What is Rolex?
Ask any watch guy about Rolex, and chances are you'll get regaled with stories about rare vintage Daytonas or the high-tech, bi-color Cerachrome bezels on the new GMT. Few collectors and enthusiasts will immediately jump to talking about the Datejust – and that might be a mistake. One of the more understated members of the Rolex family, the Datejust has an amazing combination of real history, versatile style, and quality watchmaking that should get everyone from the casual watch wearer to the die-hard enthusiast excited. Here we take the modern 36mm Datejust for a spin while also giving you an in-depth look at where this watch comes from and why it's one of the greatest watches of all time.
Rolex & The Datejust
There is no question that Rolex is the best known watch manufacture on the planet, not to mention one of the best-known brands in general, world-wide. It would be easy to assume that this is the result of extravagant marketing budgets and other less-tangible qualities – and these things surely play a part – but to dismiss the history of the company and its products would be to do the story a great disservice. The Datejust is one of the earliest models that survives today and provides a perfect lens through which to examine why Rolex is, well, Rolex.
Rolex was founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf, though it was originally located in the United Kingdom and called Wilsdorf & Davis. The name would transition to Rolex SA in 1920 when Wilsdorf relocated to Switzerland where his suppliers were located, giving us the company we have today. There are little insights from the very early days that give us a lot of insight into how Rolex has become what it is, such as Wilsdorf's insistence that his brand's name be easy to pronounce in any language and that it remain short and easy to place elegantly on the dial of his watches. These are little decisions that have had huge ramifications down the line.
Now to the Datejust itself. The very first Datejust was released in 1945 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Rolex corporation. It was unveiled at a jubilee celebration (hence the name of the new bracelet that accompanied the watch from day-one) held at the Hotel des Bergues in Geneva by Wilsdorf himself (now the Four Seasons and the site of such legendary Christie's sales as Rolex Daytona: Lesson One). It was the very first automatic wristwatch with an automatically changing date window. This is a feature that anyone with a watch takes completely for granted today, but in the 40s it was game-changing.
The Datejust of course was housed in an Oyster case, another great Rolex innovation. In 1926, the Oyster case became the very first waterproof wristwatch case to be produced serially and it was also the first fully-integrated waterproof case overall. Previously, any waterproof cases were tedious affairs that involved an outer case being snapped over the main case.
We also had the Perpetual rotor that would automatically wind the movement, one of the few innovations not achieved first by Rolex. Harwood beat them to market by 3 years, offering up the first automatic movements in 1928. The Datejust also had the new bracelet mentioned before, the Jubilee bracelet. Originally, Jubilee was considered for the name of the watch itself, but it ended up just on the fine-linked bracelet that we still have today.
The first Datejust was the reference 4467 and it was only available in yellow gold with the corresponding yellow gold Jubilee bracelet. It has an open creamy white dial with applied gold batons to mark the hours and a "roulette" date window that showed even days in red and odd days in black. There was no cyclops magnifier in the crystal at this time – that would be another Rolex first, introduced on the Datejust in 1955. You'll notice that the name Datejust doesn't actually appear on the dial anywhere; instead we have a "Rolex / Oyster Perpetual" signature at 12 o'clock and the "Chronometre" indication at 6 o'clock. The bezel was lightly fluted, a feature that became more emphasized in the 1960s.
Over the following years, countless variations of the Datejust emerged. There were two-tone steel and pink gold varations, entirely steel models, and watches featuring everything from stone dials to diamond bezels. The name Datejust began to appear sporadically on the ref. 5030 and 5031 but wouldn't become a permanent fixture until the later 6074 and 6075. To detail every variation of the Datejust might be an impossible task, though there are some very serious collectors who pursue it as far as they can, nonetheless.
Today there is the 16200 family of Datejusts, the 36mm decedents of the original, unchanged in many ways, which is the what we'll be looking at in-depth here. But it's worth noting that in 2009 Rolex also introduced the Datejust II in an updated 41mm size. It still has the same styling and the variety of dials and details – everything from gold to diamonds to arabic numerals – but in a size that appeals to those who think a 36mm watch is too small. Luckily Rolex added this to the line-up, allowing the classic to live on alongside the Datejust II.
A Few Important Datejusts
While we certainly can't even show you a significant portion of the Datejust's extensive history here, we can show you a few examples of exemplary Datejusts that demonstrate just how important this watch is to the history of the watch industry and the watch's place in popular culture.
While the Day-Date gets a lot of the attention when it comes to famous wearers (with its bracelet even being named "The President"), more than a few luminaries wore Datejusts. Just last week we showed you US President Dwight D. Eisenhower's personal Datejust, which is coming up for sale in September 2014. He wore the solid gold ref. 6305 on the cover of Life magazine, giving it a solid place in pop-culture watch history. You can learn more about this Datejust here.
One of the archetypal Datejust references is the 6305 from the mid-1950s. When it comes to vintage DJs, this is one that even the most serious Daytona collectors will go crazy for. They were solid steel with one of the earliest examples of the fluted bezel that resembles the bezel we have today, and they came with either creamy white or almost greyish black dials, the latter being much more desirable and collectable. Both had a honeycomb texture, making them even more elegant. You can see more shots of this stunning black-dial 6305 from Watches In Rome here.