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05/14/2024
 6 minutes

My Top 5 Rolex Watches

By Kristian Haagen
5-favorite-Rolex-2-1

My Top 5 Rolex Watches

Here are five of Kristians top Rolex picks from a recent search on the marketplace.

Opinions on Rolex vary widely; some adore the brand, while others find the reigning monarch of Swiss watchmaking boring. But it’s hard not to admire this massive watch manufacturer to some extent, regardless of personal preferences.

Rolex is in a league of its own, and has been for decades. There are some household names from the brand, but it’s not always the typical run-of-the-mill models that appear in my search results on Chrono24. It’s often the older models or perfectly imperfect ones (i.e., wabi-sabi) that pique my interest.

Here are five of my top Rolex picks from a recent search on the marketplace.

Daytona Le Mans

Daytona Le Mans
Daytona Le Mans

If you listen to Hodinkee founder Benjamin Clymer talk about the white gold Rolex Daytona “Le Mans” in the April 2nd episode of “A Week on the Wrist,” you’ll soon learn how important he finds this model.

When the watch came out in 2023, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the legendary French 24-hour race, it not only took everybody by surprise, but it also reminded Mr. Clymer of an old advertisement in a car magazine from 1964 (the year after the first Rolex Cosmograph was launched), when the Rolex Daytona was known as – you guessed it – the Le Mans.

To most people, it just looks like a steel Daytona, but not only does its weight of 200 g reveal the precious metal used, but so does the display case back, which we also saw on the platinum version of the Daytona that was presented at Watches and Wonders 2023.

In marking the centennial of Le Mans, Rolex decided to highlight “100” on the tachymeter bezel in red and add a 24-hour chronograph counter, which also explains why the watch is powered by the caliber 4132 instead of the 4131 found in Daytonas from 2023.

This is a watch for the few. I’m fully aware of that. It’s not only a Daytona – which is hard to acquire anyway – but an anniversary Daytona in precious metal that, according to my sources, has not only been produced in a limited number, but also only offered to a select group of clients. And from what I understand, these clients share a profound passion for high-speed automobiles and iconic racing events.

The rarity of the Daytona Le Mans explains why this watch, which had a price of $52,000 at an authorized Rolex retailer before the discontinuation this year, is offered on Chrono24 at five-six times the original retail price. Let’s see where the new yellow gold version of this rare timepiece will start, once it comes to market.

Daytona ref. 16520

Daytona ref. 16520
Daytona ref. 16520

Speaking of Daytonas, my favorite from this racing-inspired line is the Zenith-powered version launched in 1988. It was the first automatic Daytona from Rolex, the first Daytona with a white dial, and the first Rolex to have a waiting list. Rolex spent two years working on it, fitting it with the high-frequency Zenith El Primero chronograph movement with a reduced 28,800 vph. It finally launched with what Rolex dubbed the caliber 4030, i.e., an El Primero movement with some 200 modifications made to it, ensuring the quality Rolex was and is known for.

One of the charms of this five-digit Daytona ref. is the slim case profile compared to the somewhat more bulky modern ref. 126500 from 2023. This, of course, adds to its wearability. But the steel bezel is also a personal highlight for me. Cerachrom is a great invention if the watch owner doesn’t like wear and tear, but I’m not sensitive to scratches and dings and appreciate the look of a timepiece that gets good use.

I own an excellent example of the five-digit Daytona: a black dial version with subdials that have aged well, giving them a beautiful chocolate brown tint known as “Patrizzi.” That small but obvious detail adds to the charm of this already highly coveted watch. Since Rolex is known for perfection, any deviation makes a watch all the more attractive to collectors.

Rolex With a Tropical Dial

Rolex Submariner 5512 Tropical Dial
Rolex Submariner ref. 5512 with a tropical dial

A lot of people consider a Rolex to be the perfect watch. However, perfection can also have a boring side, especially when we’re talking about timepieces; “perfection” is rarely synonymous with “creative” or “colorful.” This is part of the reason why Rolex watches with a tropical dial are so fascinating – at least to collectors of Rolex sports watches.

The dials in question were originally black when the Submariner, Explorer, and Sea-Dweller models were produced in the 1960s–1970s. However, due to poor production quality and the effects of humidity, many of these early dials turned from black to chocolate brown, and some are even sand-colored.

Any deviation to the norm attracts collectors. Black is black, but brown has many nuances and a tropical Submariner, Explorer, Sea-Dweller, or Patrizzi Daytona stand out from the crowd, raising prices substantially on the secondary market or at auction. I recently visited Burlington Arcade in London and stopped by the impressive showcase that is David Silver’s boutique, The Vintage Watch Company. The main reason I stopped was the carefully curated collection of Rolex Sports watches from the 1950s–1980s, including a stunning Submariner ref. 5513 with the most impressive tropical dial I’ve ever seen. It turned out that the watch was a one-owner watch, complete with box and papers. When I asked David for the price, he quoted 90,000 GBP (approx. $110,000). This was well out of my budget, but how do you put a price on fascination?

What had been a black dial when the watch was made in the early 1960s, had turned into a creamy light brown, which, to me at least, was the sexiest Submariner I had ever encountered. When I returned to David’s boutique a month later, the watch had been sold. When I inquired, David shared a picture of a certain Hollywood actor who must love tropical dials as much as I do, but is privileged with deeper pockets.

Explorer II Freccione

Rolex Explorer II Freccione
Rolex Explorer II Freccione

The Rolex Explorer II presented in 1971 is what one could describe as an oddball. Offering pretty much the same case as the GMT-Master of the time, this Explorer II does not have a rotating bezel and thus does not fit into the category of a pilot’s nor traveler’s watch. Instead, a big arrow hand indicates AM or PM via the fixed 24h-bezel. It doesn’t look like any other Rolex; not only because of the fixed 24-hour bezel, but also because of the unusual central hands.

The target group for this watch was spelunkers, i.e., people who can’t see daylight because they’re in a cave and need to know if it’s day or night. There were a lot fewer professionals in this line of work compared to pilots, who would typically opt for the GMT-Master. This explains why the Explorer II, aka Freccione, was never in great demand and often sat unsold in shops.

The Explorer II Freccione offers a complication that is mostly unnecessary. Moreover, it has a confusing dial layout as the minute indices don’t have the typical five-minute increments, but rather show the ones in between, which correspond to the stick hour indices on the fixed bezel. Confused? You should be. At least, I am every time I look at my own Freccione. Yet, the oddity is what is so appealing about this timepiece. It’s a Rolex, but it doesn’t look like a Rolex.

Milgauss 1019

Rolex Milgauss 1019
Rolex Milgauss 1019

Another unconventional model is the Milgauss ref. 1019. This watch is considered offbeat because of its 38-mm case size, which is not shared with any other Rolex then or now. The Milgauss was introduced in the heyday of Rolex watches made for professional use in 1956, and was updated in 1960 with the ref. 1019.

Like the previous model, the Milgauss 1019 was anti-magnetic to 1,000 gauss – hence its name – and worn by CERN scientists and professionals who worked in environments subject to high magnetic fields. The ref. 1019 was offered with a silver or black dial and a larger case to fit the anti-magnetic Faraday cage, which sits between the case back and the automatic movement.

Like the Explorer II Freccione described above, the Milgauss ref. 1019 also had atypical hands, making it stick out during its production run from 1960 to 1988. Again, this oddity makes the reference attractive in the eyes of modern-day collectors. There weren’t many copies sold, probably due to the unusual shape of the hands and case size. This scarcity, however, only adds to the collectability of the model today. That said, prices for the Milgauss ref. 1019 – like the Explorer II Freccione – have not gone through the roof.


About the Author

Kristian Haagen

I've been collecting watches since I was about 20 years old. I like vintage watches most; they often come with a fascinating history or a cool provenance. Provenance makes a watch far more interesting than any brand-new watch.

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