Rolex 1962, 6238 "Pre-Daytona" ©TMO 2020
Chances are, you’ve thought about getting a vintage watch at some point. Unfortunately, the world of vintage watch forums is fraught with stories and feeds of people either being swindled or not quite sure of what they have or what they are buying.
Nowadays, it’s a bit easier to do your homework with the internet in the palm of your hand, everyone can roll off “Did you knows…” about any given watch reference.
The difficult part is finding something actually worth buying. And unfortunately, it is an avenue of pleasure where a deal, or a steal, is a rarity.
If it’s cheap; its cheap for a reason…
In this article, I will go through a few things to consider if you are thinking of taking the plunge into the murky depths of vintage Rolex.
Condition is – in my book- far more important than box and papers on a watch 30 or more years old. It’s a plus, but by no means an essential. I'd much rather have a really good example with no paperwork or box than an ok one with a full set. Saying that... Double stamped dials with an AD’s logo, e.g Tiffany stamped Rolex, with no receipt or paperwork denoting the purchase or location is worth digging a little further for solid provenence through the dealer or original owner.
Rolex 1958, 6542 GMT Master with "Serpico y Laino" dealer stamp ©TMO 2020
Do they look like they are original to the watch? If its over 25 years old they are likely to have some tarnishing or oxidisation; As Rolex were using stainless steel handsets which reacted with the luminous material and began to oxidise up into the early 1980’s, when they began to introduce white gold handsets (and laterly indexes). As gold is fairly unreactive.
A good way of spotting this is also looking to see if the lume on the hands matches the dial -this isn’t fool proof as sometimes they can age and react at different rates- But if they are service or replacement parts, its possible they will glow where the plots on the dial have ceased to.
Rolex 1680 "white" submariner ©TMO 2020
Matte or gloss? Which should it be for the time period the watch is from? Some references do however have dial transitions where both can be found, 5513, 16800 etc. More importantly is knowing what the service dials look like, are the fonts and placement of text different? What is the person you are buying it from describing it as?
Another thing to look out for is dial condition, look for the presence of marks, cracks, water damage or spots to the dial.
Lume plots are a big one too, if it is a thick lume as on some 1016 Explorers for instance, check if any has fallen away, or is about to. Make sure the patina is consistent. Sometimes this can be faked or played with. I met a dealer recently who would use rolling tobacco to give the plots an aged look to make his pieces more attractive…
ROLEX 1958, 5510 "BIG CROWN" ©TMO 2020
Reluming can be (to the purist) a cardinal sin. It wouldn’t fuss me so much, if they were ever any good. As most of the time in looks like it has been done by an overenthusiastic bake-off fanatic, with no thumbs and a squint, wielding an icing gun… I mean there are some real shockers.
So, look for placement by comparision to other examples. For instance on many exotic dial Daytonas the lume plots (or blobs in their case) generally lip just over the chapter ring and are in between a circle and semi-circle in shape. Again this links back to matching the lume to the hands, if the lume on the dial looks whiter or newer than the hands may be a red flag as well.
Rolex 1972, 1655 Explorer II "Steve Mcqueen" ©TMO 2020
The Rolex coronet on the dial is often a useful clue to help determine what version of dial it is. As Rolex used several companies to print their dials; which all had their own idiosyncrasies and styles. For example the first 1655 Explorer II’s have an instantly recognisable coronet, fondly nicknamed the frog hand or paw. The font of Rolex is also in an earlier style being more rigid square typeface and with fewer serifs. The initial dials produced were made by Stern and later the service dials by Beyeler. (Both Dial makers for Rolex).
However, on this example we can see it has a mark 6 service dial made by Beyeler, with later Rolex font on the logo and a more modern coronet -which was the initial give away. The Bezel is also something to look at, again on this it is a Mk 5/service bezel which was presumably replaced during a service along with a number of other components including the orange “Freccione” hand. Which -to return to an earlier note on hands- has lost some of the paint on the stem of the orange hand, showing the white beneath.
Now we come to the case, which is generally the first thing we look at when examining a watch as of course we can be more tactile with it. With many Rolex sports models the chamfers or bevels on the lugs is a good place to start, being ground down and polished away in servicing takes away from the original factory finish which is so highly sought after.
Examining the width of the lugs at the ends can be a solid indicator of this, if they are uneven or don’t match each other, then they have probably been over polished to remove a dent or deep scratch. If they become quite sharp on the ends but still have chamfers then it’s possible a case polisher has tried to recreate the look of a crisp factory finish, this has been referred to as the “Bexley Bevel” after the Rolex Service centre in Bexley Heath.
This method of comparing the ends of the lug can be useful on other models which don’t feature chamfers or bevelling in the same way as Submariners or GMTs, for instance Daytonas or Day-Dates.
The case also includes the serial numbers generally between the lugs at six o'clock (or on much older models on the case back), always check the accepted serial range for anything you're looking to buy and if it comes with papers, make sure you check the case against the engraved serial... Seems obvious but not everyone does. The other side of the coin is punched papers are generally preferable as you can buy unprinted Rolex papers online and fill them out yourself, its not unheard of for a seller to do this, so as to sell as a full set.
Rolex 1680 "Red" Submariner ©TMO 2020
Bezels are an interesting one,
Given that they are generic and have no serials or anything to link it to that specific watch, many have invariably been changed around and swapped out. Whether it be a service bezel changed by Rolex due to damage or wear, or a seller finding a more attractive hue or patina to increase the value of their piece.
It’s good to do your homework on what the bezel should look like, i.e are the shapes and forms of the numerals correct to that reference?
How has it aged? And what has caused it to discolour in such as fashion? It’s good practise to go through auction catalogues online and look at similar pieces, comparing the serial numbers and common factors. For instance, when looking at GMT bezels which have turned half “magenta” or where a Sub bezel has begun to “Ghost”; Does the serial range match the other examples?
A good example - if a little more niche - are the bezels found on the 6542 GMT Master. Being the first of the beloved series released in 1953, Most dials at the time used Radium as the luminous substance on the indexes, however in this case Rolex decided to use Radium for the 24 hour track on the Bakelite bezel. This was later recalled and replaced with non radioactive bezel by Rolex following a small scandal. With these pieces, its rare to find one with an original and good condition bezel, (Bakelite was later scrapped as a bezel material as it was deemed to brittle). Many have been copied or faked and it has been known for prospective buyers to test bezels with a geiger counter to see if they are the original Radium, which should also still be luminous under a good UV torch unlike many Tritium dials which tend to fade after about 20 years.
Rolex 1959, 6542 GMT Master with Bakelite Radium bezel ©TMO 2020
Bracelets are another ball game, similar to bezels they are often swapped out or missing all together. There are generally three sets of codes on Rolex bracelets, first being the clasp code, which on older models will carry the year in the form of two digits and which quarter of the year they were produced as a single digit just above. The clasp may also specify where the bracelet was produced, for example Rolex had the bracelets for the American market produced in the US, and so carries “USA” as opposed to “Swiss Made” or Steel INOX”.
The bracelet itself will carry a code on the link before the end link, these specify the bracelet type, Oyster, Jubilee, stretch oyster rivet, folded oyster, etc. These are interchangeable with the clasp and end links and can often journey watch to watch.
The End Links are less often changed around but will fit other pieces in their “family” so to speak, this is based on matching lug width and depth. For each reference produced by Rolex you can find lists online detailing which clasp, bracelet or end link is appropriate to each watch and how they were retailed.
Rolex 6536/1 1957 with open caseback displaying 1030 movement ©TMO 2020
Last but certainly not least, the movement. If possible ask to have the case back opened, at previews they are often loosened so you can inspect them. If you're not overly confident you can ask one of the staff who will do it for you. Again this applies to the dealer you are buying from.
This is not so much to confirm that it is in fact a Rolex movement but when reference is equipped with an updated movement there is often a disparity in price between the variations an example would be the 16570 Explorer II where the movement was updated from the 3185 to the 3186, the 3186 had a smaller run while the reference was still in production so command a premium.
As I said previously these are just a few things to consider and this is by no means an exhaustive list but is worth thinking about each element and most importantly do your homework on what it is you're buying.
Words and images by Tom Heap