The updated version of the 1950s’ Rolex Milgauss is a hit among Rolex fans. Is this re-engineered classic, with its improved protection against magnetism, worth the wait? Writer Jens Koch and photographer Nik Schölzel find out in this watch test from our August 2008 issue.
Magnetic fields are invisible and do not greatly affect the human body. Maybe that’s why we don’t think about them very much, even though our high-tech world is full of them, generated by all sorts of devices, from motors to loudspeakers. Unlike the people who wear them, however, mechanical watches are extremely susceptible to magnetic fields. When parts of a watch’s movement become magnetized, its rate accuracy is disturbed, causing frustration for its owner.
Rolex addressed this problem in the 1950s with the introduction of its Oyster Perpetual Milgauss model. The name comes from the French mille Gauss, referring to the watch’s protection from magnetic fields up to 1,000 gauss (named after physicist Karl Friedrich Gauss, a gauss is a unit for measuring the strength of a magnetic field). This level of magnetism, which corresponds to 0.1 Tesla or 80,000 vph, is 100 times higher than that of a typical horseshoe magnet. It would take levels such as those found in an MRI scanner to affect the watch’s functioning. Rolex devoted considerable time and effort in the development of the recent reissue of the Milgauss, introduced at the Baselworld watch fair in 2007. Its inner case, made of ferromagnetic material, shields the movement from magnetic fields and consists of only two parts: a container and another cover tightly screwed to it. The container encloses the movement laterally and on the dial side, while the back seals the movement side. To ensure that the movement would be shielded as much as possible, the designers allowed for only a bare minimum of openings in the dial and case. This is why there is no aperture for a date display, for example. There are only the necessary small openings for the winding stem and for the axles that anchor the hands. There are also two tiny holes for the screws that hold the dial. Most other watches with magnetic protection have an inner case with three parts, with the parts layered on top of one another rather than threaded together.
Rolex didn’t stop there; its engineers were determined to make additional modifications to prevent even minute amounts of magnetism from leaking into the movement. The result of this initiative was the blue Parachrom hairspring that appears in the Milgauss as well as other Rolex models such as the Daytona, the new GMT-Master II and the Yacht-Master II. It is made of a niobium-zirconium alloy with an oxide coating and remains completely unaffected by magnetic fields. It is also supposed to withstand shocks better than conventional hairsprings. Additionally, the pallet fork and escape wheel are made of amorphous nickel-phosphorous, which is completely antimagnetic. Opening the solid, screw-down caseback reveals the second caseback made of soft iron. It can be opened with the same special wrench used for the outer caseback. This caseback is marked with a “B” with an arrow above it — the symbol for magnetic flux density — as an indication of its special function.
Ticking behind that caseback is the automatic Caliber 3131. It differs from its close relative, the 3130, which is used in the Explorer and the no-date version of the Submariner, only by these modified materials. Caliber 3130 is in turn based on the well-known Caliber 3135 that powers the Submariner and Datejust models. Some watchmakers view this Rolex manufacture caliber as the best automatic movement on the market, due to its robust design, which also permits very precise rate adjustment. For example, a stable balance bridge replaces the usual balance cock that features only one point of support. The endshake of the balance can be adjusted with two knurled screws. The Breguet overcoil of the hairspring also ensures precision in every position, as does the free-sprung balance using Microstella nuts. The red anodized reversers in the automatic module minimize friction. The only criticism we could level at the movement is that its rotor axle is set in a jeweled bearing rather than in a more modern ball bearing. Nevertheless, there are no known problems associated with this caliber.
There is no caseback viewing window, so you’ll have to remove the caseback to see the nicely designed movement and its decorations. The classic Rolex rotor with cutouts and the automatic bridge are decorated with a sunburst finish. Other bridges have a perlage finish. Every bridge and plate is rhodium-plated and the edges are beveled and polished. The carefully polished screw heads are especially attractive.
The rate results for the Milgauss were good, though they were not as precise as other Rolex watches that have undergone the same tests. They showed an average deviation of only +1.5 seconds per day on the timing machine, and a stable amplitude with no strong deviation between the vertical and horizontal positions. However, the greatest deviation between the positions, at seven seconds, was a rather imperfect result. When worn on the wrist the watch gained three seconds per day.
Operating the Milgauss, however, is simplicity itself. The crown is easy to unscrew and has only two positions for winding and setting the hands. A hack mechanism keeps the balance and hands in place, enabling the wearer to set the watch to the second with precision. The logo and markings on the winding crown — a Rolex “crown” emblem with a dash below it —denotes the Twinlock crown, a departure from the Triplock crown of the Submariner, Sea-Dweller, and other Rolex Professional models. At 7 mm this crown is considerably larger and easier to grasp than the crowns on other, similar watches.
The Milgauss is water-resistant to a depth of 100 meters. The case, with its delicately sloping lugs and broad bezel, looks like a single cast piece. Every surface is polished, giving the watch an elegant look, but also making every fingerprint and scratch more obvious. The flat sapphire crystal extends over the case, as in all Rolex models, and is beveled to help deflect impacts. A tiny Rolex “crown” logo — only visible at a certain angle and under a loupe — is laser-cut into the crystal at 6 o’clock. Crystals that have been replaced on serviced watches will have a horizontal “S” inside the engraved logo. The narrow metal ring around the dial — the so-called “rehaut” or “dial flange” — should make counterfeiting this watch difficult, since it bears the Rolex name around its circumference, the Rolex emblem at 12 o’clock and the individual serial number at 6 o’clock.
The flat, reflective sapphire crystal doesn’t do much for legibility, but the slightly narrowing rhodium-plated gold hands do stand in clear contrast to the black dial. The markers at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock are somewhat larger than the other markers on the dial. At night the hands and markers are highly luminous. The matte black dial has a warmer tone than a shiny one would have, reminding one of slate. The orange accents, the Milgauss name, the lightning-bolt seconds hand and the smaller rectangles that serve as an outer extension of the markers coordinate well with the dial and add a sporty touch to the watch’s simple elegance. The size of the case, 40 mm, makes a bold, masculine statement and the large dial increases legibility.
The Milgauss has the easily recognizable Oyster bracelet, with a polished middle section and satin finish on the outer links. Though the bracelet appears rather flat on this large watch, it is extremely comfortable. The clasp conceals a discreet and easy-to-open extension piece that expands the bracelet by about 5 mm to allow for a slightly looser fit in warmer weather. The solid clasp is also easy to handle: it only takes a slight pull with a fingernail to lift its lever mechanism to open the bracelet.
Many potential buyers of the Milgauss are more than willing to pay higher than the official list price to do so, and waiting lists are already long. The version with a green sapphire crystal and black dial is even more in demand than our test model with a black dial or a similar model with a white dial. The price of $6,200* is not unreasonable (the version with a green sapphire crystal costs $375 more) but cannot be considered inexpensive. Surely, its near-perfection in protecting against magnetic fields coupled with its updated, contemporary design and size contribute to making it one of the most sought-after Rolex models today.
*All prices are circa August 2008 and subject to change.
+ Updated version of classic design
+ Extreme magnetic protection
+ Aesthetically pleasing manufacture caliber
- No date display
- Long wait for delivery
Manufacturer: Montres Rolex SA, Rue François-Dussaud 3-7, CH-1211 Geneva, Switzerland
Reference number: 116400
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, hack mechanism
Movement: Manufacture Caliber 3131, automatic; diameter = 28.5 mm, height = 5.37 mm; 28,800 vph, 31 jewels, Kif shock absorption, Parachrom hairspring with Breguet overcoil, Glucydur balance with Microstella regulating screws, 48-hour power reserve
Case: Stainless steel, screw-down caseback, sapphire crystal, crown guards, screw-down Twinlock crown; water-resistant to 100 meters
Strap and clasp: Stainless-steel Oyster bracelet with safety clasp and Easylink extension
Rate results (Deviation in seconds per day):
Dial up +2
Dial down +1
Crown up +1
Crown down +2
Crown left -2
Crown right +5
Greatest rate deviation: 7
Average deviation: +1.5
Horizontal positions 290°
Vertical positions 261°
Dimensions: Diameter = 40 mm, height = 13 mm, weight = 154 g
Variations: White dial; anniversary model with green sapphire crystal ($6,575)
Bracelet and clasp (max. 10 points) Well-finished steel bracelet with easy-to-use, solid folding clasp and sophisticated extension piece 10
Operation (5) Crown is easy to grasp and unscrew, and the time can be set quickly and accurately thanks to the hack mechanism. 5
Case (10) The elaborate inner shield completes the well-finished steel case. 9
Design (15) Very attractive, contemporary dial design with hints of its historical models. Sporty yet elegant 14
Legibility (5) Only the reflective crystal dims the overall good legibility of the high-contrast hands and large markers. Easy to read at night 4
Wearing comfort (10) No pinching or scratching: the wearing comfort for a watch with a steel bracelet is exceptionally good. 10
Movement (20) Nothing to improve in the engineering or unpretentious decorations. Rolex has done groundbreaking research to improve the hairspring. 18
Rate results (10) Adequate rate results, though we’re used to better from Rolex. 8
Overall value (15) The price is appropriate, especially since the watch can likely be resold at a higher price. Unfortunately, obtaining one is difficult. 14
TOTAL: 92 POINTS
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