There's watchmaking, and then there's industrial watchmaking. The latter was pioneered in America, but with those watch factories repurposed for the war effort in the early 1940s, Switzerland took up both military and commercial watch contracts and became the powerhouse of industrial watchmaking we know today. No company innovated in the industrial approach to watchmaking more often and more successfully than Rolex, which has gone on to become not only the single most significant watch brand, but also one of the most significant brands overall along with Mercedes and, more recently, Google.
Hans Wilsdorf started Rolex in the 1920s, and the number of prescient mechanical innovations the man dreamt up until his passing in 1960 is astounding. But he was just as brilliant at marketing his innovative watches. Wilsdorf showed us adventurers climbing Mt. Everest, swimming the English Channel, flying unthinkable routes through horrible weather, performing atomic experiments, and so on, all while wearing a Rolex. If you were going to make headlines by carrying out some crazy adventure, chances were Rolex would pay you to wear one of their watches and then appear in what were the first "Advertorials" ever published.
The branding worked like a charm, turning individual Rolex watches into symbols for specific areas of adventure and innovation like SCUBA diving, aviation, mountaineering, spelunking, science, engineering, and even serving as a world leader. By the end of the 20th Century, wearing a Rolex had also become a ubiquitously understood exhibition of social standing and good taste. This symbolism has held true for Rolex in myriad subcultures around the world for decades.
But the Rolex brand can overshadow the sheer brilliance of Rolex's approach to industrial watchmaking, which has always been deliberately conservative, iterative, and at times cloyingly slow. However, our impatience reveals our passion for what Rolex actually makes and sells: the world's most innovative and fashionable watches to ever come pouring out of a factory in the hundreds of thousands (or more) annually, which quench a global market whose thirst for said watches has never ebbed — not even a little.
Despite being the enduring pinnacle of industrialized fashion, the notion that form follows function has always influenced, if not dominated, Rolex's design approach. Part of that function-forward ethos derived from the need to produce thousands of relatively uncomplicated watches every day, but that ethos was also a reigning industrial philosophy in the 20th century, especially among industrial designers who believed their designs could, and should, support democratic principles. But Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex's founder, didn't espouse much of anything: Indeed, it's not hyperbolic to suggest that Wilsdorf may have said all he had to say through the watches themselves, that he left his mark in the things he made. And in that regard, we might think of Wilsdorf as an artist.
Below are what we consider to be the 10 most important Rolex models. They appear in chronological order, revealing that the 1950s were something of a golden era for Rolex. Yet, all but one of these classic models has been in regular production ever since it was introduced (and that one exception, the Milgauss, returned in 2007). To have that many watch models achieve such iconic status and perennial success is nothing short of what The Beatles did with pop songs.
Here are Rolex's Top 10 Hits.
1926: The Oyster
Despite earlier attempts to house a finished wristwatch inside a second waterproof case, it wasn't until 1926, when Rolex released the Oyster, that such a watch became a reality for consumers. (To get technical, let's say "highly water resistant.") First displayed inside a fish tank in London's famous Selfridges department store, the Oyster drew crowds of shocked people by keeping perfect time underwater. When Mercedes Gleitz swam The English Channel (or part of it) with an Oyster on her wrist, the entirely dry watch made headlines as part of what is arguably the first "advertorial," giving birth to the star adventurer as watch ambassador.
The Oyster had three innovative features that assured its waterproofness: a screwed-on case back, a crystal screwed into place with the threaded bezel, and a screw-down crown. Though Rolex has since replaced the screwed-in bezel, the fluting of that early bezel remains an important aesthetic feature of modern Rolexes, especially the Datejust and Day-Date. The basic scheme for waterproofing the case remains essential to modern dive watches from all brands, and the name "Oyster" remains essential in the Rolex lexicon as indicative of a water-resistant case.
1945: The Datejust
The date mechanism had been included on watches in the early 20th century, but those mechanisms saw the date wheel take many hours to change over. Rolex's Datejust, legend has it, either changed "just before midnight" or was always "just," as in "accurate." Either way, the Datejust changes its date display nearly instantaneously right around midnight, an innovation that has remained appealing to consumers ever since.
The Datejust has seen many permutations over the decades, but has remained essentially the same instantly recognizable watch. Many would argue that the Datejust's fluted bezel and pronounced date window magnifier (often called a "cyclops") are the most iconic features of any watch ever — and it would be hard to argue with that assertion. (Editor's Note: not all Datejusts feature a fluted bezel, but this is arguably the feature most associated with the model.)
What people love about the Datejust today is what they've always loved about it: it's versatile enough for business, socializing, and play, and it's rugged enough to wear 24/7. In many ways, the Datejust represents the essence of Rolex in that it combines technical innovations, ruggedness, and timeless style in proportions that feel inevitable and, thus, "just right."
1950: The Oyster Perpetual
Though patents for an automatic winding rotor for a watch movement existed in the 1800s, Rolex patented an improved version in 1931. Interestingly, it wasn't until 1950 that the company released what has become the famous Oyster Perpetual — "Oyster" for waterproof, and "Perpetual" for automatic winding. These watches required that the case back be quite deep, hence the nickname given to these early OPs: "bubbleback."
An important technical feature of Rolex's perpetual rotor is that it swings 360 degrees around, rather than about 200 degrees in a back-and-forth motion like rotors in "bumper watches," which hit a spring-loaded stopper in either direction. Though it initially only wound in one direction, Rolex's mechanism stored more power on average than bumper-driven movements, and their beefy mainspring provided around 35 hours of reserve power, a respectable specification even today for mechanical auto-winding movements.
By the mid 1950s, Rolex was selling Oyster Perpetuals with either "Air-King" or "Explorer" on the dial to enthusiasts of aviation and mountaineering respectively. The watches, however, were essentially the same as the original OP, and that remains more or less the case. Today, you can buy a brand new Rolex Oyster Perpetual in an array of sizes and styles, and it remains one of the most essential and classic sports watches ever created.
1953: The Submariner
Blancpain was the first to release a SCUBA-specific watch with a rotating bezel. However, the Rolex Sub has been in continuous production ever since 1953, has only been incrementally improved (and essentially unchanged), and remains an icon of tool watch history. Whether vintage or brand new, mint or beat to hell, the Sub is arguably the most recognizable and desirable watch of all time.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual was the basis for the Submariner, offering waterproofness and automatic winding. But it was the rotating timing bezel and improved gasket system that set the Sub apart and made it useful for SCUBA.
By the 1980s, Rolex was making two-tone and solid gold Subs for an emerging class of folks who wore their tool watches with preppy garb at the yacht club. By the 2000s, no serious diver used a mechanical watch, and the rest, as they say, is industrial fashion history, as the Sub continues to grow in popularity today.
1954: The GMT Master
When Pan-American Airlines held a brief monopoly on trans-Atlantic flights after WWII, the airline requested a pilot's watch from Rolex that could manage multiple time zones. The GMT Master was Rolex's answer. With a 24-hour hand added to the center arbor and a fixed 24-hour timing bezel, pilots could now monitor local as well as, say, GMT time. This was all housed in an Oyster case and included the "cyclops" date magnifier made popular on the Datejust.
Pilots had become heroes, sex symbols, and role models during WWII, and many commercial pilots in the 1950s had served in the war. The GMT Master swiftly became popular with world travelers who admired these pilots, but the watch wasn't as readily available to the commercial market until the 1960s when tool watches were becoming increasingly popular for daily wear.
In 1989, Rolex released the GMT Master II with a new movement and slimmer case, and in 2007 the third generation GMT Masters were released with ceramic bezels and an even more advanced movement that hosted a suite of modern updates. Never as famous as the Sub or the Daytona, the GMT Master remains a fan favorite nonetheless and is, accordingly, pretty hard to get — especially in all steel.
1956: The Milgauss
It's a shame that we don't readily celebrate scientists and engineers as heroes when we look back on the 20th Century, but we probably should. And if we did, we'd likely celebrate the Rolex Milgauss more fervently. Alas, this watch is mostly overlooked in the Rolex catalog, perhaps only because the daredevils who needed a truly a-magnetic timepiece were holed up in labs often off limits to the public (think Bell Labs and CERN), quietly received their funding through government contracts and research grants, and rarely became public figures.
However, the Milgauss — which stands for 1,000 gauss, the original a-magnetic rating — was a technical marvel worthy of all the hoopla it never received. It's one of the few Rolex models to go out of production (in 1988), and it came back larger and more fun in 2007 with an updated case and a lightning bolt seconds hand. Though not entirely common to find at retail, the all-steel Milgauss is not impossible to get your hands on. That alone makes buying this professional steel model a stealthy move for savvy Rolex owners.
1963: The Daytona
It may sound funny to say that the most significant thing about the Daytona is that it had the word "Daytona" on the dial, but that's about it, folks: Rolex had been putting 3rd-party chronograph movements into Oyster cases since the 1940s, and their larger, more modern chronograph with stick hands (the "pre-Daytona" ref. 6238) had been around since the early 1960s. But when Rolex began sponsoring motor races at the beachside track in Daytona, Florida in 1962, they put that famous word on their Cosmograph chronograph a year later and gave birth to a legend.
Daytonas weren't outrageously expensive watches at around $400 at the time, but Paul Newman's Daytona auctioned for $17.2-million in 2017, setting a hard-to-beat record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold. Since then, these watches have become impossible to get in just about any metal, but a steel Daytona is especially hard to come by these days. As for an original "Newman" model — which features a cream dial and some very cool Bauhaus-inspired numerals — forget about it: Estimates say that there are only a few hundred in the world, and the prices are astronomical. But Rolex will always make more Daytonas to scratch that moto itch.
1965: The Day-Date (or "President")
The 1965 Day-Date was the first waterproof, automatically wound, chronometer-grade watch with an instantaneous day and date display. Cleverly laid out to spell the entire day of the week at the top of the dial, it may not seem like a big deal today, but at the time the Day-Date was one of the more complicated watches coming out of the industrial watchmaking factories of Switzerland. It went on to adorn the wrists of more US Presidents than any other single timepiece, hence its nickname: The President.
The President bracelet is also distinctive, with its crowned links in five rows reflecting light from every conceivable angle. Whether it was JFK, Ronald Regan or Tony Soprano wearing the Day-Date, people of great stature and power were generally the ones with Day-Dates glistening on their wrists.
1967: The Sea-Dweller
The Submariner was a great SCUBA watch, but the Sea-Dweller was ready for the increasingly deep and long-term dives carried out by commercial divers, researchers, and explorers alike. Able to sustain pressure at a depth of 4,000 feet (1,220 meters), this was nothing to scoff at in 1967. In 2007 the Sea-Dweller got an updated water resistance rating of 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), making it, however briefly, the deepest-going watch in the world.
On wrist, the Sea-Dweller looks more or less like a beefed up Submariner, which it essentially is. For some, this larger, thicker watch carries a presence and confidence that's highly appealing, while the unthinkable depths it can withstand speaks to the legacy of human ingenuity contained in these small marvels.
Perhaps most importantly, the Sea-Dweller reflects Rolex's commitment to ocean research, which the brand funds robustly through its various scientific initiatives. Waterproofness in nano-scale wrist watches has turned out to provide useful tech that can be ported over to small submarines, cameras, and other scientific tools that are plumbing the depths of our largely unexplored oceans.
2012: The Sky Dweller
People love to hate the Sky-Dweller. It's arguably "a bit too much" aesthetically, with its 42mm case, bright and wavy fluted gold bezel, and truly bizarre dial arrangement. No other Rolex announces itself so boldly and confidently. However, the reason we feel the Sky-Dweller is an important watch is that it represents one of the best values for a significantly complicated watch on the market today — and that is quintessentially Rolex.
Inside this Oyster case (which is water-resistant to 330 feet) is the calibre 9002, which contains one of the most thoughtful complications in modern horology: This automatically wound movement drives a clever annual calendar that uses the 12 markers around the dial to indicate the month and a traditional date aperture (with "cyclops" magnifier) to indicate the date. An eccentric 24-hour timing ring provides a GMT reference time, and also serves as an AM/PM indicator. But it's the clever way one sets those various displays that is truly special: one rotates the bezel to different positions to select the function to be set, and then one uses the crown to adjust that function. It's just like setting a digital watch, in fact, only here rendered in full mechanical cleverness. Brilliant!