It’s a word I try to avoid when writing about watches these days, but it’s particularly hard when discussing Rolex. However, if we take the literal definition of the term – meaning something that is widely recognized and well-established, especially for distinctive excellence – something that is instantly recognizable and perhaps above all else, influential, then it is very difficult to come up with anything else that so efficiently describes the Rolex Datejust.
What is now seen as the most traditional and established among the watches in the brand’s catalog was once a revolution, bringing previously unparalleled levels of technical wonder and wrapping it up in a design that could fit in effortlessly in any situation. Below we take a look at exactly why the Rolex Datejust has become such an icon in the industry and one that has thrived for more than 75-years.
Rolex Datejust History
In 1945, Rolex was celebrating its 40th year in operation. The brand’s dedication to preserving the utmost quality in their output and a commitment to pioneering innovation had already brought us the waterproof Oyster case in the 20s and the self-winding Perpetual movement in the 30s – the two most important advances in the early life of the wristwatch.
With Switzerland staying neutral throughout WWII, the country’s watchmakers had been able to continue manufacturing, while their competitors from other nations had seen their factories and resources taken over to supply the war effort. As a result, by the end of hostilities, pretty much the entire market was dominated by the Swiss, and Rolex stood out in front.
Flushed with success, the company celebrated its anniversary by creating the Rolex Datejust. With a case diameter of 36mm and available in yellow gold with a cream dial, the ref. 4467 married together the original pair of radical inventions and added a third, becoming the world’s first (and at the time only) waterproof, automatic wristwatch with a date display.
The Datejust was unveiled in an event in Geneva, hosted by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf himself, and the piece sat on the first bracelet the brand had made in-house. The Jubilee was, and still is, the most intricate of the trio of metal bracelets that Rolex offers, lending a more formal aspect to whatever model is paired with it.
That initial reference went on to be nicknamed the ‘Big Bubbleback’, referring to the enhanced curvature of its casing, which was needed to house its somewhat rudimentary self-winding movement. By the 1950s, the Rolex Datejust had slimmed down as advances were made to its caliber, and it also gained a magnifying lens over its date window (known as the Cyclops), enlarging the numerals by 2.5 times to make it easier to read.
Since then, the Datejust’s aesthetics have been little more than tweaked on occasion. A contemporary example of the Rolex Datejust is still easily identifiable as being of the same breed as one from several generations ago, and it remains perhaps the most classic shape in horology. To many people, the Datejust is Rolex – the blueprint for what a wristwatch should look like.
Arguably the only thing that Rolex does better than making watches is selling watches. The brand’s marketing strategy has always been second to none, and from their very earliest days, they have recognized the benefit of associating their products with key figures of the day, letting the reputations of the successful and prominent do much of the talking for them.
When the 100,000th Rolex model rolled off the production line in 1948, which so happened to be a rose gold Datejust, it was presented to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, complete with his family coat-of-arms engraved on the caseback. A few years later in 1951 the 150,000th piece – another Datejust, was gifted to Dwight D Eisenhower. Then a five-star general, he would go on to become the first U.S. President to own a Rolex.
Tacit endorsements from such historical luminaries only cemented the company’s status as the favored brand of the elite, with the Datejust often the first go-to model. Others who have appreciated its timeless styling since then include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama. The Rolex Datejust also frequently appears in popular culture. Paul Newman wore one in his Oscar-winning role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, and perhaps the most notable instance was when a yellow Rolesor version made it onto the wrist of the loathsome Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
The real party piece of the Rolex Datejust is its ability to appeal to as wide a cross-section of the watch-buying public as possible. The different combinations of size, metal, bezel type, bracelet style, and dial colors that have been available over the years are simply too numerous to count. Couple that with the modest simplicity of its general design, and the Datejust leaves potential customers with a virtual blank canvas onto which they can project their own personality.
Those looking for something modest and understated can choose a steel case and plain smooth bezel, paired with a monochromatic dial and sporty Oyster bracelet. Others happy to stand out have the option of solid gold or Rolesor (two-tone steel and gold), dripping in diamonds on every surface and sitting on the more intricate, five-link Jubilee band. In between these two extremes is a virtually endless collection to cater to almost any taste.
The one constant is the Datejust’s svelte lines. The modern range may have thickened up ever so slightly, but those proportions have remained as elegantly balanced as always. Today, despite the addition of a larger 41mm version, the Rolex Datejust retains the classic proportions of its highly versatile and time-honored silhouette.
The Rolex Datejust collection now covers five different sizes: the 28mm Lady-Datejust, a 31mm ‘midsize’ version, a 34mm variant (simply called the Date), the traditional 36mm (now also listed as a midsize) and the full-size 41mm. Basically, if you can’t find the perfect Rolex Datejust for you, chances are that you’re just not looking hard enough.
Like many Rolex watches, the outward appearance of the Datejust has barely altered from its original design. However, internally, the watch has been kept at the cutting-edge. More often than not, the Datejust is the model used as a testbed for emerging technologies and materials before they are rolled out across the rest of the brand’s portfolio.
The Datejust was the first to receive legendary movements such as the Cal. 3035 and Cal. 3135, and when Rolex was finally forced to engage with the quartz crisis during the 1970s, it was the Datejust and Day-Date that were selected to be given the new electronic movements.
The contemporary 36mm and 41mm pieces are powered by the next-generation Cal. 3235 movement, a mechanism protected by 14 patents and housing the brand’s latest Chronergy escapement, boasting a 15% increase in efficiency over previous engines. Its power reserve is a highly-impressive 70 hours and its Paraflex shock absorbers and Blue Parachrom hairspring ensure that it remains accurate enough to qualify for Rolex’s own Superlative Chronometer certification of within -2/+2 seconds a day.
In the end, the Rolex Datejust represents the best of all worlds. It has the strongest legacy, the most up-to-date mechanics, the broadest possible variety of different styles, and it encompasses it all inside a form so familiar that it tells the world at a glance you are wearing a Rolex. If there was ever a watch that has earned the expression iconic, you’re looking at it.