A large part of the appeal of Rolex is the sheer range of options available in their collection – not just in the number of different models, but in the individual permutations within each one. The brand has set itself to be all things to all people, and many of its collections have variations designed to attract those who are comfortable standing out in a crowd, all the way through to those satisfied with being a little more covert.
In regards to the latter, pieces fitted with a black dial are particularly stealthy, and the color has been used extensively across the majority of Rolex watches throughout history. It is the perfect choice for a more low-key aesthetic, and coupled with the elegant lines of the watch’s profile, gives us an end product that is both understated and beautifully stylish. Below we have picked out five examples, both modern and vintage, that offer the best secret sophistication.
Which black dial Rolex watch is your favorite?
Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 126711CHNR
The GMT-Master series was never devised to be especially under-the-radar. Its original bezel color scheme, the blue and red better known as the Pepsi, remains among the brightest and most eye-catching in the sports watch collection. Similarly with the blue and black “Batman” and the discontinued black and red “Coke” bezel. But among the existing options in the range, the ref. 126711CHNR is wonderfully discreet choice.
Matching a black gloss dial, a two-tone surround of black and chocolate brown, and a Rolesor metal combination (in this case a mix of stainless steel and warm Everose gold) gives us the most restrained form of the classic pilot’s watch. It is an offering that harks back to the 60s and 70s, with the style nicknamed the “Root Beer” that is enjoying a resurgence in popularity at the moment. It is a watch both luxurious and underplayed, with just the right amount of old world nostalgia.
Rolex Yacht-Master 40 ref. 116655
Not to be confused with the Yacht-Master II, which is whatever the opposite of stealthy is, the original Yacht-Master arrived in 1992 as the more lavish version of the Submariner. Initially only presented in 18k yellow gold, it too was a long way from subtle but over the years it has evolved, bringing in a number of far more toned-down models. Launched in 2015, the ref. 116655 is a massive visual departure from those early pieces. Where they were all glitz and glamor, this is almost stubbornly unobtrusive.
The case is Rolex’s own Everose – a blend of gold and copper, mixed with a dash of platinum to seal in the warm reddish color. The bezel, with its embossed numerals, is Cerachrom, sandblasted to give it a matte finish. That muted effect is echoed on the face, one of the very few non-glossy black dials in the contemporary Rolex lineup. And topping it all off, the ref. 116655 sits on the first rubber strap the brand has ever put into production, the Oysterflex. That wall-to-wall black detailing, with rose gold highlights just popping out here and there, makes this one of the least conspicuous models in the modern range, but it still manages to retain an air of opulence about it. If you had to sum it up in a hurry, it would be with the phrase ‘stealth wealth’ and it is also available in a 37mm version, making it the ideal unisex watch for any occasion.
Rolex Explorer II ref. 216570
Both of the Explorers, series I and II, have always been perhaps the most no-nonsense ranges Rolex has ever put forward. We’ll get to a classic example of the first in a minute, but the Explorer II has remained the definition of what a tool watch should be all the way since its introduction in 1971. The latest model is the fourth generation and was released in 2011 to mark the 40th anniversary. Like the latest Root Beer GMT-Master II, it was given a little splash of retro charm, reinstating the bright orange Freccione 24-hour hand from the debut reference – a distinctive and much-loved feature absent for many years.
Now housed in a larger 42mm case, it can be had with either a white (Polar) dial or one a classic black one. As a further nod to the inaugural model, the base of the hands on the black dial version are also painted to blend in with the rest of the face, giving them a floating, or ‘Phantom’, effect. The brushed stainless steel of the case and Oyster bracelet give it all a real masculine presence, underlining its role as more of something with a job to do rather than a pure status symbol. In the company of yellow gold Submariners and platinum Daytonas, the Explorer II has stuck rigidly to the true spirit of Rolex, and the black dial model is as stealthily and refined as they come.
Rolex Submariner No-Date ref. 114060
When Rolex introduced a date function onto its already legendary Submariner in the 60s, it succeeded in not only telling people the day of the month, but also in splitting the watch’s fans down the middle. For some it marked the moment the Sub stopped being the ultimate dive companion and began a new life as an emblem of affluence. What was the point, went the argument, of keeping track of the date when you were exploring the underwater world? For others, the watch’s enduring looks had always been the main attraction, and they never had any intention of taking it diving in the first place. For these, the new feature added a welcome convenience.
Although both types have continued in production, the dated models have gone on to be issued in white and yellow gold, and with dials and bezels of bright blue and green, while the no-dates have remained an exclusively steel and completely monochrome option ever since. The ref. 114060 from the contemporary range is of the same, now forged from the insanely tough 904L Oystersteel, with a black Cerachrom bezel and glossy black dial.
For such an industry icon, it somehow manages to stay tastefully unassuming. The Super Case might have taken away some of its former sweeping gracefulness, but even with those broad-shouldered lugs and thicker crown guards, it is still an exquisitely handsome watch. Additionally, without the date window and accompanying Cyclops magnifying lens, the dial has a perfect symmetry preferred by many brand enthusiasts. Now just as ever, it is the dive watch against which all others are measured.
Rolex Explorer ref. 1016
And lastly, one from the archives. If you were to draw up a list of the most underrated watches in Rolex’s long history, then it is hard to think of anything that could top the Explorer ref. 1016. Released in 1963, it was the third generation of the model in a decade, the first being launched to commemorate the successful summit of Mt. Everest by Hillary and Norgay. However, this version was to stay in production for an incredible 26 years.
That was partly because it was the one that got everything right (and some have described it as the brand’s most starkly beautiful design); however it was also because it is sometimes thought of as the forgotten Rolex. During its quarter of a century, while other models around it were being updated and modernized at a noteworthy rate, the Explorer received just two changes. In the late 60s it switched from gilt dials to matte, and in the early 70s, the original Cal. 1560 was swapped for the Cal. 1570 – ostensibly the same movement except for an increased balance frequency of 19,800vph over the former 18,000vph. It shared a 36mm case with the Datejust of the time, but by doing away with the date function itself and remaining a simple three-hander, it was the more visually balanced of the two. In addition, the high contrast white 3/6/9 numerals set in that deep black dial gave it supreme legibility.
Today, much like the Explorer II from earlier, all Explorer models are becoming more sought after, and the ref. 1016 in particular. As simple and sophisticated as a watch can be, its charms are only now being noticed by a wider audience after a lifetime in the shadows. Need more convincing? It was the lifelong timepiece of James Bond creator Ian Fleming; and if that doesn’t qualify it to sit in an article with ‘stealthy’ and ‘stylish’ in the title, I don’t know what will.