For those who aren’t heavily invested in the world of watches, it is very common to hear about the “bread and butter” of the vintage category, namely, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust. It is a series of watches spanning decades, and, from its first year of mass manufacturing in 1945 to the 2012 production of the Datejust II and even newer models today, the piece has commanded the everyday wrist-love of thousands, if not millions, of watch aficionados and normal, sane people alike.
Today, the Datejust combines the continued tradition of being a classic staple watch, with the modern demands that arise from being a mainstay of one of the world’s most recognizable brands. As such, the modern series endures an amalgam of critiques and praise from the opinions of “Vintage Eyed” types such as myself, along with the mostly sustained love of luxury consumers searching for a specific color combination in a good-looking watch.
The first piece we are going to cover this week is from the classic Rolex Datejust 36 collection, (“36” for 36-mm case), the Reference 116234 (below). While this reference covers a majority of the variations within the modern series, the specific piece we will look at is a rather attractive blue, sunburst-dialed watch.
As I mentioned before, the watch measures 36 mm in diameter in a steel-and-white-gold case housing inside Rolex’s in-house automatic Caliber 3135. It has a sunburst blue dial with applied white gold Roman numerals for hour markers (the descendant of what is often called a “Buckley” dial in the vintage realm), a date window with accompanying familiar cyclops lens for the 3 o‘clock date display, and the iconic Rolex crown logo, also applied, in white gold at the 12 o’clock mark. Some other distinctly “Rolex” features to notice are the fluted bezel; the faint, repeating corporate logo on the outermost section of the dial; the jubilee bracelet; and the solid caseback protecting the movement. The Datejust 36 series begins around $5,000 for all-steel models, but can reach much higher depending on level of bling, rarity, and materials used.
This particular reference does a good job of respecting its vintage forebears — with the Buckley-esque hour markers, jubilee bracelet, and solid caseback, it reminds me very much of the Reference 1601 and 1603 Datejusts that I come into contact with on a regular basis. But at its heart, this watch is neither of these vintage references, nor is it one of the original pieces from the 1940s. The Roman numeral hour markers are applied instead of printed, the hands lack a historically featured luminescence, and the lugs have become much more pronounced on the modern piece. The watch, while it clearly is a part of the distinct Datejust bloodline, also has many of its own modern flairs.
The only overt issue I take with the piece is its price relative to the vintage models; vintage Rolex Datejusts are very popular in that market because they are first, relatively accessible and second, incredibly good-looking — very much “bang for your buck.” As this is the case, it is unsurprising to me that so many Rolex lovers are being drawn into the world of vintage watches; if I could have a mint-condition, pre-owned Datejust for potentially half the price of a new, modern one, it seems odd to me to pay more for contemporary features (such as the engraved, outer repeating “ROLEX,” as seen below) that I might not necessarily desire. Even armed with this knowledge, however, it’s still unlikely that consumers will be drawn en masse toward vintage options; of course, Rolex knows this and updates its new watches accordingly — perhaps even enough to urge some of those “vintage guys” to purchase modern pieces.
The next piece we will cover this week is from the Datejust II collection, the Reference 116300 (below). This watch has a 41-mm steel case with, again, a solid caseback; within resides the slightly larger automatic Caliber 3136 movement. On the rhodium-plated dial there are nontraditional, applied, white gold Arabic numerals with blue accents; the iconic Rolex crown logo and Datejust date window; and a luminescence applied to the hour and minute hands. This piece also uses an outer minute ring on the dial with corresponding Arabic numerals at each hour, a smooth bezel, and once again the engraved, repeating corporate logo on the outermost section of the dial. It is worth noting that all watches within the Datejust II spectrum use the Oyster bracelet instead of the traditional Datejust jubilee. This particular piece is priced around $6,000.
Comparing it to the modern Datejust 36 and vintage references, this watch is still clearly recognizable as part of the broader Datejust series of watches. From its crown, to the applied logo, to its date indicator, to the cool homage of luminescence applied to the hour and minute hands, this watch is still undoubtedly a Rolex. However, there are a number of features on this watch that clearly separate it from historical variations on the original, and clearly define it as a part of the new “Datejust II” collection. Obviously, this starts with the piece being 41 mm in diameter instead of the long cherished 36-mm, a choice undoubtedly made to give the watch modern relevance and appeal. Some other distinct features include the option of only the oyster bracelet instead of the jubilee (the jubilee bracelet was originally produced in 1945, specifically to accompany the Datejust), the rounded rather than fluted bezel, and the unusual application of Arabic numerals (as seen below) for hour markers.
I will be honest: I chose this particular piece to cover as it was the most un-ordinary Datejust II combination I could find. I wanted to highlight the distinctions between how far the series has come, both from historical references of the watch and from the still-in-production Datejust 36. This piece is emblematic of the expansive color options available to consumers of both the Datejust II and 36 series of watches, and while this is exciting for those who want a very distinct and individualized Rolex piece for themselves, it also draws criticism for Rolex by purists who see it as pandering to a potentially less historically informed consumer.
There exists in the modern Rolex Datejust collections a watch for just about anyone’s taste, but not everyone agrees this is for the best. Of course, Rolex is doing whatever it can to attract more people into its world of luxury, but this also may alienate many who are either deeply knowledgeable or invested into the intricacies of the watches. While today there is a variety of color combinations that do appeal to watch aficionados like myself, I am also aware of often less expensive alternatives in the vintage world. And while these color combinations guarantee appeal to a much wider base of luxury buyers, especially in a market of Hublot Big Bangs and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshores, these variations are somewhat divisive to purist appreciators of the Datejust lineage. I suppose, in the end, it really comes down to what kind of “Rolex Guy” you might be. For my part, I love that vintage Rolex Datejusts are still regarded (as stated above) as the “bread and butter” of luxury watches — a distinction I very much hope modern Rolex Datejusts will one day also be able to enjoy.
For part 19 in this series, in which I take a look at the Omega Seamaster 300 Master Co-Axial, click here.
Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage watch boutique theoandharris.com. Since starting at Theo & Harris, he has garnered extensive knowledge on vintage watches, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions within the field. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on watches, and a casual runner.