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The History of the Rolex Cellini

Paul Altieri

Today, we’re having a look at what can safely be called the least well-known and least recognizable collection from the Crown’s archives: the Rolex Cellini. Unlike many of the other watches in the Rolex catalog, which all have clear purposes and well-defined aesthetics, the Rolex Cellini lineup has been somewhat of a catch-all collection throughout the years for various Rolex dress watches in all shapes and sizes.

Benvenuto Cellini And The Idea Of Owning Multiple Watches

The Rolex Cellini collection takes its name from the famed Italian goldsmith and sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. The name was chosen for Rolex’s collection of refined and often gem-set dress watches as a means to celebrate the elegant lines and impeccable craftsmanship of the artist’s works.

The production of luxury-oriented dress watches may sound like an unusual move for a brand that built its reputation by building highly reliable tool watches; however, it was the clever work of Mr. Rene-Paul Jeanneret that led to this new shift in direction for the brand. As Director of Marketing for Rolex, it was Jeanneret that spearheaded the efforts to craft the narrative of the Rolex collector, creating the premise of owning several Rolex watches for different uses and occasions – the “tool watch” concept, rather than just one watch that would be worn throughout all of life’s activities.

This mantra of owning multiple watches became a part of Rolex’s marketing language by the early 1960s, and it didn’t take long before the public’s buying perspective had shifted. Purpose-built tool watches like the Rolex Submariner and GMT-Master were finding success, making way for a purpose-built dress watch – the Rolex Cellini.

Rolex Cellini 50509 18k White Gold

A Wide Range Of Designs

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the Cellini collection was already a diverse assortment of elegant, dress-oriented timepieces. While the vast majority of Rolex’s watches used their patented, waterproof Oyster case, watches in the Cellini collection often skipped the screw-down crown and caseback, as they did not require the high-degree of water-resistance of their tool watch counterparts.

Instead of focusing on robust and purpose-built designs, the Rolex Cellini collection placed an emphasis on refinement and the use of gold and gemstones. Dress watches were by no means a new concept; however, the Cellini was the first Rolex collection that was strictly focused on aesthetics, rather than pure functionality – something that has since become significantly more common throughout the watch industry.

Vintage Rolex Cellini Yellow Gold

The Rolex King Midas

Although many of the earliest Rolex Cellini references followed a rather classic and conservative aesthetic, the collection expanded during the 1970s to incorporate the bold, angular designs that characterized much of the era. During this time, Rolex hired prominent designers such as Gérald Genta to design some of their new timepieces, and Cellini watches like the ‘King Midas’ and the ref. 4651 possesses a number of distinctive design traits that are characteristic of the watches born during this era.

According to several sources, Gérald Genta is the man behind the design of the Rolex King Midas from 1963 – a bold, angular, and thoroughly modern, solid-gold Rolex that is best known for being owned by Elvis Presley back in the day. While entirely unconfirmed by Rolex, most collectors believe that Genta was the designer who created the King Midas because the unusual watch possesses a number of key design elements that are found throughout the vast majority of his other works, such as a non-traditional case shape, strong angular lines, and a distinct integrated bracelet.

Rolex King Midas Yellow Gold

Back To Conventional And Conservative

After experimenting with the bold and angular lines of the 1970s, the Rolex Cellini collection began to take on a much more conventional and cohesive overall aesthetic. Models such as the Cellini Danaos featured a modern take on a distinctly vintage-influenced design. Measuring only 35mm in diameter and with a slightly barreled case design, these watches are oddly reminiscent of the old Rolex bubbleback models; however, they are quite a bit more refined and elegant than their predecessors.

As Rolex continued to flush out the appearance of their Cellini line, the overall aesthetic of the collection shifted back towards classic and conventional designs. Rather than embracing the bold and angular lines of the watches from the 1970s, the new generation of Rolex Cellini watches was back to simple and timeless designs, finished to the same exacting standard as all of Rolex’s creations, with subtle flourishes of refined luxury.

Many of the design cues that first appeared on the Cellini watches from the early 2000s can still be found on the modern Cellini timepieces that Rolex sells today. While these new Cellini references are thoroughly modern as far as their build quality and materials, they can also be viewed as the contemporary equivalents of the early Cellini dress watches that Rolex first brought to market several decades ago.

Rolex Cellini 5115 Yellow Gold

The Modern Rolex Cellini

The most recent addition to the Rolex Cellini collection was introduced at Baselworld 2017, when Rolex unveiled the reference 50535 – a 39mm model in Everose pink gold, which features both a pointer date and a moonphase complication. Watches with moonphase complications disappeared from Rolex’s catalog back in the 1950s, and until the release of the ref. 50535, Rolex’s lineup was completely devoid of a watch with this historic complication – despite it being an absolute mainstay in the catalogs of many other luxury timepiece manufacturers.

All of the watches from the most recent generation of the Cellini collection share a 39mm case that is crafted from either 18k white gold or Rolex’s proprietary Everose pink gold. Additionally, all of these modern Rolex Cellini watches are available with a handful of different dial colors and offered in time-only, time and date, dual time, and date plus moonphase configurations.

Despite the range of dials and complications, this most recent batch of Rolex Cellini watches has a far more cohesive overall aesthetic than any of the previous Cellini generations. Previously a catch-all category for Rolex’s dress watch designs, the Cellini lineup slowly evolved over the years to become a clear and well-defined collection of Rolex dress watches.

Rolex Cellini Time 50505 18k Everose Gold

Rolex Discontinues Most of Cellini Watches

While the most recent addition to the Cellini collection was the Moonphase model from 2017, the most recent update is not a new model at all. In addition to all of its new releases that were unveiled at Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022, Rolex also quietly discontinued all of the most recent generation of its Cellini models, leaving only the single Moonphase reference in 18k Everose gold.

A quick look at Rolex’s website will confirm that there isn’t a single other Rolex Cellini watch currently in production, other than the Everose Cellini Moonphase ref. 50535. Unless Rolex plans to discontinue its dedicated collection of dress watches altogether in the near future, this may be a sign that this is a just temporary hiatus for the Cellini range, and that Rolex has plans to bring the line back at a later date in a completely re-imagined form.

What the future holds for the Rolex Cellini collection remains uncertain. It has spent most of its history being one of Rolex’s most overlooked collections, but given its long and illustrious history – and given that there is currently a growing interest in dress watches – many collectors would almost certainly be sad to see it leave Rolex’s catalog altogether. With that in mind, an entirely new generation of the Cellini would be incredibly exciting and it would also bring some long-overdue attention to this beautiful line of elegant dress watches.

Rolex Cellini Prince 5441 5441/9 White Gold Doctor Watch

Paul Altieri
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