time goes on. With prices for even the ultra rare special editions, such as the ref. 19028 with its pyramid detailing on indexes and bezel, still relatively attainable, they are pieces to snap up sooner rather than later.
For the mechanical examples, their place at the top is as secure as ever. They have retained the same basic DNA as always, with perhaps a slightly more muscular look these days compared to the earliest iterations. The biggest alteration in their appearance has come very recently in the form of a new 40mm version offered alongside the time-honored 36mm model. Following the trend for larger pieces for both men and women, you are just as likely to find the Day-Date on female as well as male wrists today. The choice in different bezel, dial and bracelet combinations remains as bewildering as ever.
Incidentally, the new Day-Date 40 released in 2015 is not to be confused with the short-lived and not especially well received Day-Date II, a 41mm watch from 2008.
The President’s watch has a legacy unlike any other, a chameleonic masterpiece that has represented the epitome of success and accomplishment for over six decades. Its battery powered parallel remains a fascinating wrinkle in the Rolex canon, an ultra accurate oddity that served its purpose and helped the brand weather the storm from the east.
Both are exceptional products, built by the most consistently impressive manufacturer of them all and the kind of watches no real fan’s collection is complete without.