Modern Rolex Versus Vintage Rolex
For Rolex collectors, this is really the biggest question of them all; which is better—the current lineup of contemporary models, or the brand’s vast archive of vintage pieces?
Obviously, ‘better’ is all very subjective, and what some people see as the pros of one, others will see as cons and vice versa.
With no wish to start an argument and pour oil on the flames, I thought I would take as impartial a view of the whole thing as possible and set out the major differences between the old and the new, and hopefully it will be a help to anyone sitting on the fence about which way to go.
This is often the first thing many would-be collectors want to know about, so let’s get it out of the way upfront.
With the exception of the very rare pieces (Double Red Sea-Dwellers, Big Crown Subs, Paul Newman Daytonas and the like), a vintage Rolex will generally be more affordable than a new one.
Wandering into an Authorized Dealer and coming out with a box fresh, never-before-worn model might be one of those uplifting experiences everyone should treat themselves to at least once, but Rolexes, like any luxury item, depreciate the moment you leave the store.
It means buying a pre-owned or vintage version, once that financial nosedive has become the other guy’s problem, can save you a significant amount. It depends on the particular watch, but it could be as much as 20%-30%. Vintage Datejusts especially represent an extremely tempting option over brand new examples.
Of course, all this talk of simply buying your Rolex at an Authorized Dealer in the first place is a little misleading. Ask anyone who’s tried it and you will likely be told tales of frustration, fruitless searching and terrifying waiting lists. If you had your heart set on becoming owner number one of any of the brand’s legendary tool watch icons for example, you are going to have to work for it. And if you wanted a brand new steel version, well, best of luck.
Rolex have built themselves a reputation of exclusivity by severely limiting the number of their biggest hitters available for sale, thus creating huge demand. Rumor has it that each of their network of dealers gets just one or two stainless steel Daytonas a year to sell, to verygood customers.
That is obviously not a problem with vintage models. No one is artificially restricting their supply, and there will be exponentially more available.
One thing that should not make any real difference to your choice is performance. Rolex are renowned for their calibers being about as reliable, accurate and, crucially, durable as possible. With a reasonable amount of care, a Rolex movement is going to keep ticking away year after year, outliving you, me and whoever happens to inherit the watch after we’re gone. The one proviso to that is if you are delving a very long way back into a model’s history, where certain spare parts may no longer be obtainable. Having to find discontinued components from alternative sources can get pricey.
All that being said, you should definitely consider having older watches serviced more frequently. Where the latest offerings from Rolex have been given an incredible 10 year maintenance schedule, older examples could use a spot of TLC every seven years or so at a minimum.
One other possible advantage a modern mechanism will have is the level of convenience. The handy Quickset feature, where the date can be altered via the crown rather than by spinning the main hands through 24-hours, wasn’t introduced until the mid-70s.
In the most general terms, a modern watch is liable to be bigger than its vintage equivalent. Most of the contemporary lineup have increased in size over the generations, with the likes of the Submariner actually debuting as a 38mm piece before growing to 40mm soon after. Similarly, the original 40mm Sea-Dwellers recently graduated to 43mm after more than half a century. Others, such as grand old statesmen the Day-Date and Datejust have been given larger versions to run alongside their age-old 36mm models.
This all comes down to a matter of personal taste and wrist size. While nothing Rolex produces, or has ever produced, could realistically be termed ‘outsized’ relative to other brands in the industry, getting just the right fit is vital to your enjoyment of the watch.
How a vintage Rolex looks in comparison to its modern day counterpart is really the crux of the matter. The manufacture is famous for its glacial rate of change when it comes to altering the shapes of its core offerings. But while the latest GMT-Master, for example, is very clearly of the same breed as the 1954 original, the two do have definite visual differences.
Broadly speaking, a modern Rolex looks more solid, more muscular. The Maxi case was introduced in the 2000s, mainly so the brand could offer watches that appeared bigger to cater to the overriding trend of the time without actually having to physically up the dimensions. So the lugs and crown guards almost doubled in thickness, giving the illusion of an increase in size.
Beyond that, one of the most enticing draws for many vintage fans is the telltale sign of an intriguing backstory. Unlike, say, the world of vintage car collecting, which prizes concourse condition above all else, with watches, a few scuffs, scrapes, a hint of patina or a cracked spider dial only add to the desirability. It all serves to give some character to the piece, and as no two live the same life, it makes each one unique.
Newer Rolexes are obviously engineered to shrug off the results of any kind of mistreatment as much as possible. Modern sapphire crystals are nigh-on unscratchable, and the recent introduction of their proprietary ceramic bezels, Cerachrom, means they will look exactly the same in 20 or 30 years as they do when they roll off the production line.
Again, it’s different strokes for different folks, and there is just as much to be said for a watch that will always look pristine as there is one with an interesting history written on its surfaces.
One clear advantage of buying a new Rolex is the issue of authenticity. It is a sad fact we are talking about a marque which is, by far, the most counterfeited watch brand in the world. The closest you can come to being 100% sure you are getting the genuine item is by purchasing it through an Authorized Dealer.
The vintage Rolex market is awash with the unscrupulous, and it can be a minefield of redials, replacement parts, Frankenwatches or out-and-out fakes.
While there are certainly plenty of good guys out there, it takes more effort to find them than it does to walk into an official boutique.
As I said at the beginning, the modern versus vintage debate can get fairly involved. There is, of course, no right answer for everyone. Rolex has made it their life’s work to unrelentingly advance every aspect of their watches, but a traditionalist will always prefer a certain stage of development over another for their own personal reasons. No one would argue the modern range of bracelets, for instance, with their solid links and beautifully engineered clasps, are far more substantial than older versions, giving a greater feeling of security on the wrist. But against that, the significant increase in weight can be off-putting to some, who prefer the lighter, hollow-linked variety.
In the end, whether brand new or from times gone by, there is the perfect Rolex watch for everyone, and the real fun is finding it for yourself.