Throughout the company’s incredibly long history, Rolex has made the transition from a high-end, tool watch manufacturer to an internationally regarded luxury icon. As the company evolved, so did the designs of its watches. While modern Rolex frequently use premium materials and follow a highly refined aesthetic, vintage Rolex watches often tend to have a little more purpose-built design. These few defining characteristics help separate them from their modern counterparts.
Vintage Rolex watches are amazing since they are highly collectible.
One of the most visually apparent differences between well-aged Rolex watches and modern ones is that the crystals on vintage timepieces are made from acrylic rather than synthetic sapphire like all of Rolex’s contemporary offerings. Acrylic is significantly softer than sapphire; however, it is more flexible and less likely to shatter into small pieces should it receive an impact. Additionally, since acrylic is slightly less transparent than sapphire, it brings with it a warm, distinctively vintage feel that is not present on modern watches.
A Gilt Dial Rolex Submariner Ref. 5512 with an acrylic crystal.
Aluminum Bezel Inserts
The bezel inserts fitted to Rolex sport watches that are manufactured today are made from a proprietary ceramic material that Rolex calls Cerachrom. However, this is a relatively recent development in Rolex’s history. For many decades, Rolex manufactured their bezel inserts out of aluminum, which would have the tendency to scratch and fade with regular use. Nearly every vintage Rolex sport watch with a rotating bezel will have an insert made from aluminum. The fading and typical wear can frequently be observed on them, which has become synonymous with vintage timepieces.
This GMT-Master ref 1675 with a gilt dial has an aluminum bezel.
One of the less obvious characteristics of many older Rolex watches are the holes that go completely through the lugs of the case. Unlike modern Rolex in which the springbar holes are only partially carved into the inner sides of the lugs, these holes are completely drilled through the lugs of many older Rolex watches. Drilled lugs allow for easier strap changes; however since they slightly disrupt the lines of the case, Rolex decided to discontinue them in favor of a more refined and streamlined design.
Rolex Anti-Magnetic Oyster Chronograph 5034 with drilled lugs.
One of the biggest reasons why people choose to collect vintage Rolex is because of the level of variation that exists among the different watches from decades past. In the earlier years of production, there was far less standardization and control present in the production process. As a result, a large number of subtle inconsistencies exist among otherwise identical watches. These minor differences come in varying degrees of rarity and can account for significant premiums in resale value. This further adds to the interest and excitement for collectors. For example, a rare Sea-Dweller 1665 can either be a Double Red Sea-Dweller or a Great White.
Stainless Steel Sea Dweller 1665 nicknamed the “Great White”