HOW THE ROLEX DAY-DATE BECAME A MILLION-DOLLAR WATCH
Updated: Apr 5
The first watch to break the million-dollar mark at auction this year wasn't a Rolex Daytona or a complicated Patek Philippe. It didn't have high-profile celebrity provenance, or donate its proceeds to charity. And it wasn't discussed widely, whatsoever.
The world's most expensive Day-Date. Credit, Sotheby's.
Over one week has passed since that watch – a Rolex 'Rainbow Khanjar' Day-Date ref. 18059 – sold for more than $1,330,000 at a Sotheby's online sale that wrapped on February 9, and I still don't think many people realize that a new world record for the Day-Date at auction was set. In the era of rapid online discourse and Instagram-fueled reaction posts, how exactly did that happen?
In the current Rolex catalog, the Day-Date is a bit of an odd duck. It has plenty of history, sure, and there's no denying its prominence, but it's never seemed, to me, to enjoy the same degree of enthusiasm or scholarship found in other vintage, modern, or contemporary Rolex watches.
Don't miss reading about Jack's 50-year wait to own a Rolex Day-Date.
However, from a wider cultural lens, the Day-Date has always been synonymous with success; there are very few things that signal you've made it quite like a solid yellow-gold, flashy-as-hell Rolex on the wrist. It's partly because of its inherent symbolism, you could argue, that the Day-Date has remained separate from greater "watch culture," especially when compared to stainless-steel sport Rolex watches like the Submariner, Daytona, GMT-Master, or Explorer.
After last week's result at Sotheby's, and after taking the temperature of a few industry experts, I think I'm finally starting to understand the legacy appeal of the Day-Date. More importantly, it's become clear to me that the Day-Date has already begun the process of shedding its attention-getting baggage and is prepared to reach more wrists than ever before.
Here's how it happened.
History Matters – And The Day-Date Has 60+ Years Of It
The Day-Date is the crown jewel of the Rolex catalog, though not everyone realizes that. Despite the outsize attention enjoyed by Rolex's stainless steel dive watches, chronographs, and GMTs on Instagram, Rolex doesn't consider any of those its hero piece. The Day-Date is the only watch Rolex does not currently offer in stainless steel – and other than a tiny number of early prototypes, it likely never will.
A Rolex Day-Date figured prominently in Jeff Hilliard's personal essay published last year – "Finding My Father In His Watch."
First and foremost, however, you should understand that the Day-Date is a calendar watch. It was the first wristwatch to spell out all seven days of the week, thanks to an extra-wide aperture at 12 o'clock on the dial, and it's produced with up to 26 different language options to enhance its global appeal.
If you look back to 1956, the year the Day-Date was commercially introduced, you'll realize the Day-Date was actually a conciliatory release. It was a way Rolex could offer a complicated watch to the masses without having to worry about overly finicky perpetual calendars, moonphase displays, or split-seconds chronographs.
That's precisely why Rolex ceased production of the ref. 6062 and ref. 8171, a pair of a triple-calendar moonphase wristwatches, in the years just prior to the Day-Date's introduction. These more complicated calendar watches didn't sell well, but Rolex didn't want to entirely abandon the world of complicated watchmaking – enter the Day-Date. The new model was immediately positioned at the very top of the company's catalog. Here was a precious metal, complicated watch that towered over the steel tool watches at Rolex's baseline.
"They didn't find market success with the 6062 and 8171, but Rolex still wanted to play in the game of complications a bit," says Paul Boutros, Head of Americas, Senior Vice President, Phillips Watches. "So they introduced the Day-Date. Rolex wanted to create something prestigious, so they added the day functionality and made it special. They considered it their flagship."
Although the Day-Date didn't come to market until 1956, its history goes back a bit further. Jake's Rolex World recently uncovered a patent filed in Switzerland in 1950 for a watch that indicated both day and date on the dial – he believes this was a precursor to the final Day-Date patent application that would be filed by Rolex on July 23, 1955; both documents credit Marc Huguenin as the man behind the Day-Date's conception.
The very first Day-Dates were produced in white, yellow, or rose gold, with either a domed (ref. 6510) or fluted (ref. 6511) bezel. Those models only remained in production for a single year before being replaced by the ref. 6611, featuring the updated caliber 1055 and the official introduction of the "Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified" text on the dial; this reference was available until 1959.
President Lyndon B. Johnson wears his Rolex Day-Date. Credit, Jake's Rolex World.
The Day-Date hit its stride at the turn of the 1960s. The four-digit ref. 1800 series remained in production until 1978, and it was the final Day-Date to feature the classical pie-pan dial. It was during this period that the Day-Date developed its reputation as a watch for world leaders and power brokers; after appearing on the wrist of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Day-Date became popularly known as the "President," although the researcher Nick Gould recently uncovered an Italian newspaper clipping for the Day-Date that proved the "President" moniker was in use as early as 1957. (Fun Fact: "President" technically refers to the hidden clasp bracelet often found on the Day-Date, but Rolex itself has referred to the Day-Date as the President's watch.) Presidents Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump would later be associated with the Day-Date, as well.
(Rumor has it Marilyn Monroe gifted a Rolex Day-Date to John F. Kennedy after singing to him at his 45th birthday, in 1962. In 2005, Antiquorum auctioned off a Day-Date they said was that watch, for over $120,000. Its authenticity has been challenged after it was uncovered the watch auctioned by Antiquorum had a serial number – 1296419 – that would date its production to the third quarter of 1965, two years after Kennedy was assassinated and three years after the watch was purportedly gifted.)
"From an American perspective, the Day-Date has historically been the businessman's watch," says Eric Wind, proprietor of Wind Vintage. "Any successful oil executive in Texas bought one, and still does wear them. Dick Cheney famously wears one. They call the standard yellow gold one with a gold dial the Texas Timex; it's the quintessential businessman's watch."
In 1978, the five-digit Day-Date ref. 18038 lost the pie-pan dial and gained a sapphire crystal, the high-beat caliber 3055, and quick-set functionality for the date (not the day, quite yet). The new Day-Date was also accompanied by the introduction of the Oysterquartz collection, headlined by a solid-gold, quartz-powered watch (ref. 19018) styled as a Day-Date alternative. The self-winding ref. 18038 remained in production for a full decade, while the Oysterquartz option would still be available, all the way up until 2001.
A 1979 Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date ref. 19018.
The Day-Date ref. 18200, with caliber 3155, was introduced in 1988 and inaugurated the first double quick-set ability for the Day-Date, allowing both calendar complications to be adjusted through the crown with ease. Rolex kickstarted the new millennium with the six-digit ref. 118000 in 2000, adding an improved bracelet and clasp. The Day-Date II ref. 218238 was introduced in 2008 to help commemorate the company's centennial anniversary. It's also considered a rare misstep for Rolex. It grew the diameter of the Day-Date up to 41mm and lasted only until 2015, when the secondary naming convention was dropped and the case trimmed back to 40mm. More importantly, 2015's Day-Date 40 ref. 228238 was equipped with the first movement to feature Rolex's new, high-efficiency Chronergy escapement, a Parachrom hairspring, and a 70-hour power reserve.
The Rolex Day-Date II
Rolex currently offers the Day-Date in both 36mm and 40mm configurations, in either yellow gold, pink gold, white gold, and platinum. Rolex also continues to produce the Day-Date in exclusive iterations, featuring diamond pavé dials and gem-set bezels, bracelets, and dials, often with six-figure price tags. The entry-point into the Day-Date universe at MSRP, in 2022, is a 36mm option in yellow gold, which starts at $33,950.
The Rolex Day-Date 40 and 36 – read Jack's side-by-side comparison from 2016 here.
Hans Wilsdorf, the brilliant marketer and founder of Rolex and Tudor, is said to have never considered his watches to be status symbols – instead, they were totems of human achievement. A way a man or woman could reward themselves after finding success, by purchasing a daily companion that was as accurate and reliable as they were.
One of the few books available on the Day-Date is Pucci Papaleo's Day-Date: The Presidential Rolex.
Wilsdorf died in 1960, a few years after the Day-Date was introduced. It feels perfectly fitting that one of the final releases under Wilsdorf's eye would remain the company's crowning achievement, ever since. Rolex has continued to introduce new watch collections in the 60 years since Wilsdorf passed away, but the Day-Date remains an authentic part of a select group of watches that were created under the guidance of the man himself and have become genuine icons the world over.
The Day-Date's Consistent Success Makes It Both Ubiquitous And Underrated
For a glamorous precious-metal watch, the Day-Date is sometimes dismissed as being tasteless or tawdry. It's conspicuous luxury in an era where many prize inconspicuous consumption – despite its bold-faced nature, the watch has had remarkable resilience at the top of the Rolex food chain – more than 60 years of staying power.
"As a result of it being so common – to the point of being boring – interest in [vintage] Day-Dates have generally lagged," Wind says. "In the early 1970s, a Day-Date on bracelet cost about $1,200; at the same time, an Explorer was about $200. So it was six times the price, yet in recent times vintage Explorers were selling for more than an equivalent Day-Date."
The Day-Date's longtime mix of popular appeal and limited enthusiast interest today means that while every watch collector knows about the watch in some form, very few individuals specialize in it.
We spotted Tariq Malik double-wristing Day-Dates during last year's Dubai Watch Week.
One individual who does is Tariq Malik, who owns and operates Momentum Dubai, a specialist vintage-watch boutique that opened its doors in 2011. Malik believes there has been a gradual shift in the Day-Date's favor that began a few years ago, after a certain subsection of watch collectors graduated from collecting vintage stainless-steel Rolex sport watches to examples in gold.
"What people realized is the rarity of the product," Malik says. "I'm not speaking about supply versus demand. I'm speaking about the production numbers. They realized that maybe 20-25 percent of what was produced in stainless steel exists in gold. I believe that this was also when they started looking at the Day-Date."
There are, unfortunately, very few resources for understanding the Day-Date and its history. Its position as the very top model within the Rolex catalog often meant limited production numbers and a higher potential for exclusive, small-batch orders for top clients – as seen with the "Rainbow Khanjar" auctioned last week at Sotheby's. Malik believes the lack of information can be frustrating to collectors new to the Day-Date, especially those trying to build a comprehensive collection. "You can never have all the Day-Dates," he says. "There are too many variants, each with different colors, hands, and bracelets."
The Rolex Day-Date "Brooklyn Bridge" – lot 21 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
The thrill of the hunt "can be extremely fun, rewarding, and challenging at the same time," Boutros says, alternatively. "You can put together a diverse collection comprised of watches you'll never see again. We don't see a whole lot of collectors focused on the Day-Date, but they do exist. You'll find that some serious collectors love them and when they see something special, they jump on it."
It's a bit ironic that in some ways, despite having the highest point of entry for a Rolex product, the Day-Date is sometimes considered one of the company's more egalitarian watches. The same 36mm diameter has been offered since the 1950s, meaning it's remained a versatile option between genders throughout its history. The consistent option for multiple precious-metal cases has also made the Day-Date compatible within all types of cultures that prize different materials for different reasons.
Until very recently, your average vintage Day-Date offered arguably the best value-for-money in Rolex collecting – simply because of the inherent value of the precious-metal case. But Wind says prices are starting to reflect that wider realization.
"Day-Dates have increased a lot in value since the beginning of the [COVID-19] pandemic," he says. "You could previously buy an 1803 with a gold dial, on bracelet, for as little as seven to eight thousand dollars. Two years later, we're looking at around $16,000 for a nice one. So they've doubled, but there's still a lot of room to run – an equivalent 36mm Day-Date today is about $36,000 retail from Rolex."
Watches, especially ones with long, sustained production like the Day-Date, typically don't double in value overnight. With greater recognition and greater production numbers, these watches tend to creep up in price over a period of years. The Day-Date is ahead of schedule in that way.
In order to best understand where the current interest in the Day-Date began, and where it might end up, we need to travel back to May 2015, when the Phillips Watch Department in Association with Bacs & Russo hosted its first thematic auction. The theme? Day-Dates – and a whole lot of them.
It Received An Auction-World Assist
The 2015 Glamorous Day-Date auction in Geneva was the inaugural sale for the newly formed Phillips Watch Department in Association with Bacs & Russo. And it featured the return of a watch auction celebrity, standing out as the first official turn at the rostrum for Aurel Bacs since he left Christie's, at the end of 2013, and set up shop with Phillips.
It's a bit surprising to look back at the sale, especially now that we're aware of the level of watches that Phillips is routinely able to source; the Day-Date simply wasn't a hot watch at the time. Despite that, the sale ended up working out well enough for Phillips and Bacs. Just check out what Ben wrote about it after:
"Have you ever seen a Day-Date sell for $500,000? I have. Or, could you imagine a 60-lot sale without a single complication more than a day or a date that could net $6,634,800? Or in other words, an average sale price of $110,580 for each Rolex Day-Date sold tonight? All of the above occurred this evening in a tent packed with 300 bidders all there to witness the return of Aurel Bacs to the watch auction world. We were not disappointed. In total honesty, tonight's Glamorous Day-Date sale exceeded all my expectations for final results, with lot no. 43 – the so-called 'Big Kahuna' – selling for an absolutely mind-melting $507,000. For a Day-Date!"
The Rolex Day-Date "Big Kahuna" – lot 43 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
Sixty lots, sixty Day-Dates, a complete white-glove display, in the very first thematic auction dedicated to the Rolex Day-Date. Just looking through the catalog today is a treat, a showcase of the sheer amount of diversity that exists in the Day-Date's history – countless different metals, bracelets, finishes, dials, and more.
"It was the coming-of-age party for the Day-Date at auction," Wind, who sat next to Ben that day in Geneva, says.
A Rolex Day-Date "Stella" – lot 58 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
Phillips organized its auction catalog into various chapters that now offer an intuitive way of understanding the major differences worth exploring inside the Day-Date world. There are hard-stone dials; colorful "Stella" dials; watches with Royal provenance, incorporating Khanjar symbols on the dial or caseback; watches with "Octopussy" bracelets, indicating the presence of individual diamonds set on each link; dégradé dials; three-dimensional textured dials; baguette-set hour markers; and more.
I still find it hard to accept that every single watch in the sale came directly from Rolex that way. After all, this is a Swiss company that's known for updating its watches in only the most incremental fashion. To witness the diversity that Rolex is capable of deploying in color, style, and design, all through the lens of the Day-Date, is a fascinating exercise.
Lot 14 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
The Glamorous Day-Date auction started a conversation that continues today. It shone a light for the first time on the Day-Date's more exclusive existence, a place that had previously barely figured into larger watch enthusiasm.
"[The auction] came as a surprise," Malik says. "The Day-Date was previously not highlighted at auction anywhere; they never achieved the prices they deserved. And then comes a world-record sale of 60 watches, in which many, I would say, even in today's time, sold on the expensive side."
The Rolex Day-Date "Aladdin's Rose" – lot 25 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
The next major moment for the Day-Date came a few years later, once again, at Phillips. It was 2019, and Jack Nicklaus, fresh off his appearance on Talking Watches the year before, announced he would be auctioning off the yellow-gold Day-Date ref. 1803 that had accompanied him every day since 1967.
Jack Nicklaus holds his Rolex Day-Date.
Rolex gifted him the watch that year, and Nicklaus carried it with him (typically wrapped in a sock in his golf bag) while winning 12 of his 18 major championships. The watch eventually sold in December 2019, in New York, for $1.22 million, with 100 percent of the total benefitting the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation.
Jack Nicklaus. Credit, Jake's Rolex World.
It was the first time the Day-Date broke a million dollars at auction. At the time, Stephen Pulvirent noted in HODINKEE's coverage that he couldn't find any previous Day-Date sale "over $500,000 in the records of any major auction house. It's hard to imagine a Day-Date that could beat this."
It took two years, but Stephen doesn't have to imagine anymore. The new record-holder came last week at Sotheby's, yet another example of how uncommon Day-Dates are attracting a new level of attention.
Rarity And Provenance Always Matter
The Rolex "Rainbow Khanjar" Day-Date performed so strongly – nearly quadrupling its estimate – for a confluence of reasons. It's one of three known examples (five are estimated to exist, in total), so it's extremely rare; it's been intricately decorated by Rolex, the 18k white gold case features a pavé diamond dial, a rainbow sapphire-set bezel (with matching hour markers), and a diamond-set President bracelet; and it's double-signed with the distinctive Omani Khanjar emblem on the caseback.
The Rolex "Rainbow Khanjar" Day-Date. Credit, Sotheby's.
I connected with Tom Heap, a Sotheby's specialist in the UK who helped organize the online sale, to see if he could provide further details on its background.
"What made this watch so successful wasn't just its rarity, but the fact that it was completely untouched," Heap says. "We weren't quite sure how to price it, given that it's the first example offered at auction. And apart from the Jack Nicklaus one, which did incredibly well and had a philanthropic angle, we weren't sure how high [a Day-Date] could go."
The watch was sourced from its original owner, who Sotheby's says received it in 1984 from Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, of Oman, who was well-known for gifting unique Rolex watches to friends and visiting dignitaries that he would commission through Asprey in London.
The Khanjar crest isn't a strange sight in the world of vintage Rolex. It's the national symbol of Oman, the Middle Eastern nation led by Sultan Qaboos from July 23, 1970, until his death in 2020 (this piece from A Collected Man does a nice job of summarizing the background of the symbol in watchmaking). Khanjar-signed Rolex watches have been highly sought-after for a number of years. The royal provenance is naturally intriguing; it also helps elucidate a major part of the Day-Date's modern history – the watch's connection to the Arab world.
Lot 11 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
"Let's say yes and no," Dubai-based Malik says, when asked whether or not the Day-Date is a Middle Eastern favorite. "The dominant religion in the Middle East is Islam, and wearing gold is actually prohibited by the Quran. So I would say there are more platinum Day-Dates here than in Western societies, but some people wear gold watches anyway – that happens a lot. When I hunt first-owner watches in the Middle East, most of them are Day-Dates, while in the United States they might be Datejusts or Submariners. There are also a lot of special orders here that I haven't seen elsewhere."
Lot 26 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
The Omani Khanjar isn't the only Arabic signature you'll find on Day-Dates, new and old. Rolex has offered special Day-Date dials with Eastern Arabic numerals, also known as Arabic-Indic, since the late 1950s. (The founder of Dubai Watch Club, Adel "D244" Al-Rahmani, wrote an excellent article covering the history of Rolex watches using Eastern-Arabic numerals for Watches By SJX.)
The Rolex Day-Date "Cleopatra" – lot 23 at the Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
Certain Eastern-Arabic Day-Dates featured unique dial executions; you'll find a few in the Glamorous Day-Date sale, including the "Aladdin's Rose" and the "Brooklyn Bridge." In December 2020, Phillips sold the "Eye of Horus," a likely unique ref. 1804 in platinum with a remarkable asymmetrical guilloché dial.
The remarkable Rolex Day-Date "Eye of Horus" – lot 92 at Phillips Racing Pulse New York Auction in December 2020. Credit, Phillips.
In the United States, it was the classic yellow-gold Day-Date with a golden champagne dial that soared in the popular imagination, appearing on the wrists of mustachioed West Texas oilmen and Gordon Gekko-era Wall Street executives alike. But in Middle Eastern countries like Oman and the United Arab Emirates, a different, more elaborate vision of the Day-Date took hold – one featuring a kaleidoscope of dial colors, gemstones, and finishing techniques. It's the latter that represents exactly how compelling Rolex's vision for its top-of-the-line watch collection can be.
The rest of the world is just now catching up to what certain collectors in the Middle East have known for years.
The Day-Date Is Rolex At Its Very Best
What I enjoyed most about reporting this story was realizing that the Day-Date is where Rolex goes to express itself. Many people, myself included, have criticized the monolithic Swiss company for its generally slow, deliberate approach to watchmaking. Although that's hard to dispute when reviewing the lineage of certain stainless steel-focused collections, there's no doubt that Rolex has always known exactly how to make a watch special.
Just take a look at the Day-Date 40 ref. 228396TEM. Until very recently, it was the most expensive Rolex watch you could buy at its list price. The combination of a pavé dial, an emerald-set bezel, and a $400,000+ price tag prove that while Rolex isn't producing as many "out-there" designs as they once did, as seen in the Glamorous Day-Date catalog, they do still exist.
The Rolex Day-Date 40 ref. 228396TEM. Credit, The Keystone
"Rolex is the leader in gem-set watches, believe it or not," Boutros says. "They are set the 'Rolex way,' meaning the watch can be worn every day without worrying that a single gemstone might fall out because of how secure it's set. When you look at a Rolex gem-set piece, it's Rolex at its very best."
The Day-Date is often playful in a way that typically isn't associated with Rolex watches. I genuinely feel like if you showed an average watch enthusiast a Day-Date like the "Pac-Man," they wouldn't believe it's an authentic Rolex product.
The Rolex Day-Date "Pac-Man" – lot 16 at the Phillips Glamorous Day-Date auction. Credit, Phillips.
"What I always tell clients is that if there's somebody standing in front of you that has no clue about watches, it's unlikely they'll find a Submariner amazing because it's technically a very simple tool watch," Malik says. "But if you wear a Day-Date with a colorful dial, you don't have to be a watch lover or a watch person to recognize the beauty."
The same details that make certain Day-Dates unrecognizable to the average watch lover are part of what heightens the Day-Date's appeal to a non-native audience – it's funny how that works, huh?
Prices Have Yet To Explode
At the end of the day, a precious-metal Rolex is a precious-metal Rolex – it will always attract attention, both positive and negative, something that should be considered before deciding whether a Day-Date is right for you.
Don't mess with Bethenny Frankel and her turquoise dial Day-Date.
I'll admit I've never particularly been entranced by the concept of a solid-gold Rolex myself, but realizing the level of depth and diversity the Day-Date has to offer has me reconsidering the collection as a whole. I mean, seriously, how cool would it be to rock a Day-Date with an ammonite dial? To me, a watch like that speaks an entirely different language than what I'm used to hearing from Rolex – one that's fun, playful, and stylish.
A Rolex Day-Date with an ammonite dial – lot 46 at Phillips Glamorous Day-Date sale. Credit, Phillips.
All the experts I spoke with for this story believe interest in the Day-Date is set to grow in the near- and long-term future. Auction prices don't lie. The Day-Date is the most recent Rolex to break the million-dollar mark at auction, following the Daytona in 2013, the Submariner in 2018, and alongside the GMT-Master, which sold for $1.95 million the same night as Nicklaus' Day-Date.
But you don't have to be balling out with a six- or seven-figure watch budget range to discover your ideal Day-Date, like you might with the perfect "Paul Newman" Daytona.
LeBron James opted for a Day-Date II when celebrating his crowning achievement – the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 NBA Championship. Credit, David Liam Kyle/Getty Images
"A good Day-Date 1803 is still available for less than a great 5513, a 1016, or a 1680 'White,'" Wind says. "There are any number of watches it is less expensive than right now, but inherently, the gold value will be much higher – you have inherent downside protection."
Boutros agrees that it will likely prove better to buy sooner than later.
"There's not a lot of hype around the Day-Date yet, which gives you the opportunity to get great pieces at fair prices," he says. "Yes, if it's a rare configuration or extremely desirable, you'll pay a premium, but the premiums aren't outlandish."
The Rolex Day-Date is the watch of American presidents, power brokers, and NBA superstars. To many, it's a proud symbol of a lifetime's success, a career achievement, or the entrance into the traditional tony establishment; to others, it represents a goal worth working toward.
And now that the Day-Date is deservedly working its way up the wishlists of more and more watch collectors, it's clear it will continue to inspire even more people to reach the highest of highs – exactly where Hans Wilsdorf aimed to reach himself.