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Everything You Need to Know About Rolex’s Most Popular Watch

From languishing on shelves to becoming the hottest watch in the world, Rolex’s Cosmograph Daytona has had a wild ride, indeed.

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Originally a watch Rolex could hardly sell, the Cosmograph Daytona has become one of the world’s most coveted models. Vintage references repeatedly top auction house expectations, Paul Newman’s Daytona held the record for the most expensive watch ever sold at auction for several years, and new models are almost impossible to come by without joining long wait lists. If you’re interested in the Rolex Daytona, old or new, we’ve got you covered in this complete guide, in which we’ll take you chronologically through all the important developments of what is arguably the most important chronograph ever produced.

Table of Contents
Pre-Daytona

    The 1960s and 1970s

      1988-2000

        2000-Present

          Rolex Daytona Terms to Know

          Cosmograph: This is the official name of the Daytona models from Rolex, and is found below the Rolex logo and name under 12-o’clock (most of the time, anyway).

          Daytona: Added to the dials along with “Cosmograph” in the early 60s just after Rolex became the official timekeeper at the Daytona Florida raceway. It can appear large above the 6-o’clock subdial, smaller under “Cosmograph,” or not at all. “Daytona” has replaced “Cosmograph” in regular parlance globally, and referring to these as “Cosmographs” may sound odd to those in the know.

          Threaded (Screw-Down) Pushers: A threaded locking mechanism on the chronograph activators (pushers) that improves the watch’s waterproofness. Though technically superior, many prefer unthreaded pushers for aesthetic, functional, or collecting reasons.

          Paul Newman Dial: A dial variant with a contrasting outer seconds track, larger markers and an art-deco numerical font on the sub-dials. Manufactured by Singer and referred to originally as an “exotic dial” by Rolex.

          Standard Dial: The more traditionally Rolex-esque dial with applied markers and relatively subdued sub-dial markings.

          Big Red: Some collectors refer to models with the large red “Daytona” over the 6-o’clock subdial as “Big Red.” A dial with red on it is not necessarily a Paul Newman dial.

          Musketeer Dial: After Rolex took the red away from the Daytona in the early 1970s, they quickly reintroduced it. Some collectors call these dials with the resurrected red a Musketeer dial because they have the three colors: red, white, and black (a new distinction from the dials that lacked the red). Some refer to any three-color dial as a Musketeer dial — usage varies. (For the record, however, there were actually four Musketeers.)

          Sigma markings on a Daytona dial (Image: Bob’s Watches)

          Sigma Dial: The sigma symbol was adopted by some Swiss watch brands during the 1970s to denote an officially regulated use of gold on a watch. A Sigma dial can add value to an otherwise standard production-run Daytona or other Rolex.

          A floating dial ref. 16528 (Image: Rolex Passion Report)

          Floating Dial: Beginning in 1988, the word “Cosmograph” was separated by a space from the other three lines of text above it. These so-called “Floating” dials are relatively rarer than the dials that soon followed (which lacked this space), and can command slightly higher prices. Not all Daytonas of this era have floating dials, but examples aren’t uncommon.

          An inverted-6 dial on a ref. 16520 (Photo: Sotheby’s)

          Inverted 6: A smattering of Daytonas from the late 1980s through roughly 2000 see the 6 on the 6-o’clock subdial inverted, so that it reads as a 9. The inverted 6 can raise the price of the watch considerably.

          NOTE: We strove to be as accurate as possible with regard to watch diameters — surprisingly, despite the wealth of information available on the various Daytona references, there are myriad discrepancies that exist, and without measuring each one personally with a micrometer, it’s nearly impossible to confirm sizing for each reference. That said, we’ve consulted as many sources as possible in an effort to maintain accuracy.

          A Chronological History of the Rolex Daytona

          During WWII

          A ref. 3335 from 1940 (Image: Phillips)

          Rolex releases various chronographs in Oyster cases. These are exceptionally rare in good condition and were not commercially successful.

          1954/55-1961: Oyster Chronograph ref. 6234

          A black-dial 6234 (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6234 “Pre-Daytona”
          -36mm
          -Steel or gold case
          -Silver or black dial
          -Simply named Oyster Chronograph, the 6234 both featured neither “Cosmograph” nor “Daytona” on the dial
          -Telemeter and tachymeter scales; applied dagger indices; leaf hands
          -Unthreaded pump pushers (and thus not achieving full Oyster waterproofness)
          -Valjoux 72A handwound movement, which Rolex would continue to modify and use in their chronographs until 1988
          -Approximately 2,000 examples produced
          -Often sells today in the $30,000+ range

          Early 1960s-1968: Oyster Chronograph ref. 6238

          A Tiffany-signed 6238 (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6238 “Pre-Daytona”
          -36mm
          -Steel or 14K or 18K yellow gold case
          -Silver, black or dark grey dials; rarer version with blue and red multi-scale
          -Simply named Rolex Chronograph, the 6238 both featured neither “Cosmograph” nor “Daytona” on the dial
          -Baton hands, faceted, applied hour markers, luminous hour plots
          -Unthreaded pump pushers (and thus not achieving full Oyster waterproofness)
          -Valjoux 72 movement
          -Often sells today in the $30,000+ range

          1962: Daytona Speedway Official Timekeeper

          The Daytona Speedway in the 1950s before the track was built (Image: Timeline.com)

          Rolex becomes the Official Timekeeper at the Daytona, Florida speedway in 1962, sparking a partnership that would eventually lead the Rolex Chronograph to great heights.

          1963: The Cosmograph Is Born

          A black-dial 6239, one of the very first Daytonas (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6239
          -36.5mm
          -Labeled “Rolex Cosmograph” under the 12-o’clock logo
          -“Daytona” appears on the dial above the 6-o’clock subdial; beneath the “Rolex Cosmograph”; or not at all on earlier versions (pre-1965)
          -Valjoux 72 movement
          -Unthreaded pump pushers (limited water resistance)

          Standard Dial Variant (above):

          -36.5mm

          -Black or white dial

          -Stainless steel, 14K or 18K yellow gold case

          -Stick markers

          -More subdued subdial text and line markers

          -Seconds track at dial’s outer edge lacks contrasting background

          A 6239 with Paul Newman dial (Image: Phillips)

          “Paul Newman” Dial Variant (above):
          -36.5mm
          -Called “exotic dials” by Rolex
          -Stainless steel, 14K or 18K yellow gold case
          -Red “Daytona” text, though not on the earliest models
          -Art deco-esque Arabic indices in sub-registers with dot markers
          -Contrasting seconds track on outer edge of dial with red markings

          NOTE: The 6239 is the reference that Paul Newman owned and wore, yet subsequent references can have a Paul Newman dial, and the name is also accepted for those references. Prices typically start in the mid-five figures for a standard dial and can soar into the hundreds of thousands for a Newman (higher prices have been realized for special pieces, or pieces in gold, for example).

          1965:

          A 6240 with “Solo” dial (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6240
          -37.5mm
          -Valjoux cal. 722 movement
          -Stainless steel case
          -Standard dial variant typically sees “Daytona” under “Cosmograph”; rarest version features only Rolex signature without “Oyster Cosmograph” (called a “Solo” Dial)
          -Paul Newman dial remains the same as 6239 (see above) or can have “Daytona” under “Cosmograph” on some examples
          -First model with screw-down pushers for assured waterproofness
          -Engraved black acrylic tachymeter bezel
          -Approximately 1,700 examples produced
          -Prices typically start in the mid-$50,000 range, with very clean examples reaching high into the six figures.

          NOTE: Rolex did not introduce a significantly different movement in the Daytona until 1988. However, from 1970-1972 Rolex upped the rate of the manual winding Valjoux 72 movement from 18,000 to 21,600 beats per minute, increasing accuracy with a slight tradeoff power reserve, which was reduced. It would appear that Rolex only installed this modified movement in the 6264 from 1970-72.

          1965/6:

          A 6241 with Paul Newman dial (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6241
          -37.5mm
          -Valjoux cal. 727 movement
          -Unthreaded pump pushers
          -Stainless steel, 14K (extremely rare) or 18K gold case (rare)
          -Standard or Paul Newman dials
          -Acrylic bezel
          -In production until roughly 1969 (only roughly 3,000 pieces all told)
          -Prices well into the six figures

          1969:

          6263 in yellow gold — note lack of red text (Image: Philips)

          Reference 6263
          -37.5mm
          -Valjoux cal. 727 movement
          -Black acrylic engraved tachymeter bezel
          -Screw-down pushers (and, thus, better waterproofness)
          -Stainless steel, 14K or 18K gold case (only roughly 2,000 examples produced in gold)
          -Offered with either Paul Newman dial (lacks red) or standard dial
          -“Daytona” text can appear above 6-o’clock subdial or under “Cosmograph” on either dial variant, or even not at all on the standard dial
          -Threaded pushers and black acrylic bezel (similar to 6240 above)
          -Chronometer-certified movements introduced around this time in certain examples (early 1970s)
          -In production until 1987
          -Prices typically start around ~$80,000+

          NOTE: Beginning in early 1970s, Rolex began certifying gold Daytona models as chronometers

          A 6265 with “tropicalized” sub-registers (Image: Philips)

          Reference 6265
          -37mm
          -Valjoux cal. 727 movement
          -Stainless steel, 14K or 18K gold case (and one possibly unique white gold example)
          -Stainless steel or gold tachymeter scale bezel with black fill
          -Screw-down pushers (and, thus, better waterproofness)
          -Standard dial with slight variations including “Big Red” variant; Paul Newman dial with traditional Panda layout, no “Daytona” above 6 o’clock
          -In production until 1987
          -Prices aren’t quite as crazy as the 6264, but begin well over $50,000 in most instances and soar from there

          1970/71

          A 6262 with Paul Newman dial (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6262
          -37mm
          -Valjoux cal. 727 movement
          -Engraved steel bezel
          -Unthreaded pump pushers
          -Stainless steel, 14K or 18K gold case
          -Offered with either a Paul Newman dial or a standard dial
          -Sometimes stamped as 6239 on case back due to Rolex using older cases
          -Only produced in 1970/71 (exceptionally rare)
          -Prices are through the roof, starting around $100,000

          Early 1970s

          A 6264 with Paul Newman dial (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 6264
          -37mm
          -Valjoux cal. 727 movement
          -Stainless steel, 14K or 18K gold case (total production in steel possibly only 1,700 examples)
          -Printed black acrylic tachymeter scale bezel with unthreaded (pump) pushers (Note: this is the first reference with this combination, and the last to feature pump pushers)
          -Offered with either a Paul Newman dial or a standard dial
          -Paul Newman versions have slight variations, including color-coordinated seconds track markings rather than red on some models, but not all (Note: sometimes Newman dials of this era with red are called Musketeer Dials)
          -Produced for only roughly three years in the early 1970s and amongst the rarest Daytonas
          -Prices are well into the six figures

          1988-2000

          The Rolex cal. 4040, based on the Zenith El Primero movement (Image: Chrono Shop)

          In 1988, Rolex released a new Daytona that incorporated a self-winding Zenith El Primero movement, which Rolex slowed down to 28,800 vph from 36,600 and dubbed the caliber 4040. The reduced rate upped the power reserve and, theoretically, lengthened the service intervals. Using an automatic movement was an attempt to keep pace with quartz movements, then a major concern.

          The cal. 4040 is also chronometer certified via COSC, a distinction that was added as a line of text to what many feel is a crowded dial. In order to accommodate the new movement, Rolex upped the case size to 40mm, where it has stayed to this day. Finally, the Daytona was a hit, and waiting lists sometimes reached three years as the 1980s drew to a close.

          A 16520 would set the look of the Daytona for quite a while (Images: Phillips)

          Reference 16520
          -40mm
          -Caliber 4040 automatic movement based on Zenith El Primero
          -Stainless steel case
          -White or black dial
          -Steel bezel (three different variations over time)
          -Screw-down pushers
          -Sapphire crystal
          -Five different dial variations over time
          -Production from 1988-2000
          -Prices begin around $20,000

          1989 16528 with floating dial and inverted 6 (Images: Phillips)

          References 16523 & 16528
          -Same as 16520 above, with:
          -Two-tone gold and yellow gold case and bracelet (16523) or solid gold (16528)
          -Porcelain dial in black, white or gold (blue were created but not sold commercially)
          -4 lines of text
          -“Daytona” over 6-o’clock sub-dial in red
          -Prices begin around $13,000+ for a 16523 and $28,000+ for a 16528

          2000s-Present

          This early 2000s 116520 demonstrates the relocated running seconds sub-dial, the slightly higher sub-dials at 9- and 3-o’clock, and the newly styled markers (Image: Phillips)

          With demand for the Daytona going through the roof, Rolex upped its game (if not its production numbers) by offering an in-house movement in the Daytona for the first time. Dubbed the caliber 4130, this automatic chronograph movement used column wheel activators like the Zenith movement before it, but upped the power reserve to 72-hours. As the years rolled on, Rolex introduced new components and material upgrades to the 4130, creating yet another nest of obscure collector obsessions for future generations.

          Notable Visual Changes:
          -Sub-Dial Lift: Though the watch didn’t change much stylistically with the new movement, one can easily make out a 4130-loaded Daytona because the two sub-dials are slightly raised above the equator of the dial
          -Sub-Dial Swap: The running seconds moved from the 9-o’clock sub-dial to the 6-o’clock position
          -New Hour Markers: Another giveaway that you’re looking at a modern Daytona are the wider, lume-filled hour markers, which take on a quasi-arrow shape

          Note: Serial numbers for this era remain the same, but add a “1” before them, so the 16520 becomes the 116520. Prices are the most reasonable of the pre-owned market, but are still relatively high as demand for this model is so strong, especially following the release of the current-production 116500 with Ceracrom bezel in 2016.

          As watch collecting grew and global markets continued to open up, Rolex responded with increasingly more luxury-oriented versions of the Daytona. Meanwhile technical changes to the movement, bezel, and other details throughout the watch have piled up. Below are some of the recent and current references that, as a group, exemplify the developments of the last decade.

          Keep in mind that buying a current production model in steel from a Rolex authorized dealer is exceedingly difficult if you’re not already a client in very good standing (read: you’ve spent a ton of money with that AD).

          A black-dial 116520 (Image: Phillips)

          Reference 116520
          -40mm case
          -Oystersteel construction throughout case and bracelet
          -In-House Rolex cal. 4130 movement with many modern materials incorporated and vertical clutch
          -Steel bezel
          -Production from 2000-2016
          -Prices begin around $18,000+

          Reference 116500LN: The Current Steel Daytona
          -40mm case
          -Oystersteel construction throughout case and bracelet (folding Oysterlock safety clasp with Easylink 5mm comfort extension link)
          -In-House Rolex cal. 4130 movement with many modern materials incorporated and vertical clutch
          -Ceracrom ceramic bezel with engraved tachymeter
          -Current steel production model
          -MSRP: $12,500

          More Info: Here

          Reference 116503: The Current Two-Tone Daytonas
          -40mm case
          -Rolesor gold and steel construction throughout case and bracelet
          -Gold bezel
          -In-House caliber 4130 movement with many modern materials incorporated
          -MSRP: $16,900 (yellow gold); $18,850 (with diamonds)

          More Info: Here


          Reference 116509, 116505 & 116508: The Current All-Gold Daytonas

          -Rolex’s proprietary Everose rose gold body (116515); yellow gold (116518); or white gold (116519)

          -18k Gold throughout case and bracelet

          -In-House caliber 4130 movement with many modern materials incorporated

          -MSRP: $37,450 (116509 white gold), $43,700 (116505 Everose), $34,650 (yellow gold)

          More Info: Here


          Reference 116515, 116518, & 116519
          -Rolex’s proprietary Everose rose gold body (116515); yellow gold (116518); or white gold (116519).
          -Rubber strap, fully integrated into lugs
          -In-House caliber 4130 movement with many modern materials incorporated
          -MSRP: $28,800 (rose and white gold) $27,800 (yellow gold)

          More Info: Here

          Reference 116506: The Platinum Daytona
          -Platinum case and bracelet
          -Brown ceramic bezel
          -Ice blue dial (two variants)
          -In-house caliber 4040 movement
          -MSRP: upon request

          More Info: Here

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