Feature: Beginner’s guide to buying a Rolex
Are you looking to plunge right into top-tier Rolex territory with a bejewelled platinum Day-Date? Or perhaps you want to see what all the fuss is about by testing the water with something classic in steel. Our indispensable guide covers the Crown’s leading models to help you make the right decision.
Is there anything quite as reassuring as seeing the words “Oyster Perpetual” on a watch dial? Almost a century ago this no-frills Rolex model was the height of innovation and a huge statement of intent from the brand. Waterproof thanks to its revolutionary screw-down caseback and crown, the Oyster soon had the word “Perpetual” added to its name when Rolex equipped it with a self-winding movement, and now all Rolex collections except its dressier 1908 line bear those famous words.
The Oyster Perpetual, now a collection in itself, comprises a time-only steel watch on a three-link bracelet, but it comes in a variety of sizes and dial colours. These include everything from grape to yellow to “Tiffany” blue, so called because it’s similar to the shade of blue used by the well-known high-end jewellery brand. Basic it may be, but there are plenty of die-hard Rolex fans who swear by this model despite being able to afford something from the upper echelons of the Rolex catalogue.
We hope to make as much of an impression on our 40th birthday, as Rolex did when it released the Datejust to celebrate four decades in business in 1945. The Datejust was an early example of a watch with a date window—Girard-Perregaux did it first in 1930 with the Mimo Meter—further cementing Rolex’s position as a pioneering force in the industry. By 1977, Rolex introduced the Oysterquartz, a quartz-powered Datejust spin-off that featured a more angular design, echoing the sport-luxe style of the 70s, although this was soon discontinued.
The traditional Datejust has certainly stood the test of time, though, and it continues to thrive as Rolex’s best-selling model. The sheer range of designs and styles—including the iconic fluted bezel—available in the Datejust range is surely one reason why it’s so popular.
From pared-down steel models with plain dials to two-tone gold and steel pieces with eye-catching palm-motif dials, there’s a Datejust for everyone, from your dad to Kim Kardashian—the latter has been spotted wearing a bedazzled limited-edition model, and we wouldn’t expect anything less.
Ever heard of the Rolex Air-Giant? What about the Air-Tiger? Like the Air-King, those models were part of a range of watches Rolex released to honour the bravery of Royal Air Force pilots who fought in World War II. The first two models have long been discontinued—even vintage models are now rare—but the Air-King has popped in and out of the Rolex line-up over the decades, changing its looks more often than a Las Vegas showgirl.
The current Air-King, most recently revamped in 2022, has a slightly eccentric dashboard-style dial that’s based on the Bloodhound land speed record car and mixes applied 3, 6 and 9 numerals with printed 5-minute indices. The Rolex name is rendered in the brand’s vivid green and stands out exceptionally well on the black dial. Like the Oyster Perpetual, it does nothing more than tell the time, but it does offer a soft iron cap within the case for anti-magnetic protection, much like the discontinued Milgauss model. For a classic Rolex with a twist, go for the quirky Air-King.
The most influential dive watch ever, the mighty Submariner is often copied but rarely bettered. It was launched in 1954 during an era that spawned a number of truly great dive watches—possibly inspired by the popularity of oceanographers like Jacques Cousteau—but the Submariner is the barometer by which all others are judged.
First-generation models came with 100 metres of water resistance and looked understated with their black dial and bezel. Contemporary models are water resistant to 300 metres and feature a crown guard and—with one exception—a date window, magnified by Rolex’s signature “Cyclops” lens. The model also comes in a number of colour combinations, all of which have been given unofficial nicknames, such as “The Hulk” and “Kermit”.
If that seems a little juvenile, don’t let it put you off. None other than James Bond has worn a Submariner in several of the early films, and it’s long been a trusted timekeeper for various naval units around the world. The Submariner is an absolute tank of a watch that can take a beating.
Not all pilot’s watches were designed to be worn by those flying military aircraft. The GMT-Master has a far more glamorous backstory, having been created in a dream collaboration between Pan Am airlines and Rolex. This iconic airline wanted a watch for its pilots that could simultaneously give the time in two different zones. Rolex duly obliged and came up with the GMT-Master. It features a second hour hand in red that reads off a rotating 24-hour bezel. The bezel was split into two colours, red and blue, symbolising day and night, respectively. This became known as a “Pepsi” bezel.
The GMT-Master was eventually phased out and replaced by the improved GMT-Master II. Like the Submariner it now comes in gold or two-tone as well as steel and has been garlanded with a variety of nicknames according to the bezel colour combinations. If a watch aficionado ever starts talking to you about “Batman and the Root Beer”, they’re talking about Rolex GMTs, not the dullest-sounding superhero movie ever made.
If you fancy the idea of scaling Mount Everest but in reality, you’re scared of heights and you hate the cold, perhaps a Rolex Explorer is the closest you’ll come to the summit. Get your hands on an Explorer and you’ll be following in the footsteps of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first people to reach the summit of Everest. This triumphant duo reportedly wore Explorers on their record-breaking expedition in 1953 and Rolex hasn’t let us forget it since—even if evidence of them wearing the watches at the actual summit isn’t exactly concrete…
Today, the Explorer remains a favourite within Rolex’s catalogue, thanks not only to its impressive history but its sleek design which features an uncluttered easy-to-read dial—one that has been replicated many a time by other brands. Surprisingly for a tool watch, the Explorer is a time-only piece with no extra complications, no matter how useful they could be for its target audience of real-life explorers. Instead, Rolex saved any big modifications for the Explorer II but we’re not complaining.
As with any great film, if it’s a success, there’s a good chance there’ll be a sequel, and sometimes this trumps the first—just look at the follow-ups to The Godfather and Shrek 2. This was arguably the case with the Rolex and its Explorer. The original Explorer was so tough it became the go-to watch on various expeditions to mountains, deserts and polar regions. As previously stated, an early version accompanied the successful Everest expedition of 1953 when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summitted the world’s highest peak.
This watch was followed in 1971 by the Explorer II. Larger and more rugged than its predecessor, it also boasts a date, second time zone—indicated by the famous orange 24-hour hand—and a pared-down, fixed steel bezel. Although purpose built for the likes of mountaineers, polar explorers and cavers, the Explorer II has been spotted on the wrist of British royalty. Credit to Prince Harry for sporting this true Rolex stalwart, which we think is cooler than his brother’s quartz Omega. Harry’s white-dial version is said to have been given to him while he was operating in the military’s Apache helicopter unit. If the Explorer II is good enough for a prince, it’s certainly good enough for us.
Owners of a Day-Date—aka the “President”—can take satisfaction from knowing they’re in a very exclusive Rolex club indeed. Past and present members include a motley mix of famous and powerful people such as the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King and dozens of world leaders and CEOs.
Its nickname stems from the fact that one was gifted by Rolex to then US President Dwight Eisenhower, and several incumbents have also worn this model. According to Rolex it was the first watch in which a day of the week was spelled out completely in an aperture on the dial. This being the brand’s most prestigious model, it doesn’t come in anything as common as steel. Take your pick from three types of gold, or platinum—although the latter is so heavy it can feel like you have a sandbag strapped to your wrist. The three-link President bracelet is equally premium, with a cleverly concealed clasp. Expensive as it is, a Day-Date is still a far subtler way of showing your wealth than wearing a Richard Mille.
There are lengthy waiting lists for most brand-new Rolex models these days, but the queue for a Daytona stretches around the block and into the next postal code. Just how did this now-iconic chronograph become so desirable? When it was released in the early 1960s retailers had to practically cajole customers into buying it. People seemed to prefer Rolex’s simpler watches, and it probably didn’t help that the Daytona’s movement was sourced externally, unlike its other models.
And then the 1980s arrived and two things happened: chronographs were in demand again, and Hollywood A-lister Paul Newman wore a vintage Daytona on a magazine cover, sparking huge interest.
The current Daytona looks a little different to those early models. It features a crown guard, a larger case and the dial has undergone some subtle tweaks. Most significantly though, it now runs on a self-winding, rather than manual-wind, movement. It made the switch in the 1980s, relying first on fellow Swiss brand Zenith for its El Primero calibre—which Rolex modified—and then launching its very own chronograph movement in 2000. For so long, the Daytona was Rolex’s only watch without an in-house movement. Finally, it managed to shed that slightly dubious distinction.
Rolex is a brand that shies away from watchmaking’s trickier functions, leaving the Sky-Dweller with its innovative annual calendar as its most complicated timepiece. It also boasts a GMT display and a Ring Command bezel—fluted for added finesse.
When it was first released back in 2012 it was the first entirely new collection from the Crown in 20 years, so you can imagine the watch community’s excitement. Created with cosmopolitan, high-flyers in mind, the Sky-Dweller comes solely in precious metals—aside from the steel and yellow-gold version—and has been dubbed “the businessman’s watch”. In 2021, Rolex unveiled a model with a Jubilee bracelet, doubling down on the watch’s luxurious appeal. If you thought luxury sport watches were reserved for the Gerald Genta creations of the 1970s—hello, the Royal Oak and Nautilus—think again. The Sky-Dweller is in a whole other lane.
Is the Submariner near the top of your wish list but you ideally fancy something a little less predictable? Look no further than the Yacht-Master. As in the name, it’s built for yachtsmen and women who want something that can withstand the seven seas and look slick in the process. Introduced in 1992, it hasn’t changed too much during its 30-odd years and it remains one of the Crown’s most elegant sport watches.
One significant update, though, arrived in 2023, via the Yacht-Master 42 RLX Titanium, a model that was first tried and tested with a prototype on the wrist of legendary British sailor, Ben Ainslie. It’s the first titanium watch Rolex has ever produced, making it an exciting release and one that highlights its efforts to develop watches with function over form. In fact, Rolex even made its own exclusive grade-5 titanium alloy named ‘titanium RLX’—a corrosion-resistant metal alloy that it claims makes the watch 30 percent lighter than other titanium watches. If the Crown tries to make the Yacht-Master much lighter, we’ll be getting a cork one next…
The kind of people who wear a Yacht-Master II are often those who actually own a yacht, or at least have friends who do. At 44mm, this distinctive chronograph is one of Rolex’s larger models and comes in gold, two-tone and stainless steel. It’s also one of its more complicated timepieces, with an ingenious Ring Command bezel that operates a 10-minute regatta countdown timer—admittedly a function that might alienate those whose interest in sailing stops at cruise-ship holidays.
This watch took four years and 35,000 man-hours to develop, giving Rolex fans a pleasant surprise when it was introduced in 2007. After all, it’s rare that Rolex introduces a new model, and rarer still that it launches a truly innovative new movement with an unusual complication.
If you’re into sailing but your mode of transport is more rubber dinghy than luxury catamaran, there’s always the more affordable original Yacht-Master to consider, seen as a more prestigious version of a Submariner and which doesn’t feature a countdown timer or chronograph.