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ROLEX BLOG

The Best Watches to Start a Vintage Rolex Collection

December 24, 2020

BY Paul Altieri

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The vintage Rolex market has absolutely exploded in recent years, with even the most common and plentiful of vintage sport watch references now breaking the five-figure price point. That being said, not all vintage Rolex watches are reaching astronomic levels of resale value, and there are still a number of references that remain excellent entry points into vintage Rolex ownership.

Certain collectable references such as the Submariner 5512 or the GMT-Master 1675 will likely never again be within the entry-level price range for the budding collector who can only allocate a few thousand dollars towards his next acquisition; however here are a few excellent and timeless vintage Rolex watches that won’t break the bank.

Rolex Datejust Reference 1601

Vintage Rolex Datejust 1601

Rolex Datejust 1601 Key Features:

Case Diameter: 36mm

Materials: Stainless Steel & Gold; Solid Gold

Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display

Dial: Multiple Options Available

Bezel: Fixed, Fluted Style, Yellow or White Gold

Crystal: Acrylic w/ Cyclops Magnification Lens

Movement: Caliber 1565 or Caliber 1575

Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet or Jubilee Bracelet

Rolex Datejust

The reference 1601 is the archetype of the vintage Rolex Datejust. Manufactured throughout the entirety of 1960s and most of the 1970s, the reference 1601 is the quintessential Datejust watch with a distinctly vintage look and feel. At 36mm in diameter, and with a fluted bezel and Cyclops magnification lens on the acrylic crystal above the date display, the reference 1601 checks all the boxes for classic vintage Rolex design traits.

The reference 1601 is the solid gold or Rolesor (two-tone) version of the men’s Datejust; all stainless steel variants were assigned either ref. 1603 (engine tuned bezel) or ref. 1600 (smooth bezel) reference numbers. Depending on their year of production, reference 1601 watches were fitted with either caliber 1565 or cal. 1575 movements, and some time around the very early 1970s, hacking was added to the caliber 1575. These thinner movements replaced the previous “Bubble Back” generation and ushered in a new era of Datejust watches produced for nearly twenty years.

The most distinct feature of the reference 1601, which helps sets it apart from all subsequent Datejust references, is its “pie pan” dial that slopes downward towards the outer edge where it meets the case. These “pie pan” style dials, which were also used on the Day-Date from the same era, are emblematic of an earlier time in Rolex’s history, and help to give the reference 1601 a decidedly vintage aesthetic.

Another distinguishing feature produced during this era is the acrylic crystal, which was replaced with the thinner sapphire crystal when the second iteration of the 5-digit generation was introduced. Many purists prefer acrylic over sapphire because of the distinct vintage style that it adds to the ref. 1601.

Rolex Air-King Reference 5500

Vintage Rolex Air-King 5500

Rolex Air-King 5500 Key Features:

Case Diameter: 34mm

Materials: Stainless Steel, Stainless Steel & Gold; Solid Gold

Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds

Dial: Multiple Options Available

Bezel: Fixed, Smooth Style, Stainless Steel or Yellow Gold

Crystal: Acrylic

Movement: Caliber  1520 or Caliber 1530

Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet or Jubilee Bracelet

Rolex Air-King

The Air-King line was initially created in 1958 as a simple and reliable watch that could occupy an entry-level position in Rolex’s catalog. Unlike the Datejust, the Air-King left out the date mechanism, allowing it to uphold its status as one of the most affordable Rolex watches. Decades later, the Air-King line still represents an entry point into Rolex ownership, and both vintage and contemporary references provide some of the best value for the money among all Rolex watches.

At 34mm in diameter, and crafted from stainless steel with an acrylic crystal, the reference 5500 is a humble watch with classic styling and a minimalist feature set (although you will also find some rare variants in both two-tone and solid gold). As it was intended to be one of the more affordable options within Rolex’s lineup, the reference 5500 was not COSC-rated, and was instead fitted with either Rolex’s caliber 1520 or 1530 movement. Consequently, the reference 5500 has one of the cleanest and least text-heavy dials that Rolex has ever put forward, as it does not have the accompanying “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” on it that usually accompanies a COSC-rated watch.

What the Rolex Air-King lacks in flashy styling and added functions, it makes up for in timeless and dependable design with a water-resistant Oyster case and a Perpetual movement with self-winding technology. The series also boasts a broad range of dial colors to choose from, and also offers the option of either the Oyster bracelet or Jubilee bracelet.

Due to its remarkably long, 37-year production run and consumer friendly price point, a large number of reference 5500 watches were manufactured and sold. As a result of their high production numbers, a decent number of Air-King 5500 watches are still in existence today, and although the solid gold models and certain rare dial variants can fetch a premium, most can still be purchased at a relatively modest price point on the pre-owned market.

Rolex Date Reference 1503

Vintage Rolex Date 1503

Rolex Date 1503 Key Features:

Case Diameter: 34mm

Materials: Yellow Gold or Rose Gold

Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display

Dial: Multiple Options Available

Bezel: Fixed, Fluted Style, Yellow Gold or Rose Gold

Crystal: Acrylic w/ Cyclops Magnification Lens

Movement: Caliber 1565 or Caliber 1575

Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet or Jubilee Bracelet

Rolex Date

An all-gold Rolex has become an internationally recognized symbol of wealth and success; however an 18k Day-Date President can hardly be considered any sort of  “entry point” into vintage Rolex collecting. For those who want an all-gold Rolex, but who would also like something a little more budget friendly to start out their collection, the reference 1503 Date is an excellent option that checks all the boxes with an unmistakably vintage look and feel.

Unlike the 36mm Day-Date that is made entirely from 18k gold, the reference 1503 Date has a case diameter of 34 mm and is instead crafted from solid 14k gold. Internally, the reference 1503 relies on the same caliber 1565 or cal. 1575 movements that Rolex used to power its Datejust watches from the same era, despite the 2mm difference in external case dimensions.

With a fluted gold bezel and a Cyclops magnification lens on the surface of its acrylic crystal, the reference 1503 has the unmistakable appearance of the classic gold Rolex watch. Despite their solid gold construction and accompanying 14k Oyster or Jubilee bracelets, reference 1503 watches can often be found for under the five-figure price point, and are an excellent and more affordable alternative for individuals who want an solid gold watch to add to their vintage Rolex collection.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Reference 1002

Vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual 1002

Rolex Oyster Perpetual 1002 Key Features:

Case Diameter: 34mm

Materials: Stainless Steel, Stainless Steel & Gold; Solid Gold

Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds

Dial: Multiple Options Available

Bezel: Fixed, Smooth Style, Stainless Steel or Yellow Gold

Crystal: Acrylic

Movement: Caliber 1560 or Caliber 1570

Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet or Jubilee Bracelet

Rolex Oyster Perpetual

Like the Air-King, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002 is powered by a time-only movement and focuses on minimalist styling with a similar 34mm case and smooth bezel. However, while the Air-King is not chronometer-rated, the Oyster Perpetual is – a fact that is displayed on the dial with the text “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified.” The reference 1002 was produced during the 1950s and 1960s and is every bit the quintessential vintage Rolex, complete with an acrylic crystal over the dial and an older-style case and bracelet. As with every Rolex ever produced, the Oyster Perpetual was built to last generations and is always a smart investment.

During the ref. 1002’s early production, the watch was powered by the caliber 1560 movement that beats at a rate of 18,000bph. It was replaced in the mid-1960s by the caliber 1570 with a higher frequency of 19,800bph. The caliber 1560 offers a 42-hour power reserve, while its successor, the caliber 1570 boasts a 48-hour power reserve. In addition to receiving a longer power reserve and higher frequency, Rolex also equipped the cal. 1570 with hacking seconds, a feature that allows the wearer to stop the seconds hand by pulling out the crown.

Before 1957, Rolex outsourced production of its movements. The 15xx generation of calibers was among the very first developed and produced entirely in-house and they represent some of the most reliable movements made during that time. Celebrated for both for their accuracy and reliability, cal. 15xx movements can be found inside countless vintage Rolex watches from the era, and these models are still running strong to this day.

Rolex produced several variations of the reference 1002 Oyster Perpetual, including stainless steel, yellow gold, and two-tone models. Silver and champagne are the most common dial variants, although other colors are also available on the secondary market. The dial features either straight hands or tapered hands and examples are most commonly found with traditional stick-shaped applied indices.

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2 Responses to “The Best Watches to Start a Vintage Rolex Collection”

  1. Mat Primavori says:

    Hello, I found the above articles very interesting, in particular re the Air King line that was created in 1958. Was 1958 the introduction of the first Air King with a perpetual movement? The reason I ask is because I have a s/s Rolex Oyster Air King Precision , small seconds with a manual wind , 10 1/2 hunter movement, with an original dial which reads Rolex Oyster Air-King, having a bubbleback style crown. The inside back case reference is 4365 . My guess is that my watch is from the late 1940’s or early 1950’S. So is there a possibility the Air King was introduced prior to 1958 as a manual wind? Or would the Air King I have is a watch that was introduced much earlier, and production stopped, but later re introduced with a perpetual movement? I can forward pictures if you want,which I have. I may also be able to provide any additional information, once I remove it from my safe deposit box. Any additional information you can share about this early version of my Rolex Air King, would be most appreciated. Thank you, Mat Primavori

    • Paul Altieri says:

      Hi Mat,
      You are absolutely correct – the Rolex Air-King was officially introduced as its own collection in 1958 with the reference 5500; however, the “Air-King” name actually dates back to the 1940s in Rolex’s catalog. Right after the war, Rolex released a number of different watches with various “Air” names (Air-Lion, Air-King, etc.) – these were typically manually wound and fit the description of the model that you have.
      Most of these models were rather short-lived, but the Air-King name stuck around and formally made an appearance as its own watch line with a self-winding movement in 1958, making the start of the Rolex Air-King as we know it today. What you likely have is one of the original Rolex Air-King watches that pre-date the point in history when the Air-King became its own line of Rolex watches.

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