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Rolex Presidential: Best Value Reference

March 25, 2020

BY Paul Altieri


When you consider just how much watch you get for your money, the affordability of some Rolex Presidential references can come as a pleasant surprise. The Day-Date is still considered the flagship offering from Rolex, and is a piece seen as the ultimate in status symbol, cast exclusively in precious metals, and with more than 60-years of heritage behind it.

Add all that together, and by rights, every example of this luxurious grand old statesman should be out of reach to all but the ultra-wealthy. However, in reality, you can easily find certain iterations commanding the sort of prices that brings them well-within reach of a far wider audience. Below we take a look at which of those Rolex Presidential references offers the best value.

Rolex Presidential Best Value Reference

The Rolex Presidential Value Scale

Rolex doesn’t really do radical upheavals. Once they have settled on a look, it stays settled on. The internal engineering of the movements may get upgraded and refined on a semi regular basis, but the aesthetic changes to a watch from generation to generation is minimal to say the least.

That means a brand new piece from the contemporary catalog is still very recognizably taken from the same design book as one made decades ago. It is particularly true for the Day-Date (and its close cousin the Datejust); stand up a current example next to one from the 1970s, and you will see nothing but a subtle evolution has taken place.

Rolex Presidential Best Value Model 1803

That is, of course, until you start comparing price tags. Entry into the current-production Rolex Presidential family will cost you upwards of of $30,000. If you decide you want to go the vintage or discontinued route, it can cost less than a third of that.

Take a look at classic models of the Rolex Day-Date and you will find the most accessible belong to the reference 18XX series, and the ref. 1803 specifically. Released in 1959 and staying in production right up until 1977, it was the third version of the watch, the first two being launched in quick succession after the range’s debut in 1956.

Measuring 36mm in diameter and forged from 18k white, red, or yellow gold (and platinum very sparingly), the ref. 1803 was fitted with a fluted bezel and was originally driven by the Cal. 1555. In 1967, the movement changed to the Cal. 1556, ostensibly identical but beating at a higher frequency 19,800vph over the earlier 18,000vph. A hacking function was added in 1972, stopping the seconds hand when the crown was pulled out to make setting the time easier. 

Rolex Presidential Best Value Reference 1803 pie pan

Although both calibers were excellent performers, taken from the Cal. 1500 series beloved by all purists, neither had a Quickset function, the mechanism that allows for adjusting the date independently of the hands. That touch of convenience being omitted, together with the sheer number of ref. 1803s made over the near 20-year run means that you can buy them – with the now eponymous President bracelet, a three semicircular-link band cast in the same metal as the case – for under $10,000. 

That is an incredible sum for such an important part of the Rolex story. It was the ref. 1803 that earned the Day-Date its unofficial ‘President’ nickname, when the watch was photographed on the wrist of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. It was also the reference that introduced the hidden Crownclasp onto the bracelet sometime around the end of the 1960s.

But although there are plenty of vintage details if you know where to look (pie-pan dial, acrylic crystal, hollow bracelet links) the ref. 1803 has aged beautifully. Additionally, the mechanically simple movements have proved themselves over time to be among the most reliable Rolex has ever made. As a contender for best value Day-Date, the ref. 1803 is a definite frontrunner.

gold Rolex Presidential Bracelet Best Value

The Next Step Up

The reference that superseded the ref. 18XX series in 1977 represents only a small increase in price on the secondary market. The five-digit ref. 180XX range brought the Rolex Day-Date its first high beat movement – the Cal. 3055 with a frequency of 28,800vph. Additionally, it included a Quickset function, allowing for the day of the month in the three o’clock window to be advanced with the winding crown, without also adjusting the hands.

Again, it is the direct replacement for the ref. 1803 which is the least expensive. The ref. 18038 is rendered in solid 18k yellow gold and has the same fluted bezel with huge variety of different dial colors and materials. A massively popular model upon its release, and particularly in certain parts of the country, it was the ref. 18038 which earned the Day-Date yet another nickname; the Texas Timex.

Rolex Presidential Best Value Reference 18038 President

The difference in price between this model and the previous one is slight. At the lowest end of the scale, you should have no problem tracking down pieces with matching gold President bracelets starting at just a couple thousand dollars above comparable examples from the previous generation.

The ref. 18038 has an altogether more modern feel than the ref. 1803. The dials are now flat rather than being of the ‘pie pan’ style of the previous generation, and the crystal is now made from scratch-resistant sapphire rather than being crafted from acrylic.

However, the reference 18038 wasn’t in production for as long as its predecessor. As its Quickset feature only freed up the date numeral (what is known as a Single Quickset) it was obvious what the next development was going to be. In 1988, a new generation of the Rolex Day-Date President emerged, driven by a more advanced movement.

Rolex Presidential Best Value Model Comparison

The Best Value Rolex Presidential?

The ref. 182XX series of the Rolex Presidential contained a legendary caliber, the Cal. 3155. The end result of more than 30-years of progress, it would power all Day-Date watches right up until 2015.

With the Rolex President’s archetypal looks now set in stone, all the extra convenience of the Double Quickset (meaning that both the date of the month and the day of the week in the 12 o’clock aperture could be adjusted with the crown), and the other up-to-date features carried over from previous references, could the ref. 182XX be the best all-rounder in terms of value for the Rolex Day-Date?

Prices start at just a couple thousand dollars above the older, Single Quickset models, and while this generation does represent a significant step up in price from the entry point into the Day-Date collection, it still offers exceptional value. Compare this generation to the older references we’ve looked at, and you aren’t paying a huge amount more for a thoroughly modern watch.

Gold Rolex Presidential Best Value Reference Diamond Dial 118238

By contrast, the series which replaced it, the first of the six-digit ref. 118XXX family released in 2000, comes with quite a significant jump in cost for not as much technological progress. You basically get polished lugs and an uprated bracelet, but need to come up with several thousand dollars more that what you would pay for a comparable example from the previous generation. 

Is it worth it? That’s up to you obviously, and the old adage of buying the best you can afford will always be true. But if you baulk at paying the extra and go for the ref. 182XX range, you will still be getting a superb watch that runs on the same Cal. 3155 movement that powers the newer six-digit generation.

Those are the three examples of the Rolex Presidential that embody the most watch for your money. The model may be the number one choice of the world’s elite, gracing the wrists of everyone from heads of state and boardroom czars, to celebrated figures in music, sports, and entertainment, but it just proves that you don’t need to be among the one-percent to wear the brand’s crowning creation.

To take a look at some of the finest models currently available, and a lot more besides, head over to our online store.

Rolex Presidential Gold Best Value Reference Guide



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