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What Is the Most Affordable Rolex Watch?

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Paul Altieri

It is no secret that prices for pre-owned Rolex watches keep going up each year. In addition to Rolex’s own periodic price increases that exist at a retail level, the pre-owned market has also seen significant increases in average price over the last several years due to a growing global demand that far exceeds a relatively fixed supply.

Additionally, since the demand for Rolex watches seems to only increase from one year to the next, this trend has only accelerated over the course of the last few years. Certain Rolex models that could previously be purchased for just a few thousand dollars are now trading hands for north of five figures on the open market.

The cost for Rolex prices for pre-owned examples of many current-production models are now far greater than their original retail prices, with some topping out at more than three times their original brand-new prices. This dramatic price increase on the open market has occurred because there is simply no way to buy a brand-new one of these ultra-desirable Rolex models without spending a significant amount of time on a waiting list.

With that in mind, not all Rolex watches have reached stratospheric levels of value (yet), and there are a number of affordable models that can still be purchased for surprisingly affordable prices. While virtually all of Rolex’s sports models no longer qualify for the budget-friendly category, there are still quite a few iconic classics that can be added to your collection for as little as a few thousand dollars.

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on Rolex watches.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual – Reference 1002

Most Affordable Rolex Oyster Perpetual 1002

Rolex Oyster Perpetual 1002 Key Features:

  • Reference Number: 1002
  • Case Size: 34mm
  • Materials: Stainless Steel
  • Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed, Stainless Steel, Smooth Style
  • Crystal: Acrylic
  • Movement: Automatic, Caliber 1560 or Caliber 1570
  • Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet (Stainless Steel)

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Oyster Perpetual.

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual is the brand’s entry-level collection of watches that adhere to a minimalist set of features, while still offering all the hallmark traits that define a true Rolex watch. The Oyster Perpetual gets its name from Rolex’s two most important technologies – its waterproof “Oyster” case and its self-winding “Perpetual” movement, and this time-tested platform now serves as the foundation for nearly all modern Rolex watches. The Oyster Perpetual first made an appearance during the early 1930s and the iconic model has remained a constant presence in Rolex’s catalog ever since, continuously evolving but never abandoning its clean and classic design.

The reference 1002 is a vintage model from the Rolex Oyster Perpetual line. While there are certain examples of the ref. 1002 that were produced in precious metal configurations, the vast majority of Oyster Perpetual 1002 watches that you will encounter are constructed from stainless steel, and it is these steel models that consistently rank among the least expensive Rolex watches available. Regardless of their materials or year of production, all Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002 watches are fitted with a smooth bezel, a chronometer-certified movement, and a classic dial that is the definition of timeless design.

Rolex Date – Reference 1501

Most Affordable Rolex Date 1501

Rolex Date 1501 Key Features:

  • Reference Number: 1501
  • Case Size: 34mm
  • Materials: Stainless Steel
  • Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed, Stainless Steel, Engine Turned Style
  • Crystal: Acrylic w/ Cyclops Lens
  • Movement: Automatic, Caliber 1565 or Caliber 1575
  • Strap/Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee Bracelet (Stainless Steel)

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Date.

As the slightly smaller sibling to the Datejust, the 34mm Rolex Date represents a classic and highly versatile option that can be worn on virtually any wrist. The Rolex Date first made an appearance during the 1950s, and although it has historically not been offered in quite the same number of different configurations as its larger 36mm Datejust sibling, the two watches both feature Oyster cases fitted with chronometer-certified movements that feature automatically changing date displays, so the Rolex Date makes zero compromises when it comes to either build-quality, features, or performance.

The reference 1501 is a vintage example from the Rolex Date collection that is fitted with a discontinued style of the brand’s engine-turned bezel that can only be found on older 34mm Rolex watches. While there are some solid 14k gold examples of the ref. 1501, most were produced in stainless steel and you will find surviving examples of this watch fitted with a variety of different dial styles. With the iconic Cyclops magnification lens sitting above the date display at 3 o’clock, the Date 1501 is immediately recognizable as a Rolex, while its engine-turned bezel provides it with a unique and inherently vintage overall aesthetic that helps separate it from other Rolex models from the same era.

Vintage Rolex Ladies Cocktail Watch

Vintage Rolex Ladies Cocktail Watch Most Affordable

Rolex Ladies Cocktail Watch Key Features:

  • Reference Number: Multiple Models Available
  • Case Size: 15mm – 18mm
  • Materials: 14k Yellow Gold
  • Functions: Time-Only
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed, Diamond-Set (Other Options Available)
  • Crystal: Acrylic
  • Movement: Manual-Wind, 17-Jewels
  • Strap/Bracelet: Mesh Bracelet (Yellow Gold); Other Options Available

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on Ladies Rolex Watches.

These days, almost every single watch that Rolex produces is fitted with the brand’s waterproof Oyster case, and Rolex no longer manufactures anything with a case size smaller than 28mm. However, this has not always been the case and a quick look at Rolex’s vintage offerings will reveal a number of small and ultra-elegant timepieces that are truly unlike anything that you will find in the brand’s contemporary catalog. Collectively known as cocktail watches, these refined models were originally designed specifically for women and typically feature 14k gold cases paired with unique mesh-style bracelets.

Despite their solid gold construction and 17-jewel mechanical movements, these vintage ladies’ cocktail watches are some of the absolute least expensive Rolex models available. A budget of just a few thousand dollars is enough to purchase one with a stunning diamond-set bezel, and if you want one of the more simple models with a standard bezel, you can expect to pay even less than that. Although these vintage cocktail watches do not have the water-resistance or instantly recognizable styling that Rolex is known for today, they offer a highly refined and elegant aesthetic that is entirely unlike anything that exists in the brand’s modern catalog.

Rolex Air-King – Reference 5500

Most Affordable Rolex Air-King 5500

Rolex Air-King 5500 Key Features:

  • Reference Number: 5500
  • Case Size: 34mm
  • Materials: Stainless Steel
  • Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed, Stainless Steel, Smooth Style
  • Crystal: Acrylic
  • Movement: Automatic, Caliber 1520 or Caliber 1530
  • Strap/Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee Bracelet (Stainless Steel)

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Air-King.

The Rolex Air-King was first created after Rolex Founder Hans Wilsdorf heard that pilots in World War II were discarding their cheap standard-issue timepieces in favor of privately-purchased Rolex watches due to their superior precision and reliability. Although the Air-King name first appeared in the Rolex catalog way back in 1945, it did not become its own standalone collection until 1958. Just like the wristwatches that were favored by pilots during WWII, the Rolex Air-King has always adhered to a minimalist set of features and an affordable price, which has consistently made it one of the most affordable Rolex watches available, both at a retail level and on the pre-owned market.

The reference 5500 was the first Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King model that the brand produced when the collection was launched in 1958 and it enjoyed a remarkably long production run, remaining a part of Rolex’s catalog until it was finally retired at the beginning of the 1990s. Due to its non-chronometer-rated movement, the ref. 5500 was always one of the least expensive Rolex models while it was in production, and the relatively large number of examples available has helped it maintain a highly-attractive price point all these years later. Celebrated by collectors for its timeless design and rock-solid reliability, the Rolex Air-King 5500 is a fantastic vintage model with an amazing history that makes a great addition to any luxury watch collection.

Rolex Lady-Datejust – Reference 69173

Most Affordable Rolex Lady-Datejust 69173

Rolex Lady-Datejust 69173 Key Features:

  • Reference Number: 69173
  • Case Size: 26mm
  • Materials: Stainless Steel & 18k Yellow Gold
  • Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed. 18k Yellow Gold, Fluted Style
  • Crystal: Sapphire w/ Cyclops Lens
  • Movement: Automatic, Caliber 2135
  • Strap/Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee Bracelet (Stainless Steel & Yellow Gold)

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Datejust.

The Datejust is often considered to be the quintessential Rolex watch and it is the brand’s best-selling model of all time. Credited as being the timepiece that first set the standard for how a calendar display on a wristwatch should function, the Rolex Datejust has become an industry staple and one of the cornerstone offerings in the brand’s catalog. In 1957, Rolex launched the Lady-Datejust collection, which offers all of the same iconic styling and legendary performance but with a smaller case size, making it perfectly suited for women who want a more compact version of Rolex’s signature date-displaying wristwatch.

The reference 69173 is the two-tone version of the Rolex Lady-Datejust that pairs stainless steel with 18k yellow gold for a durable yet luxurious watch that can be worn every single day, and also paired with virtually any attire without ever looking even the slightest bit out of place. Instantly recognizable as a Rolex watch due to iconic features such as its yellow gold fluted bezel and Cyclops magnification lens above the date display, the Lady-Datejust 69173 also offers modern features such as a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal and a quick-set date movement where the calendar display can be adjusted independently from the time. The versatile and timeless reference 69173 is perfectly suited for everyday wear, and it can be purchased for a fraction of the price of its more modern Lady-Datejust siblings.

Rolex Cellini – Reference 5115

Most Affordable Rolex Cellini 5115

Rolex Cellini 5115 Key Features:

  • Reference Number: 5115
  • Case Size: 32mm
  • Materials: 18k Yellow Gold
  • Functions: Time-Only
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed. 18k Yellow Gold, Smooth Style
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Movement: Manual-Wind, Caliber 1602
  • Strap/Bracelet: Leather Strap w/ Gold Buckle

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Cellini.

The Rolex Cellini is the brand’s dedicated line of dress watches, and it is easily the most overlooked collection in the entire Rolex catalog. Only ever crafted from either solid gold or platinum, Rolex Cellini watches trade water resistance for highly refined styling and the ability to effortlessly slip under the sleeve of a shirt, and this makes them the perfect dress watches for pairing with formal attire. While their precious metal cases mean that they are anything but affordable when purchased at a retail level, the fact that Cellini watches are often overlooked means that they are actually some of the least expensive Rolex watches available when shopping on the pre-owned market.

Part of the reason why the Rolex Cellini collection has historically been overlooked is due to the fact that many of its designs were simply too unconventional for the general public. Depending on your aesthetic preference, this may be an even greater bonus, as there are some truly funky Cellini models that exist in Rolex’s back-catalog and the competition for them among other buyers is significantly less than what you will find when shopping for any of the brand’s stainless steel sports models.

However, the reference 5115 is one of the more traditional Rolex Cellini models available, pairing an ultra-thin round, the ultra-thin case made from solid 18k gold with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal and a hand-wind mechanical movement. As is fitting for a refined and elegant dress watch, the Rolex Cellini 5115 is fitted with a black leather strap and a matching 18k gold tang buckle. With Rolex prices continuing to climb every year, the fact that you can still buy a solid gold Rolex watch for only a few thousand dollars is somewhat mind-blowing (to say the least).

Most Affordable Rolex Watches Vintage Air-King 5500

Frequently Asked Questions: Most Affordable Rolex Watches

What Is the Most Basic Rolex?

“Basic” Rolex timepieces often feature a time-only movement, such as the Rolex Explorer, Oyster Perpetual, Air-King, and variations of the Cocktail and Cellini. The Oyster Perpetual is probably one of the market’s most popular and recognizable Rolex cheapest watches. It features the brand’s groundbreaking waterproof Oyster case and Perpetual movement with automatic winding and is the foundation on which almost every other Rolex model is based. It’s just a matter of if those other models also have extra amenities, such as a better depth rating like the Rolex Submariner or GMT hand like the Explorer II. Not to mention, the Oyster Perpetual is incredibly versatile. It looks exceptional when paired with formal attire yet is also suitable for daily wear. From the exclusivity of the Rolex brand to its versatility, you get a lot of bang for your buck with the OP.

But what about sports models? Right now, stainless steel sports models are among the most sought-after Rolexes on the secondary market, often commanding well over retail. For example, the white dial and black dial Rolex Daytona trades hands for between $35k and $40k, compared to its $14,550 retail price tag. On the other hand, the Milgauss, known for its resistance to magnetic fields, retails for $9,150 and trades hands for around $10k. 

Most Affordable Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36mm

How Much Is a “Basic” Rolex?

Because a basic Rolex often doesn’t have any additional functions aside from the time, it typically includes a much more attractive, entry-level price. Take the modern Oyster Perpetual, for example. While it has been produced in two-tone and all-gold in the past, the OP is currently only offered in Oystersteel, Rolex’s proprietary 904L-grade Oyster steel. The steel Oyster Perpetual 36 ref. 126000 retails for $5,800 if you can even get your hands on one for that price due to low inventory at most authorized dealers. Still, it is one of the cheapest Rolex watches at retail. Compare that price to the similar Datejust 36 in steel, which retails for $7,250 in its least expensive configuration, which includes a smooth bezel and an Oyster bracelet.

You stand to save even more money and time if you shop on the secondary market. The price for an all-steel Oyster Perpetual in the Bob’s Watches catalog starts as low as $3,500. You can expect to pay around or under $5k for the most basic Rolex.

Most Affordable Rolex Vintage Manual-Wind Oyster

How Do I Know Which Rolex to Buy?

Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question. In fact, there are numerous factors to consider before you buy, such as why are you buying a Rolex in the first place? Is it to make an impression? As an investment? Or, perhaps, as a gift for someone special? How you plan to wear your Rolex can make a big impact on your final decision.

Of course, there’s also the budget to consider. Rolex watches are by no means cheap, and even the most affordable options on the market still require a serious investment of at least a few thousand dollars. But there are some great deals to be found if you’re willing to forgo luxe upgrades such as white gold. Our best advice is to start with your budget and go from there. Any watch that speaks to your lifestyle and personality and is within budget will be a great fit.

Paul Altieri