A few years ago, I attended my first big watch event. It was a pre-auction being held in New York, with a few boutiques’ worth of some of the rarest and most unique vintage Patek Philippes and Rolexes on preview before the sale the following week. The Champagne flowed; the journalists, curators, and collectors mingled; and I found myself captivated by some of the most beautiful pieces I had yet seen.
I remember this evening in particular not only because it was one of the first nights of my professional career in horology, but also because it happened to be the first time someone tried to sell me a watch — an all-original, vintage Rolex Milgauss, the reference 6541, in particular. The piece, apparently straight from the wrist of a scientist who decided he didn’t need the watch he’d received, either from his wife or brother, as either a Christmas present or anniversary gift, was as crisp and fresh as it was in its first year of production in 1956. With a Submariner-like bezel, honeycomb dial, and the signature lightning-bolt seconds hand — the salesperson was correct that it was a unique piece I was unlikely to forget anytime soon.
The modern Rolex Milgauss was released in 2007, after an almost 20-year hiatus for the model.
In its development and original production, the Rolex Milgauss set out to serve the market segment of scientific experts needing a timepiece able to withstand high levels of electromagnetism. Named for the French word “mille,” meaning thousand, and “gauss,” for the unit of measurement for magnetic fields, the Milgauss was resistant to magnetic fields up to 1,000 gauss by utilizing a soft iron inner case similarly to many pilot watches of the time. A direct competitor to the IWC Ingenieur (released in 1954) and the Omega Railmaster (in 1957), the Milgauss stood out to many as another highly valuable, “Golden Era” Rolex tool watch well-suited to its job.
The modern version (Ref. 116400) was released by Rolex in 2007 after an almost 20-year hiatus for the series. With a thick, 40-mm steel case with antimagnetic soft-iron inner shell (or ferromagnetic alloy shield, if you’re in the business of sounding more interesting), the Milgauss has arguably one of the most distinct looks among the brand’s current production watches. With a green-tinted sapphire crystal that has been described as “Not patented, as it is so difficult to make that no one else would even venture to try;” bold orange accents on the dial for the lightning-bolt seconds hand, hour markers, and outer minute ring; and three distinct dial options in either sunburst blue, black, or white — the watch undoubtedly achieve the “instant recognition” that Rolex promises, at least in watch-aficionado circles.
Also worth noting is the automatic Rolex Caliber 3131, a modified version of the brand’s standard Caliber 3130 movement specially developed for extra magnetic field resistance. The watch, having been in production for almost 10 years, fluctuates in price at various dealers in varying conditions, but you can most often find new examples for around $7,000.
Compared to the original reference within the series, the 6541, there is many notable differences. Starting with the dial, you can spot the shift seen in many other Rolex watches — from the vintage-style dauphine hands to the modern baton style; the use of modern rectangular hour markers as compared to vintage applied triangles, circles, or numerals; and the clear abandonment of the honeycomb dial. Also worthy of note is the smooth bezel used in today’s watch, replacing the original black rotating bezel; the historical 38-mm size compared to the modern 40; and, naturally, the modern finishing practices associated with today’s Rolex.
But, while the differences between the modern watch and its vintage predecessors are plentiful, there still persist many common elements between the two eras. This is seen in the Oyster case and bracelet, the text on the dial, the signature lightning-bolt seconds hand, and, perhaps most significantly, the high resistance to magnetic fields that made the watch so unique in the first place.
The Milgauss is very distinct from other Rolexes, and still sparks strong debate among watch enthusiasts.
Characterized today mostly by its lightning-bolt seconds hand, green-tinted sapphire crystal, and bright orange accents, I have seen the modern series charge more than a few debates between watch enthusiasts in both bars and online forums. And while some argue that shifts in the color scheme away from a more subtle black, silver, and red, and towards the greens, blues, and oranges seen today are for the worse, the series has always set out to be somewhat playful and bold, maybe even a bit garish. Most of all, much like the 1950s watch, its very distinctness from all other Rolexes is what makes it so fun for so many of today’s wearers.
Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first learning about horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the field, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers, alike. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and a casual runner.