Review: The Rolex Date ref. 1550
For this edition of our series taking a more in depth look at some of Rolex’s most important references, we concentrate on a true rarity.
The Date, an ever-so slightly scaled-down version of the full size Datejust, has always been a bit of an outlier in the range.
Coming in at 34mm, the mere two millimeters it loses over its bigger brother has traditionally seen it trailing a distant second in the sales and popularity stakes, even though the pair are identical in every other way. The same functionality and engineering prowess Rolex poured into the 36mm piece is carried over onto the Date.
These days however, the smaller watch is enjoying a new lease of life as a unisex wear, its dimensions ideal for both men and women.
The ref. 15XX series, released in 1962, was only the second generation of the model, but a longstanding one, serving right up until the end of the 1970s.
It was released in a host of different configurations, which has long been the calling card of all Datejusts.
Yet the ref. 1550 is slightly different, made up of materials which are no longer part of the Rolex catalog. The choice in metal leaves it as one of the more uncommon examples of the piece, and certainly among the most attractively priced.
Coupled with that, it has a string of other nostalgic touches which push all the right buttons among vintage collectors—a beautifully underplayed and elegantly stylish watch that could act as both the perfect gateway into Rolex ownership as well as a sound investment.
Read on below for more details.
Rolex Date ref. 1550 Metals and Bezels
If you are familiar with the rest of the ref. 15XX family of Date watches, you will know the majority of the reference numbers start with ref. 150X.
The reason the ref. 1550 is different is down to the type of gold used in its construction.
Where the others in the range had all-gold cases, the ref. 1550 was forged with a stainless steel body which was then covered in a relatively heavy layer of the precious metal, in what was called ‘gold shell’.
That coating, in 14k and around 240 microns thick, would then be pressure formed, hammered and soldered into place. The result was a watch that looked like a solid gold timepiece, but one that was significantly less expensive.
It was Rolex’s way of making their creations more affordable, and getting them on as many wrists as possible (which seems to be the opposite of their current business model!)
The final digit in the reference number, the 0, denotes the type of bezel used. In this case it is the polished, domed surround that leaves the watch as a whole subtly understated.
There were plenty of alternatives to the ref. 1550 launched at the same time.
The ref. 1500 and ref. 1501 wore the smooth and engine-turned bezels respectively, and could be had in all steel, all yellow gold (14k or 18k) or the half-and-half of Rolesor.
The ref. 1503, another 14k yellow gold model, was given the traditional fluted surround.
One other highly unusual piece was the ref. 1530. These were only made from about 1975 to 1977 and feature the strikingly angular cases Rolex would go on to use, begrudgingly, for the Oysterquartz watches.
Rolex Date ref. 1550 Movements
With the ref. 15XX series in production for so long, it actually went through two calibers during its run.
For the earliest handful of years, it was powered by the Cal. 1565, an improvement over the former Cal. 1035.
The Cal. 1565 was the first Rolex movement to be given the brand’s own Microstella regulating system, featuring weighted screws on the inner edge of the balance wheel which could be easily adjusted to increase or decrease its rate. It was effective enough to make its way onto every subsequent caliber Rolex made.
The mechanism also saw the debut of the cam and jewel arrangement that caused the instantaneous midnight date change which originally made the Datejust so famous. Before its introduction, the changeover was a slow process which took several hours.
However, the Cal. 1565 still had a fairly low balance frequency of 18,000vph, so in 1965, it was replaced by the faster Cal. 1575. This shared many of the same elements, but worked away at an uprated 19,800vph, ensuring not only a smoother travel for the seconds hand, but a better timekeeping accuracy and more shock protection as well.
Commonly thought of as one of the greats in Rolex’s menagerie of movements, the Cal. 1575 would see the ref. 1550, and the rest of the Date series, right through until its next iteration in the 80s—the only upgrade being the addition of a hacking function around 1972. Now, pulling the crown out stopped the seconds hand and made accurately setting the time easier.
As well respected as the two calibers are, the one modern day convenience missing from both is a Quickset, allowing for independent control over the date numerals without having to wind the main hands through 24-hours. The Date would have to wait until 1983 until the Cal. 3035 was brought in for that. Interestingly, the 36mm Datejust received the Cal. 3035 a few years earlier in 1977, the smaller model lagging slightly behind around that time.
Rolex Date ref. 1550 Dials
Another area where the Date has commonly trailed behind the Datejust is in its dial selections.
While the latter has always been furnished with every different color face under the sun, including those in strange and exotic materials, the Date has been more limited.
Those it did get were generally from the more conservative end of the spectrum. On the examples with yellow gold present anywhere, such as the ref. 1550, the classic champagne dial is most prevalent, matching the tones of the metal exactly. Those in black, white and silver are similarly plentiful on the preowned market, along with a less common but attractive dark sunburst blue.
You may also come across a number of limited editions. Around this era, Rolex would regularly take commissions from various organizations, most often military and commonly from the Middle East, and include the forces’ insignia on the dial above the six o’clock. Although obviously scarcer than the standard variety, these are still fairly easy to find and have a fascinating backstory.
With the gold shell model being one of the least expensive examples of the watch, you won’t find any sort of diamond enhancements on the dial or bezel as you do with the more pricey models. Hour markers are most often simple batons, or else Roman numerals, typically on the white dials.
As for luminescence, Rolex was still using tritium throughout the ref. 15XX’s term, a radioactive substance but one deemed completely safe—and certainly far safer than the former radium.
And finally, the dial covering is the wonderfully retro domed acrylic crystal; the now-current sapphire type replaced it during the next generation of the watch.
Rolex Date ref. 1550 Bracelets
Solid Gold Rolex Date and Datejust watches are most frequently seen on the brand’s intricate five-link bracelet, the Jubilee.
Created especially for the inaugural Datejust reference in 1945, it lends a formal air to the watch and is commonly acknowledged as a supremely comfortable band.
The most common option for the 1550 model was the sporty, three-link Oyster, a more casual option but still perfectly good as an all-day wear.
During this period, Rolex’s bracelets were going through several design changes, with the links evolving from riveted to folded to oval. However, on all, the center links were still hollow, meaning the overall weight is significantly less than their modern day equivalents.
One last period detail you will find on all examples of the ref. 1550; lug holes in the case.
What Rolex dubbed their ‘golden eggs’, the gold shell watches make an excellent introduction to the brand, giving all the aesthetics of a solid 18k model but at a much reduced cost.
The ref. 1550 is a great example, with classic lines and a battle-hardened movement, it is versatile and reliable enough as an everyday companion, and with enough vintage nods to delight any collector.
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— Featured & Body Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.