Ahh, Rolex. "The Crown." A fine piece of Swiss engineering. A status symbol the world over. Currency in any country. The most liquid of horological investments.
However you view the world's most famous watch company, chances are you have respect for their products. They've been worn by statesmen and women, explorers, scientists, soldiers and everyday folks for a century. They're robust as all hell. They just look good.
The problem is, it's darn tough to buy a new Rolex sports watch. Artificial supply constraints mean that you have to be a loyal client with an established buying history to get your hands on the most coveted new pieces, which has lead many to the vintage market. Here, you may be paying exorbitant prices for blue chip, classic references, but at least they're available.
However, just because a watch is signed "Rolex" on the dial doesn't mean it has to cost a year's salary. (Or many years' salaries.) If you're willing to look at 34mm watches, for example, you can still find bargains — watches that have all the interesting features (if not more so) than those of their larger counterparts at a fraction of the price. 36mm Datejusts, though significantly more expensive than they were, say, five years ago, are still a bargain compared to sports models, and come in a wide array of configurations. And vintage dress models are similarly affordable.
Here's our selection of vintage Rolex models that can still be had for a (relative) bargain.
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. (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.
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