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Rolex Sport Watches: The Ultimate Guide

Paul Altieri

The 1950s and 1960s were milestone decades for Rolex as this was the era that the company released a slew of sport and tool watches. The term “tool watch” describes timepieces that serve specific purposes beyond telling the time, which these mid-century Rolex watches certainly did. There was the Explorer for adventurers, the Submariner for divers, the GMT-Master for pilots, and the Daytona for racers (among others). These days, we typically refer to these timepiece types as sports watches since they’re no longer worn primarily for their original functionality but more so for their sporty style, solid quality, and renowned luxury.

Remarkably, all the Rolex tool watches introduced in the fifties and sixties have not only remained in the brand’s catalog but are also some of the most sought-after models on the market. We’ve compiled everything you need to know about Rolex sports watches into a quick yet comprehensive buying guide. While we’re not against wearing vintage watches, we’ve selected modern references (defined as those with six-digit reference numbers) to ensure that they can withstand daily wear and tear.

Rolex Explorer & Explorer II

Rolex Explorer 216570

Explorer & Explorer II Key Features

– Explorer Case Size: 36mm or 39mm

– Explorer II Case Size: 42mm

– Explorer Materials: Stainless steel or steel and yellow gold

– Explorer II Materials: Stainless steel

– Explorer Bezel: Smooth bezel

– Explorer II Bezel: Fixed, 24-hour

– Explorer Dial: Black time-only dial with numerals at 3, 6, and 9

– Explorer II Dial: White or Black, Date Mechanism & GMT Hand

– Bracelet: Oyster bracelet

– Water Resistance: 100 meters

– Modern References: 114270, 214270, 124270, 124273, 226570

The Explorer is beloved by all for its minimalist and straightforward design – it’s the perfect go anywhere, do anything, watch. The model’s feature set includes a black dial with Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, a smooth metal bezel without any markings, and a three-link Oyster bracelet. While the Explorer was initially exclusively a stainless steel Rolex sports watch, in 2021, a two-tone version joined the lineup in an appealing combination of stainless steel and 18k yellow gold.

Rolex released the Explorer II a few decades later, equipping it with a fixed 24-hour bezel and an extra hand on the dial. While the Explorer was developed for mountaineering, the Explorer II was developed for spelunking and other dark environment adventures. By reading the GMT hand against the bezel, the wearer can track AM and PM hours or read a second-time zone. A new edition of the Explorer II was also released in 2021, complete with a brand-new cal. 3285 Perpetual movement.

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner 116619

Submariner Key Features

– Case Size: 40mm or 41mm

– Materials: Stainless steel, steel and yellow gold, yellow gold, or white gold

– Bezel: Unidirectional Cerachrom bezel, 0-60 minutes

– Dial: Time-only or time and date dial

– Bracelet: Oyster bracelet

– Water Resistance: 300 meters

– Modern References: 114060, 116610, 116613, 116618, 116619, 124060, 126610, 126613, 126618, 126619

The Rolex Submariner is one of the most famous sports watches of all time. Characterized by a case waterproof up to 300 meters, a 60-minute diver’s bezel with a uni-directional mounting, and a luminous display on the dial, the Submariner is the perfect companion for whatever your day brings. It’s also available in a handful of feature sets to suit your lifestyle, including stainless steel, all-gold, or two-tone finishes. The Submariner is available with various dial and bezel colors too. There’s classic black, vibrant green, and rich blue. Plus, there’s the choice between a time-only Submariner and a Submariner Date, not to mention the option between the now-discontinued 40mm variants and the current 41mm models.

Related Reading: Our favorite yellow gold Rolex sports watches.

Rolex GMT-Master & GMT-Master II

Rolex GMT 116710

Rolex GMT-Master II Key Features

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless steel, steel and yellow gold, steel and Everose gold, yellow gold, white gold, or Everose gold

– Bezel: Bidirectional Cerachrom bezel, 24 hours

– Dial: Local time, reference time, date

– Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee bracelet

– Water Resistance: 100 meters

– Modern References: 116710, 116713, 116718, 116719, 126710, 126711, 126715, 126719

The GMT-Master was first introduced in the 1950s, featuring a 24-hour hand on the dial and a bi-directional bezel to help professional pilots read two time zones at once. A few decades after making its debut, the GMT-Master II was released, bringing with it a redesigned movement with an independent 24-hour hand and the ability to read three time zones simultaneously.

The modern collection famously offers bi-color Cerachrom ceramic bezel inserts, either a five-link Jubilee or a three-link Oyster bracelet, and the option of stainless steel, steel and gold, rose gold, or white gold. The latest generation of Rolex GMT-Master II watches is powered by the Cal. 3285 movement, featuring Rolex’s proprietary Chronergy escapement and an increased 70-hour power reserve.

Rolex Daytona

Rolex Daytona

Rolex Daytona Key Features

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless steel, steel and yellow gold, yellow gold, white gold, Everose, platinum

– Bezel: Metal or Cerachrom, tachymeter scale

– Dial: Time, center chronograph hand, three subsidiary dials

– Bracelet: Oyster bracelet, leather strap, or Oysterflex bracelet

– Water Resistance: 100 meters

– Modern References: 116520, 116523, 116528, 116518, 116519, 116515, 116500, 116503, 116508, 116509, 116505, 116506

The Daytona is, arguably, the world’s most famous chronograph watch. The collection includes a broad range of design set options, including steel, gold, and two-tone. There are even solid platinum variants, as well as bejeweled iterations. Yet, regardless of the metal type, dial color, or bezel material, what ties all Daytona watches together is their classic silhouette consisting of two chronograph pushers framing the winding crown, a tachymeter bezel inspired by racing, and a face with three subsidiary dials. Of all the Rolex sports watches to choose from, the Daytona is the sportiest and most coveted of them all – and one that most Rolex enthusiasts would be proud to wear every day.

Rolex Yacht-Master & Yacht-Master II

Rolex Yachtmaster II

Yacht-Master I & II Key Features

– Yacht Master Case Size: 37mm, 40mm, 42mm

– Yacht Master II Case Size: 44mm

– Yacht-Master Materials: White Gold, Everose, Steel & Everose, Steel & Platinum

– Yacht-Master II Materials: Stainless Steel, Steel & Everose, Yellow Gold, White Gold & Platinum

– Yacht-Master Bezel: Bi-Directional, 60-Minutes

– Yacht-Master II Bezel: Ring Command, Bi-Directional 90° Rotatable

– Yacht-Master Dial: Time, Date

– Yacht-Master II Dial: Time, Programmable Countdown, 1 Subsidiary Dial

– Yacht-Master Bracelet: Oyster bracelet or Oysterflex bracelet

– Yacht-Master II Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet

– Water Resistance: 100 meters

– Modern References: 116681, 116680, 116689, 116688, 268622, 268621, 268655, 116622, 126622, 126621, 126655, 226689

Rolex initially developed the Yacht-Master collection as an elevated edition of the brand’s classic sports watch. The lugs are more dramatically shaped, and the bezel is always presented in either precious metal or ceramic. The first edition was introduced in 1992 and includes a three-hand dial and a bi-directional 60-minute bezel.

The Yacht-Master II followed in 2007 and includes a Ring-Command bezel and a movement with highly complex functions. Both editions were initially manufactured in only solid 18k yellow gold but eventually expanded to include a wide variety of different metal options. Today, both models include water resistance up to 100 meters and feature bezels constructed from either Rolex’s proprietary Cerachrom ceramic material or solid 18k gold or 950 platinum.

Rolex Sea-Dweller and Deepsea


Sea-Dweller & Deepsea Key Features:

Sea-Dweller Case Size: 40mm, 43mm

Deepsea Case Size: 44mm

Sea-Dweller Materials: Stainless Steel, Steel & Gold

Deepsea Materials: Stainless Steel

Bezel: Unidirectional Cerachrom bezel, 0-60 minutes

– Dial: Time, Date

Bracelet: Oyster bracelet

Sea-Dweller Water Resistance: 1,220 Meters

Deepsea Water Resistance: 3,900 Meters

Modern References: 116600, 126603, 126600, 116660, 126660

Rolex’s collection of deep saturation dive watches takes the design of the Submariner one step further by including an innovative Helium Escape Valve. This feature allows trapped helium molecules to purge during decompression while keeping the structure of the watch intact. The Rolex Sea-Dweller was introduced in 1967, with the current model offering waterproofness up to 1,220 meters and available in either all-steel or two-tone. The Deepsea Sea-Dweller was introduced in 2008 and includes a different case design that is rated waterproof up to 3,900 meters and is only available in stainless steel. The latest generations of both watches are fitted with scratch-resistant sapphire crystals and Cerachrom ceramic bezel inserts.

Rolex Milgauss

Scientist Watches

Milgauss Key Features

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless steel

– Bezel: Smooth steel bezel

– Dial: Time only

– Crystal: Colorless sapphire or green-tinted sapphire

– Bracelet: Oyster bracelet

– Water Resistance: 100 meters

– Modern Reference: 116400

The Rolex Milgauss caters to scientists who work near strong magnetic fields. Its unique design set includes a soft iron Faraday cage and paramagnetic components to protect the movement from magnetic forces up to 1,000 gauss. The model was first introduced in 1956 and has only ever been offered in stainless steel. The current variation was launched in 2007 after the collection was briefly discontinued and includes a bright orange lightning bolt seconds hand and a green-tinted “Glace Verte” Sapphire crystal.

Rolex Air-King

Rolex_Air King_116900

Air King Key Features

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless steel

– Bezel: Smooth metal bezel

– Dial: Black time-only dial

– Bracelet: Oyster bracelet

– Water Resistance: 100 meters

– Modern References: 116900

The original Rolex Air-King included a self-winding Perpetual movement, a modest case size, and simple time-only functionality and closely resembled a dress watch. It earns its name after the British Royal Air Force, whose pilots chose to wear their personal Oyster Perpetual watches over their standard military-issued timepieces. The Air-King collection has since transformed rather dramatically to feature a larger 40mm antimagnetic case, a movement borrowed from the Milgauss, and a sportier dial adorned Mercedes hands.

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Paul Altieri