Buyers new to Rolex face mountains of information, both current and historical. Hell, even ardent fans have trouble keeping up. As of 2023, Rolex makes hundreds of individual references, divided into over a dozen different collections:
- Rolex Submariner
- Rolex GMT Master II
- Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
- Rolex Sea-Dweller
- Rolex Explorer
- Rolex Explorer II
- Rolex Air-King
- Rolex Yacht-Master
- Rolex Yacht-Master II
- Rolex Oyster Perpetual
- Rolex Datejust
- Rolex Day-Date
- Rolex Sky-Dweller
- Rolex Perpetual 1908
Editor's Note: The above taxonomy is Rolex’s own. For our purposes, we’ve separated the Explorer and Explorer II, as they're two very different watches and occupy unique positions in Rolex's overall lineup. Same deal with the Yacht-Master and Yacht-Master II. Further, the Deepsea is a Sea-Dweller variant, and thus we include it within that particular collection.
Classic vs. Professional: What's the Difference?
If those collections weren't enough to keep track of, each one falls into one of two major categories: Classic and Professional.
In the simplest of terms, think of Rolex's Classic watches — which include the Day-Date, Datejust, Oyster Perpetual, Sky-Dweller and 1908 (newly released for 2023) — as dressier timepieces designed for everyday wear. They weren’t developed for a specific professional pursuit, such as diving.
The Professional watches — which include the Submariner, Air King, GMT-Master II, Yacht-Master, Cosmograph Daytona, Sea-Dweller and Explorer — were developed for a specific purpose, be it SCUBA diving, yachting, driving, spelunking, etc.
It’s important to note that while a certain number of the Professional watches do include specific functionality and increased water resistance, the Classic watches are no less well-built. After all, you'll find the Sky-Dweller, one of Rolex’s most complicated watches, housed within the Classic collection.
Rolex Pricing and Availability
Rolex watches range from roughly $5,000 for a basic ladies’ Oyster Perpetual to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an “iced-out” Daytona with diamonds. This is one of the wonderful things about Rolex: though it's one of the most well-known luxury brands in the world, the price of entry isn’t prohibitive in the same way that a watch from, say, Patek Philippe is.
Unfortunately, pricing can be a bit of a moot point for much of Rolex's catalog, since many of the watches aren’t readily available at retail (though this might be changing soon). We're not just talking about Subs and Daytonas, either. Watches that were recently plentiful, such as Oyster Perpetuals, are even scarce now. For example, a new 36mm Oyster Perpetual in the light blue color that came out in 2020 will currently cost you in the ballpark $20,000 on the secondhand market. And this is for a watch that should retail for $5,800!
The bottom line for serious buyers: Do not expect to pay below retail for any current-catalog Rolex model, full stop. Expect to pay more. Way more.
Pricing on vintage models is much more forgiving. Because so much focus is placed on sports models such as Subs, Daytonas, GMT-Masters, etc., if you’re willing to look smaller or older, you can get yourself a fantastic watch for under $5,000. There are a few important points to be made here, however:
One is that Rolex has restricted the sale of parts to independent watchmakers, meaning that it’s only becoming harder to source correct parts and service vintage Rolex watches. It is expensive to do so.
Secondly, there are countless “frankenwatches” — watches made of parts from different models — and outright fakes out there. That’s why we recommend buying vintage watches from reputable dealers, such as Eric Wind of Wind Vintage, James Lamdin at Analog/Shift and Jacek Kozubek at Tropical Watch.
Lastly, here’s some good news: Rolex makes something like one million-plus watches per year. If money is no object, you can find the watch you’re looking for on the secondary market. You’re just gonna pay for it. While it's been this way for years, there's hope that Rolex models will become increasingly accessible with Rolex's announcement that it's expanding production.
So without further ado, here's everything you need to know about each Rolex watch, its history and features, for readers ready to make the leap.
Rolex, Blancpain and Zodiac were neck and neck in releasing the first dive watches with rotating bezels. However, when in 1953 Rolex put an external diving bezel on a more robust version of their already famously water-resistant Oyster Perpetual, kept the automatic winding in place, and added a sturdy adjustable bracelet, the most iconic and important dive watch in history was born. (Rolex, however, was prevented from implementing a unidirectional dive bezel for years due to possible patent infringement.)
It wasn't really until the 1980s, however, that the Sub became the fashionable item it is now, largely due to preppy folks sporting them as an assertion of an active lifestyle that, more likely, revolved around cocktails at the yacht club. Alas, tool watches became fashion items during this decade, and the rest is horological history.
Rolex understood that their Submariner had ascended from tool to jewel, and so gold, two-tone, and even diamond-encrusted versions cropped up during the decade of materialism. Today, however, it's the plain steel models that are impossible to come by at retail and which sell for as much as 25 percent above retail among enthusiasts, while gold models are much less sought after. It's a strange phenomenon, but people around the world are clamoring for steel Subs.
Rolex GMT-Master II
When Pan American Airlines ruled the trans-Atlantic skies in the 1950s, Rolex designed the GMT Master for their pilots, who needed to track multiple time zones simultaneously. In 1982, the Crown upgraded to the GMT Master II — a new movement and an independently adjustable local hour hand turned out to be big hits as steel and gold models asserted a pitch-perfect jet-setting attitude.
Plenty of folks knew to rock a Rolex Submariner for maximum panache but rocking a GMT Master II was a slyly stylish move that demonstrated the owner's uniqueness. To this day, the GMT Master II emits a reserved eccentricity.
In 2007, Rolex put out an improved GMT Master II with a ceramic bezel and a new movement that hosted a suite of modern updates. Since then, it's been all about metal and color combos, which are judiciously and painfully released at a rate of about one a year.
In 2023, however, Rolex delivered something different: a yellow-gold GMT Master-II, with a jubilee bracelet to match. A two-tone version is also available.
We doubt the release will do anything to dampen the popularity of the steel varieties — namely, the "Batman" (blue and black) and "Pepsi" (blue and red). However, getting your hands on a coveted steel GMT Master II at retail is extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
Before the 1960s, Rolex housed third-party chronograph movements in Oyster cases. Then the company upped the case size, redesigned the dial and put out the space-age-sounding "Cosmograph." Shortly thereafter, when the Crown sponsored races at Florida's famous beach-side track and put its name on the dial, the legend of the Rolex Daytona was born — though not to much fanfare. That would come later.
Paul Newman's wife bought him one with a creamy Bauhaus-inspired dial — now called the "Newman" dial — and the famed actor casually gave it to his son-in-law (sometime in the 1980s), who auctioned it off for $17.2-million dollars in 2017. That made this once humble and unpopular Daytona variant one of the most expensive wristwatches ever sold.
The auction transformed what was already becoming an increasingly coveted watch into a crazed run on all Daytonas, old and new. Now you can hardly get one at retail, especially in all stainless steel, and the used market for Daytonas of any era in any style or metal with any dial has gone completely berserk. Like so many steel Professional models, the Daytona remains in demand and sells above retail on the secondhand market — a remarkable result for what was initially an unremarkable watch.
As of 2023, the Daytona carries a new movement, 4131, which succeeds the 4130 that debuted in 2000 when Rolex first brought its movements in-house. To see it in all its glory, look no further than the platinum version of the watch (reference 126506), which has a unique exhibition caseback.
As SCUBA matured beyond surface-level military and recreational uses, commercial, research, and exploratory techniques were developed for going deeper for longer. The Sea-Dweller was Rolex's answer to the demands for watches capable of withstanding the pressure of these deeper dives. In 1967 upon its initial release, the Sea-Dweller was rated to a depth of 4,000 feet (1,220 meters). In 2007 a newer Sea-Dweller was rated to 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), at the time a record-breaking figure.
The Sea-Dweller is essentially a beefed-up Submariner, but that beefing up shouldn't be taken lightly: Rolex had to entirely re-engineer the case, the crystal, the case back and more to get this kind of water resistance, so while the Sea-Dweller resembles the Submariner on the outside, the guts are a different animal. Waterproofness in nano-scale wristwatches 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. Rolex often backs those scientific expeditions, linking the watch and the brand to the essence of professional SCUBA diving.
Contrary to popular belief, Sir Edmund Hillary was in fact not wearing a Rolex Explorer when he conquered Everest in 1953. It was an Oyster Perpetual.
Nevertheless, the feat ushered in a new Oyster Perpetual model called the Explorer with a larger case size (36mm as opposed to 34mm or smaller), which Rolex sold to a new wave of midcentury mountaineering enthusiasts. The Explorer went on to become an "entry-level" Rolex sport model, due only to price, and it remains in that position to this day.
Like all Rolex models, the Explorer has gone through many permutations, including more modern iterations like the 14270 (1989-2001), now popular among vintage collectors because its tritium luminescence has finally turned beige.
As of 2023, the watch is the biggest it's ever been, measuring 40mm in diameter and bringing it even closer to next watch on our list, the Explorer II. If you prefer to keep things historically accurate, however, a 36mm version of the Explorer, reintroduced in 2021, is also available.
Rolex Explorer II
A spelunking watch? That's right. The boldly luminescent 24-hour GMT hand was included to help those living in caves keep track of day and night. While spelunking isn't exactly a popular sport, the Explorer II became a rather popular watch among those who love a cool design and GMT functionality.
Offered today with either a black or white ("polar") dial, the Explorer II came out in 1971 in order to "perpetuate the privileged relationship Rolex shares with exploration," according to current marketing materials. However, the spelunking history is largely forgotten as the watch increasingly serves as a tool for adventurers of all kinds. (The more recent editions — unlike the original — feature fully functional GMT movements, so the watches can be used for tracking second time zones.)
Though the Explorer II went from a tasty 40mm case up to a 42mm Super case in 2011, the reference 216570 was intended to celebrate the original design of 1971, which amounts to an orange GMT hand in the "correct" arrow shape. Those two extra millimeters don't feel significant on the wrist, however, and only seem significant when compared directly with a 40mm model.
Like The Explorer, the Air-King had existed as the Oyster Perpetual for a long while before Rolex printed "Air-King" on the dial and began marketing it to a new set of post-WWII jet setters — men who adored and imitated the former war pilots now flying jumbo jets across the Atlantic. Released in 1945, Rolex's new model caught that wave of enthusiasm for the future, and nothing at that moment said "future" like beautiful commercial jets that turned a weekend jaunt across the ocean to Paris, New York, Rome, or London into a reality.
Today's model is 40mm across and carries one of the most divisive dials in Rolex's catalog (along with that of the Sky-Dweller). Admittedly, the intermittent hour and minute markers on the modern Air-King — which are inspired by dashboard instruments — are visually unique (for some, jarring), as are the touches of green and yellow. It's the only Rolex watch to feature the colored logo style on its dial. For 2022, the Air-King got a thorough refresh with the latest movement, design tweaks and, most notably, a new Oyster case featuring crown guards — giving the new Air-King a unique feature set among the brand's collections.
For today's Rolex enthusiasts, the Air King is positioned at the periphery of the Professional series watches. However, you can (theoretically) get an Air King at retail relatively easily, and that's almost impossible to say of any other all steel model on the Professional side of the catalog. A bird in hand beats two in the bush.
By the 1980s, the Rolex Submariner had come out in gold, and preppy folks around the world were rocking them as status symbols. Rolex kind of punched the preppy class on the nose with the all-gold Yacht Master of 1992. Interestingly, the Yacht Master's evolution has been one of increased sportiness and reduced bling since its release — not the common direction for Rolex's evolution. The toning down of glamor and upping of ruggedness has made the Yacht-Master a bit of a sleeper model in the Rolex catalog, but it is every bit as capable as the Submariner, which it resembles.
In 1999, Rolex offered the Yacht-Master in platinum and steel (reference 16622), and from there it's been an endless riffing on precious metal combinations. Though we've yet to see an all-stainless steel variant, rumors of a titanium Yacht-Master finally came to fruition in 2023 with the release of reference 226627.
Today's Yacht-Master is 37mm or larger, and the watch carries all the latest Rolex technology inside and out. Distinguishing features include the "relief" ceramic bezel and the optional Oysterflex rubber strap, which is surprisingly luxurious and durable on the wrist.
What's lacking, however, is a timing mechanism specific to racing a sailboat, usually a 10-minute timer of some kind that's activated when the starting gun goes off. It's what the Yacht-Master II offers but, given the Yacht-Master (I)'s roots as a schmancy timepiece for hanging around the docks in style, the less utilitarian design makes sense.
Rolex Yacht-Master II
Like the Explorer and Explorer II, the Yacht-Master and its sequel are two very different watches. The Yacht-Master II stands out in Rolex's lineup both for its relatively complicated mechanics as well as its polarizing design. After the Daytona, it's Rolex's other, relatively overlooked chronograph.
The Yacht-Master II was introduced in 2007 to immediate controversy. If you're looking for the traditionally handsome, elevated tool watch experience Rolex is known for, the Yacht-Master II is probably a bit too flashy with its 44mm case and a look and feature set that are far from conventional. But these features have purpose.
With the Yacht-Master II, Rolex continues a tradition once more popular but now rarely seen in modern watches: that of the regatta timer. Vintage watch fans will be familiar with this type of watch which has taken many forms over the years and been produced by a number of different companies. These are watches that are made specifically for counting down the ten minutes before the start of a yacht race in which sailors must position themselves at the starting line without crossing it.
This is what makes the Yacht-Master II interesting and unique: it's a chronograph but rather unlike most you'll be familiar with, and its 4161 movement is significantly more complicated than that powering the Daytona. It measures only up to 10 minutes and its scale is such that it counts down to zero. By turning the bezel and pressing the 4 o'clock pusher, you can then also use the crown to set how many minutes you want to count down. It even features the relatively exotic flyback feature, which allows you to reset the chronograph without first stopping and resetting it.
While the Yacht-Master (I) is generally suited to the posh lifestyle of the likes of yacht owners, the Yacht-Master II seems made for actual yacht racing. It's a bold, attention-grabbing watch, but unlike the Yacht-Master (I), there is a version available in steel.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual
In many ways, this is the watch that launched Rolex as the king of industrial watchmaking. The "OP" was, upon its release in 1950, both highly water-resistant and automatically wound, a first-time combo. "Perpetual" refers not to it being always wound but to its rotor swinging 360 degrees around a central axis — so, perpetually winding (despite it only winding in one direction). But none of that matters much to end users, who adore these waterproof watches for their durability and midcentury, function-forward appearance.
The Oyster Perpetual has perpetually been in production since then, and this model formed the basis for most other Rolex models, including the famous Submariner, the Explorer, the Air King, the Datejust and the Day-Date. Today's Oyster Perpetual comes in many sizes and colors and was generally one of the few Rolex models readily available at retail. (That is, such was the case until the release of the new crop of brightly colored dials in 2020 — now an OP can be as tough to track down as a Sub or a GMT-Master II.)
With no date, no cyclops, no complications, no fluted gold bezel, and a sleek polished and brushed case and matching bracelet, the "OP" is a pure expression of the Rolex brand, one that's instantly recognizable despite it lacking some key iconic visual cues.
Rolex took their Oyster models (first released in the 1920s) and in 1945 added the first date complication that changed "just before" midnight, rather than taking hours to turn over. (Or was "just," as in "accurate," depending on your interpretation.) Sounds like a simple thing, but in the 1940s, and even now, that feature was unique and convenient. The "cyclops" date magnifier was also a first on the Datejust of 1945.
The most iconic modern Rolex Datejust retains the fluted bezel of the early Oyster models, though it serves no function now. (Originally that bezel was the receiving end of a tool that unscrewed the bezel ring to release the crystal from the mid-case. Today, that bezel is integrated into the mid-case, and the fluting is purely decorative.) Combined with the cyclops, these visual cues say "Rolex" more loudly than any other features on any other model, including the Submariner and the Daytona.
Neither too sporty nor too dressy, the Datejust is the perfect solution for the person seeking one watch to do it all. Robust, ready for water and shocks and all kinds of abuse, but dressy enough to go to a wedding or funeral, the Datejust is a midcentury classic that remains the centerpiece of Rolex's catalog. Essential, iconic, and perpetually in vogue, a Datejust might be the only watch you'll ever require.
In 1956, Rolex released a new model with both the date at 3 o’clock and the day of the week boldly displayed in an arced aperture at the top of the dial. It also came on a newly designed five-link bracelet that glimmered in the lowest of lighting. Few would have expected this more complicated version of the Datejust to have become the chosen watch of multiple US presidents — LBJ, JFK and Regan among them — but that's what happened. (It certainly didn’t hurt that the watch has only ever been available in all-precious metal cases — a signifier of wealth and power if ever there was one. Its day display is also available in no fewer than 26 different languages, making it a favorite watch the world over.)
Now nicknamed “The President” — though, technically, this is the official name of the watch’s unique bracelet, not the watch itself — the Day-Date is the other most recognizable Rolex after the Datejust, and no dressy 1908 or any other model seems capable of outshining it, literally and figuratively. As such, the Day-Date is always on offer in an array of sizes and with enough precious metals and diamonds to cross that thin line into gaudiness — though a stock, unadorned Day-Date remains one of the classiest watches on the market, a sign of sophistication and good taste.
The year 2012 saw Rolex release the Sky-Dweller to a very mixed response. Some hate how it looks quite vehemently, which makes it a bit of a rebel choice, while others applauded the mechanical accomplishment.
What distinguishes the Sky-Dweller is, indeed, the brilliant movement inside. This is a full-on annual calendar (displaying months, but not years), and it uses a truly clever mechanism and display: The months are indicated by a tiny aperture that turns red at each of the 12 markers around the dial, while the date is in the traditional position at 3-o'clock. A 24-hour GMT indicator is located on the ring above 6 o'clock, which is the most divisive visual feature of the Sky-Dweller.
But what truly distinguishes this movement is that the bezel works as a selector for whatever function you're looking to set via the crown: One rotates the bezel to any of seven positions and uses the crown to adjust the affiliated function. Sounds tricky, but after one try it's entirely intuitive. A brilliant design and quite unique.
It's also 42mm across, which is on the larger side for a Rolex, but for those who want their watch to leap off their wrist, the Sky-Dweller is a perfect choice.
Rolex Perpetual 1908
The youngest watch in Rolex's lineup is a callback to the year Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf, trademarked the brand name and "a clear tribute to the first Oyster Perpetual watches."
The Perpetual 1908 measures 39mm and comes equipped with a brand-new caliber 7140 movement you can observe through the caseback. It's easily the brand's dressiest watch and stands apart from other Rolex collections for its exhibition caseback, its seconds subdial, being sold on a leather strap, as well as for being the only watch that doesn't use the brand's signature Oyster case. The watch is available in yellow or white gold, and the clean dial comes in black or white.
It should be mentioned: the 1908's release in 2023 is not without loss. The 1908 is generally understood to replace and formally mark an end to the longstanding Cellini collection which Rolex largely and unceremoniously started discontinuing in 2022.