The stage is set: You’re killing it at work. You’ve got some extra cash. It’s time for a nice watch. A Rolex watch. There’s just one problem — or three, rather. Unprecedented demand, a global pandemic and limited production mean there’s too few watches to go around.
Your best bet? The preowned market, where supply's aplenty and even deals await. Here, five tips to dial in your search.
Think small, literally. There’s more to Rolex than Submariners, Daytonas, and GMT-Master IIs. There’s a mind-blowing variety of options, many under $5,000, in the 34 to 36mm range. Forget the small-watch stigma and check out 36mm Datejusts and vintage 34mm Oyster Perpetuals. If sub-40mm is good enough for Ryan Gosling, it’s good enough for you.
Study your target. The Rolex world — vintage, preowned and new — is rife with fakes, “Frankenwatches” and all sorts of shenanigans. Once you’ve found a model you want to buy, study up on what it’s supposed to look like. Watch YouTube videos, go into boutiques and stores and begin handling watches. Speak to experts, buy some reference materials. This part might seem tedious but it will save you a lot of trouble when it’s finally time to buy.
Buy from a reputable seller. Can you score a deal off a random internet sale? Sure — but it’s risky. Instead, the best bet for newbies is to start with established dealers. Two great places to start are Eric Wind from Wind Vintage and James Lamdin from Analog:Shift. These guys are consummate pros and exploring their offerings will help you learn what’s worth buying.
Take your time. Don’t rush into a purchase and buy the first watch you see. Look at 15 Datejusts if necessary, or at least two or three — that’s half the fun! Aim for a piece that won’t incur extra service or other costs. It’s much better to spend a bit more on a watch that’s already been properly serviced and is in good condition. Buying a screaming deal on a “project” watch is not for beginners.
Wear the living hell out of it. You earned it! Just know that preowned (and especially vintage) watches need extra care. Don’t take it in the water unless it’s meant for that express purpose. And only after you’ve had it pressure tested. Also understand that at some point, it will require service, and that won’t be cheap. The same is true of a sports car, a home or anything cool worth buying.
Need help settling on a model to set your sights on? Here are some models and ranger that hit the sweet spot: timeless enough to wear, common enough to be affordable.
Oysterdate Precision ref. 6294/6694
Manually wound and offering a date complication, a 34mm Oysterdate Precision is a fantastic introduction to vintage Rolex. Prices have remained fairly steady over the past few years no doubt to their relatively small 34mm size and manually wound movements, but don't let the case diameter fool you: These are fantastic watches that wear light on the wrist, and can be had on leather for under $3,000. Just keep in mind that service on vintage in-house movements like those in Precisions can be costly, as parts have become scarce.
Price Range: $2,500-$4,000
Air King ref. 5500
Often also signed "Precision" on the dial, denoting non-chronometer signed status of the movements, the Air King is another bargain in Vintage Rolex Land. The ref. 5500 features an automatic movement and an Oyster case, meaning you get plenty of utility in a small package. There are tons of interesting dial varieties on offer in silver, blue, black and more, and you can find them on Oyster or Jubilee bracelets, as well as on straps. Prices are a touch above those of the Oysterdate Precision, but they're still relatively affordable for vintage Rolex.
Price Range: $3,000-$5,000
Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002
Very similar to the Air King ref. 5500 in size and look, the 1002 utilized chronometer-certified movements, and say as much on the dial. Because of their higher-end movements, prices are generally somewhat above those of Precisions, and somewhat above those of the ref. 5500s. Equipped with acrylic crystals and smooth bezels, most of the 1002s featured solid-color dials, though once in a while an interesting "linen" or "mosaic" type turns up. If you're looking for other options, just about any Oyster Perpetual with a 4-digit reference number hits the same vintage sweet spot. (Note: Air King 5500s sometimes used 1002 case backs due to their utilizing the same case.)
Price Range: $3,500-$6,000
Datejust ref. 1601
Though prices on vintage Datejusts have taken off in recent years, the fact that you can get a 36mm, chronometer-certified Rolex from the 1960s or 1970s for under $5k is still vaguely remarkable. Though there are smooth-bezel (ref. 1600) and steel, engine-turned bezel variants around (ref. 1603), the 36mm 1601, with its white gold, fluted bezel, is a true classic. With its pie pan dial, stick hands and famous date wheel that flips over exactly at midnight, the 1601 is arguably the quintessential Rolex non-sport model. Try to snag one on a bracelet if you can — you won't be sorry. If you're looking to expand your options in the vintage Datejust range, you can branch out to any with a 4- or 5-digit reference number.
Price Range: $4,000-$6,000
Precision Dress Watch
Because "Precision" (ironically) graced the dial of anything that wasn't chronometer-certified, we're not really referring to a specific reference here, but to a host of men's dress watches made roughly from the '40s-'70s that feature 34mm cases and manually wound movements (after the 1970s these slim dress watches generally appeared under the Cellini moniker). Extremely simple and elegant, they're available in different metals and feature svelte cases, minimalist design and a variety of dial configurations.
Price Range: $3,000-$4,000
Submariner ref. 14060
So-called "neo-vintage" Rolex Submariners marry characteristics of classic references with more modern watches — some are distinctly transitional watches that were available for less than a year. You can find them in with 5-digit reference numbers, like the 14060, successor to the long-lived ref. 5513. Early versions featured two lines of text, while (later) “M” versions featured four lines. The ref. 14060 also added sapphire crystal and an increased depth rating of 300m (vs. the ref. 5513’s 200m).
Price Range: ~$8,500–$15,000