For this fifth edition of Vintage Eye for the Modern Guy (you can check out part 4 here), we’re diving deep into what is, undoubtedly, one of the most iconic wristwatches of all time. This single model in the Rolex repertoire has in its 60 years become a classic not only within the horological community, but within many communities, and is regarded as a globally recognized symbol, synonymous with both luxury wristwatches and success. Yes, we’re talking about you, Rolex Day-Date.
In 1956, the Rolex Ref. 6511, the grandfather of this dynastic line, was born. It was the first wristwatch to feature the day of the week in its full text alongside the date. Even more significantly, it has since been worn by United States Presidents, captains of industry, and many other leaders — Lyndon B. Johnson (below), Martin Luther King, and Warren Buffet, to name just a few. The Day-Date has become the unofficial watch of “greener grass”—a piece that everyone, somewhere deep down, seems to want. The Day-Date is the watch that crowned Rolex “king,” and has always been, unapologetically, right in your face.
There are two references that best explain the history of the Day-Date. The first is, well, the first: the Ref. 6511 was cased by Brevet in either yellow or rose gold, it exclusively featured a red date wheel with matching red “DAY-DATE” text, and used either dauphine or alpha hands. The design was completed by a jubilee bracelet, adding even more heft that first helped garner it attention. The movement, Caliber 1055, was powered by an automatic rotor, the crystal was made of period-appropriate acrylic, and the caseback was solid. Rolex Ref. 6511 was, although luxurious, well detailed— a watch worth more than its weight in gold.
The second, and possibly more quintessential, reference that should be mentioned is the classically garish Rolex that solidified the watch’s place as an icon: Ref. 1803. It was cased in 18k yellow, white, or rose gold (as well as an option for platinum), and it certainly caught the attention of many aspiring, hardworking, stock-tip-chasing Americans. Its dial was less intricately detailed than that of Ref. 6511, but instead focused more aggressively on other facets, from the bracelet to bezel. While mentioning the bracelet, we should point out that this was the model that first introduced the now-famous “Presidential” design. All of these elements — the case, bracelet, and finishing — helped this reference, produced from 1960-1978 and then again well into the 1990s, conquer the market for watches with dates. This was the essence of the Rolex Day-Date, and quite possibly the most recognizable model ever produced.
Now, onto the new stuff. The current production Rolex Day-Date comes in two models. The first has a 36-mm case and is powered by Caliber 3155, which you will be able to find in various references, all around $20,000. The second variation of the Day-Date, introduced this year at Baselworld, is 40 millimeters and houses the larger and more modernized Caliber 3255; these watches clock in higher, starting around $35,000. Both models are exclusively available in precious metals, feature the famous fluted bezel, stick hands, a solid caseback concealing the movement, sapphire crystals, and, of course, the “Presidential” bracelet. Each series then is made available with dozens of possible configurations, from baguette diamond hour markers to a simple yet beautiful lapis lazuli dial.
To get a bit more critical, the movement powering the standard 36-mm Rolex Day-Date, Caliber 3155, has been practically untouched since 1988; it wouldn’t be unfair for an audience to desire more development over a nearly 30-year period from a product with a $20,000 price tag. The proportions and details have remained largely unchanged from those of Ref. 1803, apart from an assortment of various, sometimes-tacky dials, from a tile-patterned ‘ROLEX’ print, to a diamond-paved racing green. To me, the Day-Date currently in production that most appropriately respects its heritage, and is still able to move the design forward, is the Ref. 118139 (above). This 36-mm model — with a white gold case, blue exotic leather strap, and matching deep blue sunburst dial — maintains classic styling, more reminiscent (in a conservative and design-focused way) of the original ref. 6511. Its modest case size isn’t beefed up by a massive metal bracelet, and it might just be able to go unnoticed beneath a fine cuff, unlike a peeking 18k yellow-gold statement. My one desire would be something of a historical nod to the 6511, possibly with another aesthetic addition like a red date wheel and matching “DAY-DATE” text.
As for the 40-mm Day-Date (above, in white gold), Rolex certainly has made some modern touches that could give it an extra edge in the over-inflated market of luxury watches. While my criticism of the update-lacking Caliber 3155 in the 36-mm variation stands, I cannot say the same for the Caliber 3255 powering this watch. With a variety of innovative mechanics operating together, the movement is not only incredibly efficient, but it’s also rather reliable, with a 70-hour power reserve and international Rolex warranty of five years. The watch boasts some other interesting contemporary design options, such as Roman numerals for hour markers; an assortment of fashion-forward dials; the introduction of an improved, partially ceramic bracelet; and the obvious 4-mm increase in case size. I think the concealed attachment for the bracelet to case is less “Rolex” and more innovation for innovation’s sake, but overall it is nice to see the brand working to improve one its most historical watches. Would I have tried to keep the piece at 36 mm? Absolutely. Is a $15,000 price increase for updates you already wanted worth it? That’s up for debate.
Its details are large, the metals are precious, and the price tags are relatively huge. Although the modern models communicate a similar air of affluence and power as they did in the past, the horological success and acknowledgment of this specific series has mostly diminished. The Rolex Day-Date is no longer the pop culture icon and singular indicator of wealth as it once was; today, just within the Rolex family, there is an array of over-the-top wristwatches available, such as the Yachtmaster II, Datejust, Submariner, GMT-Master II, and Daytona (all pictured above). Without even adding 46-mm Breitlings, carbon-fiber Hublots, or solid gold Panerais into the mix, the Day-Date’s spotlight seems to have often been stolen by own its brothers. What was once the single poster board for affluence is now one of dozens of options. But, in the end, who doesn’t like choices?
Christian Zeron (who co-wrote this article) is the Founder, and Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage and antique watch boutique theoandharris.com. Firstly watch enthusiasts and now professionals, Caleb and Christian constantly work to extend their knowledge and grow their circles to find, acquire, and offer hidden affordable gems they love to the public. Both New Jersey natives, the two are persistent students on all things historical, constant NYC diners, and longtime friends.