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ROLEX BLOG

Rolex Daytona Evolution and History

December 11, 2019

BY Paul Altieri

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It’s been said countless times before but the Rolex Daytona is without a doubt the most famous and coveted luxury chronograph out there. Yes, other chronograph watches have journeyed to the moon and other brands made their mark on horology history by presenting the world’s first automatic chronographs to the market. Regardless, the Rolex Daytona is still the one that most watch enthusiasts want to wear. However, it wasn’t always this way. Early versions of the Daytona were slow-selling models for Rolex and it took a major redesign in the 1980s and a favorable celebrity connection around the same time to change the chronograph’s course to stake its claim at the top. Let’s have a closer look at the evolution of the Rolex Daytona from its origins to today.

Rolex Daytona stainless steel ceramic 116500

How did the Rolex Daytona evolve?

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The Manual-Wind Rolex Daytona: 1963 – 1988

The story of the Daytona began in 1963 when Rolex launched a new chronograph model called the Cosmograph. The Daytona name hadn’t joined the Rolex lexicon yet—that would occur about a year later when Rolex wanted to align the Cosmograph with the Daytona Speedway in Florida to emphasize the chronograph’s link to motorsports. Today, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is simply known as the Daytona.

This generation of the Rolex Daytona, which ran from 1963 until 1988, comprised of manual-wound models equipped with modified Valjoux chronograph movements with a column wheel and a horizontal clutch. These four-digit Daytona references included 37mm cases, tachymeter bezels, a pair of chronograph pushers, and dials with three contrasting colored subdials. Most of the references were available in either steel or yellow gold, and some models had metal bezels with an engraved tachymeter while others had black acrylic bezel inserts with a printed tachymeter. Throughout the history of the manual-wound Daytona, Rolex updated the cases, pushers, and movement, which means there are Oyster and non-Oyster references, pump and screw-down pusher references, and Caliber 722 and Caliber 727 references. There were also two hyper-rare references rendered in 18k gold and paved with diamonds.

Vintage Rolex Daytona

The first generation of Rolex Daytona watches was powered by manually-wound movements.

Below is a list outlining the main differences between vintage Daytona references: 

Ref. 6239

  • Approx Years: 1963 – 1969
  • Case: Non-Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel, 14k Gold, 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Engraved Metal
  • Pushers: Pump
  • Movement: Valjoux 722

Ref. 6241

  • Approx Years: 1965 – 1969
  • Case: Non-Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel, 14k Gold, 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Printed Black Acrylic
  • Pushers: Pump
  • Movement: Valjoux 722

Ref. 6240

  • Approx Years: 1965 – 1969
  • Case: Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Bezel: Printed Black Acrylic
  • Pushers: Screw-Down
  • Movement: Valjoux 722

Ref. 6262

  • Approx Years: 1970 – 1971
  • Case: Non-Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel, 14k Gold, 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Engraved Metal
  • Pushers: Pump
  • Movement: Valjoux 727

Ref. 6264

  • Approx Years: 1970 – 1971
  • Case: Non-Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel, 14k Gold, 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Printed Black Acrylic
  • Pushers: Pump
  • Movement: Valjoux 727

Ref. 6265

  • Approx Years: 1971 – 1988
  • Case: Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel, 14k Gold, 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Engraved Metal
  • Pushers: Screw-Down
  • Movement: Valjoux 727

Ref. 6263

  • Approx Years: 1971 – 1988
  • Case: Oyster
  • Material: Stainless Steel, 14k Gold, 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Printed Black Acrylic
  • Pushers: Screw-Down
  • Movement: Valjoux 727

Ref. 6269

  • Approx Years: 1980s
  • Case: Oyster
  • Material: 18k Gold
  • Bezel: Diamond-Set
  • Pushers: Screw-Down
  • Movement: Valjoux 727

The most desirable editions of the vintage Daytona models are those furnished with a specific dial-style Rolex called “exotic dials” but are now better known as the “Paul Newman” dials. The biggest differences between exotic dials and the standard Daytona dials of the era include a stepped minute track on the periphery, Art Deco numerals on the subdials, and square tips on the subdials. 

These seemingly small design details translate to massive price increases thanks to Paul Newman, who wore an exotic dial Daytona 6239 in the 1970s and 1980s before giving it away to his daughter’s boyfriend in 1984. Although Paul Newman was never an official Rolex ambassador, the connection between the famed actor and the renowned Swiss watch company is one of the most admired and studied in the industry. The late Paul Newman owned a handful of different Rolex Daytona models during his lifetime but his Daytona 6239 “Paul Newman” made history in 2017 when it sold for $17.8 million at auction. 

Paul Newman Daytona

Vintage Daytona watches with ‘Paul Newman Dials’ are some of the most coveted timepieces in the world.

The Automatic Zenith Daytona: 1988 – 2000

While vintage Daytona chronographs are highly valuable in today’s secondary market, they were deemed old-fashioned by luxury consumers in the 1980s due in part to their smaller case sizes, manual-wound movements, and retro dials. So, Rolex revamped the entire collection and launched a brand new Daytona lineup in 1988 with larger case sizes, refreshed dials, new material options, and automatic movements. 

This generation of the five-digit Daytona, manufactured from 1988 until 2000, is often referred to as the Zenith Daytona because of its movement. Rolex heavily modified the Zenith El-Primero automatic chronograph caliber (for example, removed the date function and reduced the frequency from 36,000 beats per hour to 28,800bph) and renamed it the Rolex Caliber 4030. 

Design-wise, the then-new automatic Daytona references sported 40mm Oyster cases, complete with screw-down chronograph pushers and a screw-down winding crown. What’s more, crown guards were introduced to the Daytona watches and dials now had rings around the three registers. It was the introduction of the stainless steel Daytona ref. 16520 that really amped up the popularity of Rolex’s chronograph, becoming the archetypical luxury chronograph. Rolex offered an assortment of material choices within the Zenith Daytona lineup, offering new options like white gold and two-tone. In the 1990s, Rolex emphasized the luxury nature of the Daytona by releases a line of ultra-lavish gem-set references. 

Rolex Daytona Zenith Movement

The first automatic Daytona watches were powered by Zenith-based movements.

Below is a list outlining the main differences between Zenith Daytona references: 

Ref. 16520

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1988
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16523

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1988
  • Material: Stainless Steel + Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16528

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1988
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16518

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1992
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16568

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1994
  • Material: Yellow Gold, Diamond Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16568 EMRO

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1996
  • Material: Yellow Gold, Emerald Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16519

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1997
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16588 SAFU

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1997
  • Material: Yellow Gold, Pink Sapphire Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap:
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16589 BRIL

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1997
  • Material: White Gold, Diamond Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16589 SAPH

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1997
  • Material: White Gold, Blue Sapphire Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap:
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16589 RUBI

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1997
  • Material: White Gold, Ruby Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16599 SAPH

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1998
  • Material: White Gold, Blue Sapphire Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16599 RUBI

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1999
  • Material: White Gold, Ruby Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16559 SACO

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1999
  • Material: White Gold, Cognac Sapphire Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap:
  • Movement: 4030

Ref. 16598 EMRO

  • Approx Year Introduced: 1999
  • Material: Yellow Gold, Emerald Bezel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4030
Rolex Daytona Stainless Steel Ceramic

Modern stainless steel Rolex Daytona watches are fitted with Cerachrom ceramic bezels.

The In-House Automatic Rolex Daytona: 2000 – Present

In 2000, Rolex announced yet another generation of the Daytona, this time furnished with an in-house chronograph movement called Caliber 4130 and labeled with six-digit references. Unlike Caliber 4030 that used an outsourced movement as a base, Caliber 4130 was developed and built entirely by Rolex. It apparently took five years for Rolex to develop Caliber 4130 and rather than a horizontal clutch, this movement features a vertical clutch resulting in a smooth start/stop/reset of the chronograph hand. What’s more, the chronograph hand can run continuously on Caliber 4130 Daytona (to act as the running seconds indicator, for instance) without any impact on the movement’s timekeeping accuracy. 

In terms of design, Rolex kept most of the Daytona style intact, except for modifying the dial where the running seconds indicator (previously at 9 o’clock) switched places with the 12-hour counter (previously at 6 o’clock) and the top two registers moved up slightly. The cases remained at 40mm in diameter and even more material options—such as Everose gold and platinum—were introduced over the years. Interestingly, on the white gold Daytona, Rolex realigned the bezel markings to a radial arrangement instead of being upright—a design detail that all following Daytona models adopted. 

In 2011, Rolex made a significant design update to the Daytona with the introduction of the Cerachrom ceramic bezel—first on the Everose Daytona then eventually rolled out to other editions. In 2016, the highly anticipated stainless steel and ceramic Daytona 116500LN made its debut and almost four years later, it is still one of the hardest watches to find due to its immense popularity. In 2017, Rolex began furnishing gold Daytona references with the Oysterflex bracelet, replacing leather strap options with this sportier rubber strap option. In true Rolex fashion, super rare bejeweled Daytona watches are released every few years boasting ultra-lavish bezels and dials. 

Rolex Daytona Evolution Everose Gold

Modern Rolex Daytona watches are also available in 18k Everose pink gold.

Below is a list outlining the main differences between In-House Caliber 4130 Daytona references:

Ref. 116520

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2000
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Bezel: Stainless Steel
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116523

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2000
  • Material: Stainless Steel + Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116528

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2000
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116518

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2000
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116519

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2000
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bezel: White Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116568

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2001
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Baguette Diamonds
  • Bracelet/Strap:Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116509

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2004
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bezel: White Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116598 SACO

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2004
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Cognac Sapphires
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116505

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2008
  • Material: Everose Gold
  • Bezel: Everose Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116599 4RU

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2009
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bezel: Baguette Diamonds and Rubys
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116589 RBR

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2009
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bezel: Double Diamond Row
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116515 LN

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2011
  • Material: Everose Gold
  • Bezel: Cerachrom
  • Bracelet/Strap: Leather Strap
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116598 RBOW

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2012
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Multi-Colored Sapphires
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116599 RBOW

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2012
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bezel: Multi-Colored Sapphires
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116506

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2013
  • Material: Platinum
  • Bezel: Cerachrom
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116576 TBR

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2014
  • Material: Platinum
  • Bezel: Baguette Diamonds
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116500 LN

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2016
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Bezel: Cerachrom
  • Bracelet/Strap:
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116503

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2016
  • Material: Stainless Steel + Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref.116508

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2016
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Yellow Gold
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116518 LN

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2017
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Cerachrom
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oysterflex Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116519 LN

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2017
  • Material: White Gold
  • Bezel: Cerachrom
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oysterflex Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116515 LN

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2017
  • Material: Everose Gold
  • Bezel: Cerachrom
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oysterflex Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116595 RBOW

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2018
  • Material: Everose Gold
  • Bezel: Multi-Colored Sapphires
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116578 SACO

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2019
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Cognac Sapphires
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116588 SACO

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2019
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Cognac Sapphires
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oysterflex Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

Ref. 116588 TBR

  • Approx Year Introduced: 2019
  • Material: Yellow Gold
  • Bezel: Baguette Diamonds
  • Bracelet/Strap: Oysterflex Bracelet
  • Movement: 4130

One of the watch world’s greatest comeback stories, the Rolex Daytona evolved from a slow starter to the clear leader amongst top-tier chronographs. Whether you go for a manual-wound vintage Daytona, an automatic Zenith-based Daytona, or an in-house automatic Daytona, you simply can’t go wrong with this flagship chronograph model. What’s your dream Rolex Daytona reference?

Rolex Daytona Leopard Diamonds

What is your dream Rolex Daytona reference?

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