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Review: Rolex Cellini

Raise your hand if you once had a Rolex that would be worth a fortune right now if you’d kept it. I mean, I can’t see you, but thanks for playing along. I too have owned a Rolex that I would now struggle to afford to buy back—but if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. There’s a sour taste to it, like getting back together with an old girlfriend who dumped you for someone better looking. But what if there was another option?

Can you tell I’m bitter? It’s happened to me not once, but twice. If I’d kept those watches, I’d have earned enough on top of what I’d paid to buy a Patek Philippe Aquanaut—back then I mean. Now … not so much. Now, many of the watches I’d hoped to buy are no longer attainable. Rolex as a brand feels unattainable. Back when I was a pipsqueak junior engineer, I rewarded myself for graduating by spending a couple of thousand on a Submariner. Today, the only way that’s going to happen is to graduate straight into a trust fund.

It’s frustrating because I really, really like Rolex, I really do, and I would very much like to have one again—but I just can’t bring myself to pay so much more for something I had before—or at least something very similar. I just wish there was some sort of secret back door into the brand, some collection people don’t really know much about that could give me not just a sense of progression—but also be a little bit of a bargain, too.

Well, funnily enough, there is, and it’s called the Cellini. Borrowing its name from 16th century artist Benvenuto Cellini, known for his works in the precious metal gold, the Cellini collection was introduced in the 60s as a way of breaking the Rolex brand into the luxury market. Until then, a Rolex was a hardworking machine, and in that spirit lay its appeal—the Cellini endeavoured to throw in a good helping of indulgence.

Didn’t work though. The Cellini line has since been one of Rolex’s least popular, least congruent and frankly confusing since the very beginning. It was an unfamiliar direction, one the brand was clearly uncomfortable with—until very recently. In 2017, for the first time in its half-century of existence, the Cellini actually looked like a Rolex—but with a twist. Instead of being a random luxury watch produced by the same guys who do the Submariner, it is a refined version of the Rolex design language.

It still carries the spirit of the original Cellini’s intention—that is to say it’s made of gold. But this time, as though to steer very clear of the mistake that cursed the collection for so long, there’s no yellow gold, only trendy rose and white. And it’s the white gold that interests me, because with a white gold case and black, time-only dial, the Rolex Cellini is actually a very handsome watch. And, more importantly, a pre-owned example can be purchased for 25% less than its RRP. In Rolex terms, that’s a veritable steal. Could this be the Rolex I’ve been dreaming of?

Woah, woah, woah. I think I’m getting carried away here. For one, the Cellini, even with that 25% off, is some £9,000. What was all that about not wanting to spend a lot of money? Okay, well bear with me here. This is the logic. I could, right now, buy back the GMT-Master II 116710LN I had ten years ago—but it would cost me as much as a brand new Cellini. Or I could buy a pre-owned Cellini, in gold, for three-quarters of the price.

Sure, the GMT-Master II may go up more in value, but it may also go down. They both might. The Cellini may even be the more stable, sensible option, even if it does continue to depreciate. It’ll certainly be more predictable. Wearing a GMT-Master II worth many multiples what you paid for it must feel like keeping a Da Vinci sketch in your wallet, not to mention the shoulda-woulda-coulda scenario of selling too soon or too late.

Is the Cellini actually a watch worth owning? Or is it just my brain convincing me to accept a very expensive compromise? Given how little attention it gets, it’s hard to say off the bat, but spending time with the watch proves to be very revealing. For example, I don’t typically like Roman numerals, but these pencil-thin, elongated versions have grown on me, and now I actually quite like them. They read like markers at a glance, but yet there’s something more, a little like Cartier’s secret signature.

The dial is simple, the hands a throwback to the Oyster Precisions of the fifties, and rather than feeling like someone put a wig on a donkey and called it a thoroughbred, it actually takes the brand back to its roots, to a simpler, more classical state. If Rolex were ever to do a vintage reissue, this is it.

And all the hallmarks of the Oyster, for which Rolex has become synonymous, are there. The skinny fluted bezel, the knurled crown, the simple case. The bubble-like case back is a nod to the earliest automatic Rolex Perpetuals. A little disappointing is the 50m water resistance, which seems a little like Rolex doesn’t take this watch seriously—and could well be why the community at large doesn’t either—but honestly, I don’t mind. The calibre 3132 inside, full of the typical Rolex bells and whistles—like the Parachrom hairspring, hacking seconds and free sprung balance—may not be protected on a dive, but you’d look foolish taking one along with you anyway.

I like this watch. There, I said it. I like it, and to me it feels like a step up from the watches I had previously, a different direction—rather than treading the same old path I did before, but this time it’s a toll road. Could it end up being the first Rolex I’ve owned for a decade? It could be, it could be …

Getting back on the Rolex bandwagon is very appealing, but the options are, these days, rather limited for me. Perhaps I should just suck it up and pay more? But I can’t. Perhaps I should stay clean and off Rolex for good? Seems a little petty. The Rolex Cellini, however, could be a way out, an opportunity to purchase a gold Rolex at a sizable discount from new. And you know what they say: sweet is always sweeter when you get a bargain—or at least, a Rolex-style bargain.

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