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Feature: The Bargain Rolex Sky-Dweller

Imagine buying a Rolex 6263 back in the 70s for pennies. Now it’d be worth anywhere between £50–100,000, depending on spec. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But now, with ever-increasing prices and mark-ups appearing on new models before they’ve even been worn, it seems the days of bargain Rolexes with the potential for big appreciation are gone … but maybe they aren’t.

In 2012, Rolex did something it hadn’t done in almost twenty years—release a new model. So refined and controlled is Rolex’s line-up that the prospect of this unknown but highly teased watch generated enormous hype, the brand sharing pictures of clouds and other hints as to the purpose of its new release. And not only was it a new model, but it turned out to be Rolex’s most technical watch in, well, ever. Filling the 42mm case is the calibre 9001, the brand’s first in-house annual calendar, and by far and away the most complicated movement ever to come from the five-pointed crown.

First of all, like I said, it was an annual calendar. This is a calendar set annually at the leap year, or rather, lack of it, with every other month of thirty or thirty-one days taking care of itself. So, if you stay awake at the turn of the night on a short month, you’ll get to see the watch in action, flipping neatly from thirty to one in the blink of an eye. But that’s just the beginning of a function that turns out to be even more clever than anyone initially expected.

Assuming you’re still awake and alert at the stroke of midnight, you’ll notice, as the date flicks quickly from one to the next, that something else has changed. See the hour markers, the white batons aligning with them around the perimeter of the dial—those do more than highlight the time. One of these little markers is printed in a contrasting colour, and with just a little thought it becomes apparent that, with twelve hours on the dial and twelve of those little markers next to them, that this is what establishes the month.

It’s ludicrously satisfying, one of those, ‘why didn’t anyone else think of that?’ moments that reminds you just how good Rolex is at taking existing technology and refining it into something new. When you think about it, there’s nothing truly innovative or complicated about this particular display, just how it’s been used, and that’s what makes it so great, it’s simplicity.

But this ‘Sky-Dweller’ needs to be more than just an annual calendar if it is truly meant to be the ultimate watch of the sky, and that’s why there’s an additional display looping off-centre from the rest of the dial. There are a few reasons why this GMT display doesn’t utilise the bezel as per the GMT-Master, the first being that, well, the GMT-Master already did that, but it’s the second reason that really turns the Sky-Dweller from a clever watch into a damn genius.

We’ve seen the Ring Command bezel before with the Yacht-Master II, where it clumsily allowed—with some serious scrutiny of the instructions—the watch’s chronograph and time-setting modes to be cycled through. Here with the Sky-Dweller, however, Ring Command has been used to such incredible effect that it seems to transcend watchmaking into a place reserved for only the most satisfying of experiences; peeling a screen protector off has nothing on this. There are four positions—neutral, home time, local time and date—each accessed with a sensory click of the bezel. The crown then comes out and sets as usual, with whatever function chosen by the bezel whizzing around the dial.

Like the full-bore perpetual calendar, which hoovers up all those pesky leap days as well, the annual calendar—not least an annual calendar such as this one—is usually the work of the very highest watchmaking echelons, and here was Rolex offering one—but thanks to its solid gold construction, it didn’t come cheap. Buyers were left with a decision: purchase an annual calendar from Rolex, or one from Patek Philippe, and as you can imagine, that wasn’t a difficult decision to make at all. Sales suffered and consequently so did the flagship watch of the Rolex line, the first new model for twenty years, damned by its own excellence.

How does any of this relate to either bargain value or investment worth? It’s what happened next in the tale of the young Sky-Dweller that set about a course of events that lead us to today. With sales limited, interest waned and residuals plummeted. Years went by, new models were released and the Rolex hype train had well and truly left the station, leaving the poor Sky-Dweller behind, tie askew and out of breath.

Rolex had a problem. This was supposed to be a move upwards into high watchmaking, but it had stalled badly. The Sky-Dweller was a reach too far, removed by too great a degree from Rolex’s core collection—not to mention hampered by its weight and size—and so in 2017 Rolex did something I don’t think it ever intended to do: it re-released the Sky-Dweller in steel. Like the Day-Date, I believe the Sky-Dweller was never intended to be fashioned from such a common material, but needs must, and ultimately it was the right decision.

Interest in the Sky-Dweller soared, and sales with it, dragging up the residuals along the way. Solid gold models remained expensive due to material weight, whilst the newer steel models earned a mark-up thanks to a more accessible price point—but there was one little slice of the Sky-Dweller pie that remained cold and uneaten.

And that’s this, the steel and gold—which Rolex calls ‘Rolesor’—326933. Sitting somewhere in-between the price of gold and the affordability of steel, it slipped through unnoticed, and only now, with steel models more unavailable than ever, are people starting to take note not just of steel and gold Rolexes generally, but specifically the steel and gold Sky-Dweller. At RRP, it’s surprising to learn that it is a significant margin below the secondary market asking price of the immensely popular steel Daytona, despite its inclusion of precious metals and its top-tier complication.

This presents us with a limited time opportunity. It’s not often that there’s a blind spot in the Rolex collecting catalogue, but just think back to every other unpopular watch that Rolex sold in low numbers, and now add the knowledge that this particular one has the most complex and intricate mechanism ever found inside a Rolex. It wasn’t long ago that these watches could be had for less than RRP, and now residuals are starting to firm. There’s still time yet, but right now, this watch, in this specification and close to a third the price of the equivalent Patek Philippe, is one of the real bargains left in the Rolex range—and it may well be an opportunity to grab an investment without needing to wangle your way onto a retailer waiting list.

Of course, this is all speculation—if I could predict the future I’d be doing this from my private island in the Bahamas—but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the bi-metal Sky-Dweller could be a great opportunity to not only own one of the most impressive watches Rolex has ever made, but to get paid to do it as well. And isn’t that the dream?

It’s been a fast-paced journey over the last ten years when it comes to Rolex investment. The days of the average person buying a Submariner with a month’s salary seem like so long ago as the price of entry gets ever higher. But if you have the means, there are still opportunities, and there’s a very strong likelihood that the Sky-Dweller in steel and gold could be one of them. Worst comes to worst, you’ll simply end up with a fantastic watch—and that ain’t half bad.

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