In the world of luxury chronographs, there’s the Rolex Daytona and then there’s everything else.
The most important and iconic wristwatch of the 20th century, a 45-year old example belonging to a certain Paul Newman recently sold at auction for the highest price ever paid for any watch from any manufacturer.
Today, vintage pieces, with or without a connection to Hollywood royalty, change hands for incredible amounts, and demand for brand new steel models is so great you have more chance of being struck by lightning than walking out of a Rolex Authorized Dealer with one on your wrist.
It undoubtedly hasn’t been all plain sailing however. Released in 1963 to a crashing wave of apathy, the Daytona spent its first quarter of a century as the perpetual spinster; left on the shelf, passed over in favor of other more popular and, crucially, more convenient options.
Those earliest pieces had one critical failing—their movement. Powered by an engine sourced from Swiss firm Valjoux, specialists in chronograph ébauche calibers, Rolex took their Cal. 72 and heavily modified it. Adding, amongst other things, a Microstella regulated balance wheel and a Breguet overcoil, it bettered on an already impressive performer.
Yet there was no getting around the fact that it remained a manually-wound movement. Launched in the era of the space race and with the first quartz watches making an appearance, winding a watch by hand was what you rolled your eyes at your dad for. As a result, customers walked straight past the Daytona and headed for the simpler, three hand and self-winding models on which Rolex had built their reputation.
The Zenith Daytona
The path to its current standing at the top of the horology mountain really didn’t start until 1988 with the release of the second generation.
Although the basic styling was similar to the original, the new range, starting with the ref. 16520, had grown in size up to 40mm from 37mm and its dials now came with a lacquered finish instead of matte or metallic. The trio of sub dials received a contrasting outer ring and, for the first time, crown guards and a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal were used.
Other than that, the lineage was clear to see, but it was the internal elements that proved a game changer.
The El Primero
The first automatic caliber to be used inside the Daytona, and arguably the first automatic chronograph movement ever made, the El Primero fell into the eager hands of Rolex’s engineers from legendary Swiss manufacturer Zenith.
Although it had been initially developed back in 1969, the quartz crisis had taken hold soon after and Zenith had been forced to shut down its production just three years later. Fast forward to 1987 and the worst of the danger had passed, allowing for assembly to start up again, now with Rolex knocking at the door.
But while the El Primero was recognized as the best chronograph movement in the business (one that is still being made today), it had a long way to go before it got to sit inside the Daytona. In the hands of Rolex’s technicians, it went through more than 200 separate modifications, leaving it with fewer than half its original components.
Its date function was removed and an entirely new escapement was fitted, with a larger free sprung Glucydur balance wheel and Microstella regulating system. The flat hairspring received a Breguet overcoil and the frequency was dropped to keep it in line with the rest of the professional range; from 36,000vph to a more relaxed 28,800vph.
By the time they had finished with it, Zenith’s El Primero had become Rolex’s Cal. 4030—and the Daytona had become a legend.
The Start of it All
Arriving at the end of the eighties, it burst into the limelight just as the craze for luxury watch collecting was reaching fever pitch. Demand for the flagship Cosmograph was all-consuming and Rolex’s reliance on an ancillary supplier hamstrung their speed of production so much they were unable to keep up. As such, waiting lists started to reach off as far as five years into the future, and the most impatient were more than happy to pay the huge premiums retailers added to the price to jump the queue.
The once ugliest of ugly ducklings had come full circle, and Rolex busied themselves releasing the Zenith Daytona, as it became unofficially known, forged from every flavor of precious metal, taking it worlds away from its spiritual racetrack home and into the realms of the ultimate status symbol.
The Rolex Daytona
While the Zenith-driven Daytona became the hottest property in the watch collecting scene of the eighties and nineties, the fascination with it started to spread back to its origins, and very soon collectors were clamoring for first generation examples as well.
Manually-winding or not, the classic references, and particularly the exotic dial Paul Newman versions, started to become more and more sought after. Many in the industry actually credit the Daytona with giving us the vintage market as we know it today. It all served to strengthen the watch’s, and Rolex’s, reputation.
Great news for the Swiss giant then. Their abject failure had become their most glittering success story almost over night.
However, there was still one overwhelming problem with the prodigal son. Rolex has always been fanatical about producing every element that goes into their watches themselves and seeing the calibers that ran their new darling being delivered to HQ from a third party was a situation that couldn’t possibly last.
The final piece in the Daytona puzzle was always going to be an in-house engine.
The Cal. 4130
It took them five years. Fittingly, the first all-Rolex Daytona was released at the dawn of the new millennium in the form of the ref. 116520.
Again, there was little to choose between it and the previous generation visually. The sub dials had shifted a fraction higher on the face and two of them, the standard seconds and the 12 hour counters, had swapped places. Beyond that, there didn’t seem much point in messing with such an obviously winning formula.
It was what was going on under the hood that wrote the headlines. Rolex’s relationship with Zenith ended with the arrival of the Cal. 4130; a barebones, stripped back movement entirely of Rolex’s own creation—and one now recognized as possibly the finest mechanical chronograph caliber ever made.
Taking their love of minimalist efficiency to new heights, the Cal. 4130 is made up of just 201 separate parts, a 60% drop on the El Primero, giving it the fewest components of just about any modern chronograph movement.
To achieve it has taken a huge amount of creativity. While the Daytona’s exterior may retain a familiar look, the differences between the old and new calibers are legion. Elements such as the minute and hour stopwatch functions, controlled by two individual mechanisms in the Zenith movement, have been combined into a single module on the Cal. 4130. In doing so, it has freed up space for a larger mainspring, giving an uprated power reserve from 50 to 72 hours. It also means it can be adjusted with just one screw as opposed to five. In fact, in the entire unit, Rolex has only needed to use 12 screws rather than 40.
Additionally, the ref. 116520 received new cutting-edge materials, with the antimagnetic Parachrom hairspring earning its debut. A niobium and zirconium alloy, it is impervious to temperature variations and offers up to 10 times the shock resistance of standard hairsprings. In 2005, it was upgraded again with a thicker oxide coating to protect its surface, one which reacts with the air and turns the distinctive color that saw it renamed the Parachrom Bleu.
Ceramic ball bearings were used for the first time in the self-winding system too, seeing a 68% increase in winding efficiency.
But the most revolutionary aspect came with Rolex’s use of a vertical clutch. The El Primero, along with just about every other mechanical chronograph movement, uses a horizontal coupling system to control the starts and stops of its stopwatch functions. With the Cal. 4130, Rolex arranged a pair of discs one on top of the other, running in a constant mesh with the drive train. Engaging and disengaging them with a clutch eliminates ‘backlash’, the tendency with horizontal systems for the chronograph hands to judder as they fight to gain purchase, giving a smoother and more exacting performance.
It also means the stopwatch can be run for longer without it affecting the accuracy of the watch’s timekeeping, and it has the rare advantage of being removable, meaning it can be serviced to ensure its continued reliability.
Clash of the Titans
The Cal. 4130 completed the set for Rolex. The first all-new movement the brand had created for 50 years signaled the last of their watch’s power plants to be brought entirely in-house.
Undoubtedly a massive achievement, it has added even more, it that was possible, to the Daytona’s desirability.
The demand for both the Zenith and Rolex examples continues to grow, and prices vary massively, with the Zenith having the advantage of rarity on its side. No longer being produced, and with the usual variations in its features occurring during its 12-year run, regardless of whether they were intentional, has given collectors a number of curiosities to track down.
The Patrizzi dial pieces, for example, where the silver track around the outside of the ref. 16520’s chronograph counters has oxidized and turned brown, have become extremely attractive investments, with each one being unique.
Pound for pound, the most Daytona for your buck, in either form, are the yellow Rolesor versions. The mix of precious metal and robust steel gives a great amount of versatility and it is still possible to find examples in five figure territory. But only just.
As always, it’s the all steel models that remain at the top of most wish lists, and the very latest ref. 116500 with the Cerachrom bezel is one of the most beautiful and capable watches money can buy.
But whether you go vintage or contemporary, joining the Daytona family is a big moment for any Rolex fan. The watch they couldn’t so much as give away for decades has evolved into the one everyone wants.
A true slice of watchmaking history.