In Praise Of The World's Most Collectable Watch

Explaining the enduring appeal of the Rolex Daytona

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Main picture: 1971 Paul Newman Rolex Daytona

On the night of 10 November 2013, a stainless steel wristwatch broke records when it was sold in a Geneva auction room for over $1m (£705,000). This watch wasn't owned by any great actor, musician or racing driver, nor was it laden with diamonds or gold. It was, quite simply, one of the rarest examples of the most sought-after commercial timepiece in the world — the Rolex Daytona.

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From its birth to its most recent 50th anniversary incarnation, the Daytona has risen above even its peers in the Rolex family to go beyond being just a collectable watch to the most cherished model of all. To understand why the Daytona has become so desired, it pays to appreciate the three main tenets of collecting that drive value and desirability: great design, brand equity and rarity. All three are more than present in the Daytona.

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First, the design. Is the Daytona handsome? Certainly, but it goes beyond that. The Daytona's 37mm case, initially large for its day but refined for now, sits flawlessly flush on the wrist. (Vintage Daytonas have been called "the most comfortable watch in the world".)

Furthermore, the dial is clean, classic and elegant, while still being interesting. Launched in 1963, it stood out because its chronograph subdials were two-tone — light-coloured counters on the black version; black counters on the light version. This set it apart from watches by Omega, Breitling and Tag Heuer in the earliest years. Those rivals all featured monotone dials, and the commercial advantage Rolex gained then was never lost.

Then there's the fact the Daytona is a Rolex. Watch collectors sense that one day they might be required to sell, and the more potential buyers they have, the better their chances to make back their money. And no watch brand is better known or more revered. Fashionable without being trendy, a Rolex has become synonymous with the commercial and social success of its wearer — Steve McQueen, Jay Z and James Bond all wore Rolexes.

But so did Winston Churchill, Che Guevara and the Dalai Lama. The Rolex Day-Date was nicknamed "The President" because so many leaders — of the US and other nations — wore one. Discreet yet omnipresent, the company today employs 9,000 people between its Geneva HQ, the production site in Biel, Switzerland, and a handful of worldwide subsidiaries.

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MORE WATCHES:

The Esquire Guide To Buying A Watch
The Best Watches Under £1,000
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Rolex gives little away, a key to its mystique. It is frequently ranked first in surveys of UK superbrands and is featured in Forbes' list of the world's most powerful brands. If the rest of the Daytona's history belonged to another brand, there is no certainty it would have reached such epic proportions.

Men particularly seem to love the notion that so many of the classic Rolex models were made not just to look good, but for specific, adventurous purposes. The GMT-Master, for example, was created for Pan-Am's pilots, then experiencing a new phenomenon called jet-lag — they wanted a watch that showed two time zones simultaneously.

The Submariner was made for divers. The Milgauss was introduced in the Fifties as an anti-magnetic watch for people who worked in power plants, medical facilities and early nuclear research labs, where strong electromagnetic fields were present. Rolexes lend themselves to being dressed up and down more than other luxury watch brands and the company has mastered the art of the design tweak: collectors wax lyrical over a different coloured bezel here, or a bigger crown there.

All this contributes something to their collectability and value. According to Christie's, Rolexes gain value faster and more steadily than any other brand.

The Daytona was built as a tool, like all other Rolex sports watches in the early Sixties, and so, relative to its more commercially oriented brethren — the Oyster, Datejust or Day-Date — the Daytona is rare.

The chronograph was the most expensive and complicated watch made by Rolex for a generation or more. It was never intended to be worn by civilians, and most vintage Daytonas selling for six figures today languished in jewellers' display cases for years. As such they were produced in far fewer numbers than other Rolexes.

When you couple this with the fact the Daytona has been around for more than half a century and a good percentage have been lost or damaged, and you begin to see that the Daytona is at the cross section of great design, a world-recognised name and immense rarity.

Rolex was founded at the start of the 20th century by German watchmaker Hans Wilsdorf. The name was his invention, and is supposedly derived from the French "horlogerie exquise" — exquisite watches.

Wilsdorf was an obsessive character, and fascinated by Anglo-culture. After working for a watch export business in Switzerland, he moved to London, aiming to invent a wristwatch that could compete in accuracy with the predominant pocket watches.

Early designs were submitted to the Official Rating Centre in Biel and to Kew Observatory, the latter being known for conducting the most stringent time tests in the world and responsible for testing marine chronometers for the Royal Navy. In 1910, Wilsdorf's Rolex was the first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision. Four years later, Kew awarded it a class "A" precision certificate, a distinction which, until that point, had been reserved exclusively for marine chronometers.

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By 1920, Wilsdorf had moved Rolex to Geneva, to be closer to suppliers and because he recognised the city held a special place in the imagination of watch consumers. Next, he focused his attention on taking his watches to sport, by making them waterproof.

The Oyster case, featuring a screw-down case back, bezel and crown, launched in 1926 to much fanfare. Wilsdorf set about matching Rolex's great manufacturing and design capabilities with great storytelling. He was a gifted salesman and marketing expert, and he realised you could use people's testimonials to convey a product's message. It was this tactic that would elevate Rolex to become the luxury wristwatch archetype, not just within Switzerland and the UK, but all over the world.

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In 1927, Wilsdorf heard of a British typist, Mercedes Gleitze, who claimed to have swum the English Channel on her eighth attempt, becoming the first English woman to do so. However, doubts were cast over the accuracy of her claims, so Wilsdorf persuaded her to make a further "validation" attempt, this time wearing a Rolex Oyster on a band around her neck.

The fact she had to be pulled out of the freezing water seven miles short of the French coast hardly mattered — people now believed her previous claim, and Wilsdorf bought an ad on the Daily Mail's front page linking her with Rolex ("The wonder watch that defies the elements!"). Gleitze starred in the company's adverts for many years, effectively making her the first luxury-brand ambassador.

Further Rolex innovations followed rapidly: the first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial, the Datejust, in 1945; the first case waterproof to 100m, the Oyster Perpetual Submariner, in 1953; the first wristwatch to show two time zones, the GMT-Master, in 1954; the first wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial, the Day-Date, in 1956.

The Sixties ushered in arguably the greatest decade in watch design, and with it the Rolex Cosmograph family, a new generation of chronographs for racing drivers of which the Daytona was a part. While some Rolex chronographs already existed from the Twenties to the Forties, they were restrained, rather dainty affairs compared to the models sports watch fans have come to know today.

The Daytona is named for the coastal town in Florida, known for its hard-packed sand beach suitable for motorsports. (Today, Daytona Beach is home to the famous International Speedway and the HQ for Nascar.) Wilsdorf had been impressed by British land-speed record-setter Sir Malcolm Campbell, who did much to popularise auto racing in his Bluebird cars. In the Thirties, Campbell would set several speed records, racing along the Florida shore. Campbell was soon appearing in Rolex ads, even getting a Malcolm Campbell Rolex model in his honour.

"Nothing less than absolute precision can satisfy men who set out to create records, and for them the Rolex 'Oyster' Wrist Watch, itself a holder of 25 world records, definitely has no equal. The Rolex 'Oyster' Wristwatch is designed and assembled with quite as much care, with all the skill and attention as is devoted to the production of a giant racing-car" ran one advert. "'The Rolex watch is still keeping perfect time, I was wearing it yesterday when Bluebird exceeded 300mph' — Campbell," ran another.

The early Sixties' chronographs appeared without "Daytona" on the dial in some of these advertisements, and were even called "Le Mans", after the French endurance race. Whether Rolex was unable to procure the rights to that name or simply decided on a US-centric switch is not known, but the Le Mans designation disappeared, and the story of the Daytona become closely tied to the US market.

Rolex began sponsoring the 24-hour endurance race in 1963 and, to this day, the winner of the annual race receives that year's model chronograph. The Daytona debuted that same year and was the first Rolex chronograph with a tachymeter on the bezel, which allowed its wearer to easily calculate distance over time ie, speed.

While many believe the Daytona was the earliest chronograph ever to feature this scale on the bezel, the title actually goes to the early Omega Speedmaster from 1957. Known as the "Moonwatch" on account of it being worn during the first American spacewalk on Nasa's Gemini 4 mission and also the first watch worn by an astronaut walking on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, the Speedmaster was indeed designed as a racer's watch.

From 1963 to 1965, the Daytona, which received its name officially in 1964, was seen exclusively with a thin 37mm case and round "pump" pushers. However, one of the great tenets of Rolex's strength in the marketplace was its waterproofness.

In 1965, we saw the very first Oyster Daytona, which featured screw-down, water-resistant pushers. For the next seven years, there would be two distinct families within Daytona — those with pump pushers (non-Oyster watches) and those with screw-down pushers (Oyster Cosmographs).

In 1969, the two most famous Rolex Daytonas were constructed with slightly larger cases, screw-down pushers, and an upgraded movement. The references 6263 (black acrylic bezel) and 6265 (metal bezel) would become the foundation of Daytona collecting.

In the Seventies, Rolex, as the company we know today, began to show itself. On the one hand, the British Ministry of Defence and the Peruvian Air Force were commissioning special military-oriented pieces, while on the other, Rolex was producing more regular production models in gold. The Seventies would define not only the Daytona but Rolex as a whole, making it the global powerhouse it is today.

In this decade we saw so many iterations of the Rolex Daytona it is simply too much to put to paper. While their reference number remained static — 6263 and 6265 — we saw them produced in 18k gold and 14k gold, we saw them with black dials, silver dials, champagne dials, and even lemon dials. We saw them worn by dictators and dandies, racing drivers and revolutionaries. In the Seventies, the Daytona became more than a watch, it became The Daytona.

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The "Paul Newman" Daytona, though, with its black outer track that runs around the edge of the dial and matches the subdials is perhaps the most famous high-end collectable Rolex in the world. But at the time these special "exotic dials", featuring strange Seventies funky designs, were anything but desirable.

Countless would-be dream watches sat in shop windows for years, if not decades, totally unrecognised for the value they would soon possess. When new, the price of an Exotic Dial Daytona was the same as that of a traditional model — around £150. Ironically, because they proved hard to sell, many retailers discounted them considerably. Now, a standard pump-pusher Daytona from the Seventies is worth around £20,000. But the same watch with a Paul Newman dial is worth around £85,000.

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By the same accord, a standard Seventies screw-down Daytona is now worth around £30,000, while a screw-down Paul Newman easily tops £160,000. The watch auctioned for $1m in 2013 was a reference 6263 Paul Newman Rolex, one of the rarest and most desirable configurations of a Daytona, but still nothing revolutionary from a historical or horological point of view.

It's said Newman wore his Daytona, given to him by his wife Joanne Woodward, when he took up auto racing professionally, from 1972 until his death in 2008.

The origins of the "Paul Newman Daytona" nickname are obscure, however. In their authoritative Rolex history The Best of Time, James M Dowling and Jeffrey P Hess state, "the reason most often heard was that Paul Newman allegedly wore one in the movie Le Mans.

Subsequently, a picture of the watch, attached to Mr Newman's wrist, was plastered all over Italy on movie posters." However, Steve McQueen appeared in Le Mans, not Newman. It was Newman's 1969 racing film Winning that initially sparked the actor's interest in motorsports ("the first thing that I ever found I had any grace in," he said), while training at the Watkins Glen Racing School in New York. However, close viewing of Winning does not reveal a watch of any particular kind on his wrist.

A Rolex Daytona does feature in the 1965 car-race film Red Line 7000 though, clearly visible worn by the race team boss Pat Kazarian, played by Norman Alden. A simpler suggestion is
that around this time, Paul Newman appeared on the cover of Italy's most popular magazine wearing his Rolex and the association was subsequently born.

In 1988, the 25th anniversary of the first Daytona was marked with the introduction of a new, self-winding movement, based on one developed by Zenith called the El Primero (it was later changed as it failed to meet Rolex's quality standards).

This new Daytona marked the end of the Cosmograph as a functional object with flat, matte surfaces, and the beginning of the watch as a statement piece, with applied gold marker and glossy dials. It was this launch, however, that catapulted the Daytona to even greater levels as a collector's watch: due to the limited supply of the Zenith movement, it was next to impossible to purchase.

The so-called Zenith Daytona would run through the year 2000, when Rolex introduced its very first in-house chronograph calibre.

It is considered by many of the world's finest watchmakers to be one of the greatest, most robust and most accurate movements ever created. To watch collectors and experts, the special rarity of strange dials and obscure military units using the Daytona may be gone, but the watch remains perhaps the single most useful and well-designed watch anywhere in the world. And a popular answer in the ongoing debate: "If I were to buy one watch and wear it for the rest of my life, what would it be?"

In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Daytona, the in-house calibre model, was cased for the first time in platinum. That same year, Christie's sold 50 vintage Daytonas at an average price of over $260,000 (£168,000) each. Since then, the market for collectable and rare Daytonas has reached fever pitch. In May 2015, a special "Albino" Daytona, owned by Eric Clapton, broke Rolex's own record to become the most expensive ever sold at auction, going under the hammer at $1.4m (£729,000).

While the world of Rolex Daytona collecting can be complex, even murky, it remains the single most engaging and entertaining collectable watch market in the world. The day may come when another watch takes its place. But it's hard to imagine it will be any time soon. 

***
MORE WATCHES:

The Esquire Guide To Buying A Watch
The Best Watches Under £1,000
The Best Watches Under £500 
***

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