Art on the Wrist: Rolex, the Watch of Adventurers

This Ref 6263 Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman' sold for $1.1 million at Christie’s in 2013
(Courtesy Christie’s )

Throughout the last century, Rolex watches have been known to go swimming, diving, mountain climbing, flying, speed racing, and even star in movies.

Starting in 1927, when a Rolex Oyster was the first waterproof watch to cross the English Channel on the wrist of young swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, the company has been phenomenal at marketing these achievements. In 1935, a personalized Rolex oyster was strapped firmly around the wrist of Sir Malcolm Campbell as he raced through the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah at a record-breaking speed of 300 miles per hour. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay put a couple of Oyster Perpetuals on the summit of Mount Everest; that same year, the Submariner, the first divers’ watch, waterproof to a depth of 100 meters, was born, and would soon be worn by James Bond, played by Sean Connery, to wear in the 1962 film Dr. No.

 

Then, in 1955, the GMT-Master was developed, on the request of Pan American World Airways, to meet the specific needs of airline pilots who were battling jet lag. These milestones, according to auctioneers, are the key to Rolex’s enduring appeal. “Many campaigns of Rolex imply that the men who shape the destiny of this planet wear Rolex,” notes Aurel Bacs, senior consultant at Phillips’ recently created watch department, which is holding a sale of Rolex Day-Date timepieces, as part of its inaugural watch auction, in Geneva on May 9.

“Collectors love the romantic notion that these watches were really created for professional use,” says Reginald Brack, senior vice president and international head of retail of the watch department at Christie’s. “Rolex really has always been a problem solver — they always want newer and better functioning watches, like the military Submariner made for the British Royal Navy in the late 1970s. When those come up at auction, they are always in the six-figure range.”

Indeed, Rolex has built a reputation as a watchmaker that develops timepieces for professional activities, such as climbing, diving, flying and exploring, and that serve as tools whose functions go far beyond simply telling the time.

According to Nate Borgelt, assistant vice president and specialist in Sotheby’s Watch Department, they appeal to collectors because while their designs have remained largely standard, the variations in specific models over the years allows you to easily trace the lineage of each one. And because they are made to be so durable, “the way they age is much better than most watches,” notes William Rohr, watch consultant at Bonhams. “They develop a nice patina with time. Together with a great storyline, you get a product that’s still very modern in terms of its look, and a watch that is very reliable.”

Notwithstanding the youth of the watch collector’s market, which started about 25 years ago, Rolex watches have consistently been fetching higher prices at auctions, according to auction house specialists. Vintage Rolex models from the 1950s and 1960s that have survived in original condition command extremely high premiums; in some cases, a watch that cost $100 then may fetch $100,000 now, depending on its rarity as well.

“As scholarship has accelerated in the last several years, people have figured out that the earliest versions of chronographs were made in only 10, 20, maximum 100 examples, meaning they are as rare as an oil on canvas by Picasso,” says Bacs, who went as far as to say Rolex has been the No. 1 market outperformer in the last three years, with prices growing from the low-five digits to the high-five digits.

The most collectible models of Rolex timepieces have nicknames, such as the Steve McQueen, or the Paul Newman, in association with the magnetic movie stars who wore them. McQueen, the king of cool, was partial to the Explorer II, while Newman’s choice was the Daytona. In fact, the Ref 6263 Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman,’ a steelcased mechanical chronograph (pictured at top), sold for a record-breaking $1.1 million at Christie’s Lesson One sale, which featured 50 exception examples of Rolex Daytonas, in 2013. It is one of just four Rolex watches that have been known to break through the million dollar sale mark. Another example was a Rolex Split-Second Chronograph Ref 4113, which was incredibly complicated (especially for a Rolex), unusually large (at 44mm) for its time, had a very thin bezel (also uncommon for a Rolex), and was one of only 12 ever made.

“When it comes to Rolex, the big variations on the results at auction are all in the details,” says Borgelt, adding that the most sought-after Paul Newman Daytonas come with ‘exotic’ black-and-white dials with contrasting red accents. “Vintage Submariners and Sea-Dwellers with red accents to the dials, or some fading to the dials, are sought after by collectors as well.”

If you want to get more specific, look out for examples with underlined dials. According to Brack, Rolex made these for a two-year period in the early 1960s “to let United States customs know they had stopped using radium, which was radioactive, on the dials, and were using tritium instead. All these little descriptors are things that potentially turn a $5,000 into a $100,000 watch.”

Other rare specimens include retailer-stamped dials, such as the only known example of a Paul Newman Daytona retailed (and signed) by Parisian luxury house Hermès, which realized $519,776 at Christie’s in 2013, as well as a screw-down, manual wound vintage Daytona with “Tiffany & Co.” stamped on the dial that Christie’s sold in a private sale earlier this year for about $150,000. “It’s usually a $40,000-$45,000 watch, otherwise,” adds Brack.

And in 2011, Antiquorum sold an extremely rare — one of only six made— Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 6284, with a dial featuring a cloisonné enamel map of the two Americas by Marguerite Koch, for $717,000.

Meanwhile, auctioneer Phillips, in choosing the Day-Date to headline its inaugural sale, is presenting a timepiece that represents one of the most prestigious Rolex products since the 1960s, because it is only produced in precious metals such as gold and platinum, and yet is one of the best value for money timepieces out there. The Phillips sale is offering examples in varying colors and design elements, as well as dials made of unexpected materials like marble, opal, mahogany, and fossil — ranging in estimate from $8,000 to $100,000.

Dubbed the President’s watch because it is popular with world leaders, the Day-Date “has everything you need but nothing more, and can only be improved by modernizing it,” says Bacs.

Indeed, the watch’s appeal lies in its simplicity, modernity, and discretion.

“It’s interesting that Rolex isn’t prized for super-complicated watches. The most complicated one is the Cosmograph Daytona, which is a hand chronograph worn by many sportsmen,” observes Rohr. “But their watches are of high quality, and, tied up with the social appeal of the brand, you get a product that sends a message of leisure and nonchalance.”

As Bacs puts it: “Everyone should at least once in their lifetime have a Rolex on their wrist.”