For many loyal Rolex fans, one particular model stands above the rest in its superlative construction and design: the elusive and highly sought-after Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. This is the white whale of Rolex watches, with authorized dealers around the world keeping lengthy waiting lists of prospective buyers.
The story of its origins is rather complex. While an official timeline given by Rolex puts the collection’s year of release at 1963, it would be another few years before it officially took on the name of California’s famed racing track.
But before we go on, perhaps we should begin our foray into the history of this legendary chronograph by first providing a brief explanation of the word “Cosmograph.” This label first appeared on the dials of Rolex chronographs in 1956 as part of a campaign for a “new generation” of timepieces fashioned with the brand’s iconic oyster cases.
Up until the 1980s, the designation would also be used for other models, including a rare moonphase line.
In 1963, Rolex launched a Cosmograph referenced 6239 and named Rolex Le Mans Chronograph after a sports car endurance race in France. Powered by the Valjoux 72 movement, it featured a tachymeter scale on its bezel, allowing the wearer to measure elapsed time over a given distance, as well as three subdials located at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. Today, any piece released prior to this series is referred to as a “Pre-Daytona.”
That same year, the very same reference – 6239 – was used as a commemorative piece to celebrate Rolex’s new role as official timekeeper for the Daytona International Speedway. In the US, it was known as part of a series nicknamed “Daytona,” but that wasn’t yet an official moniker.
Still, this was enough to render the Rolex Le Mans Chronograph all but forgotten and in 1965 the brand came out with an advertisement for the 6239 Cosmograph, referring to it as a Rolex Daytona Chronograph. Not all pieces from collection, however, bore the now-iconic “Daytona” designation located above the 6 o’clock subdial; many were simply etched with “Rolex Cosmograph” beneath the iconic crown logo.
This continued through the remainder of the swinging ’60s and early ’70s as Rolex released five more so-called Daytona lines that weren’t always consistent with their labeling (as seen in the photo below): 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264 and 6265. Some were slightly larger in size (6263 and 6265) and some came equipped with pump pushers instead of water resistant screw-down pushers.
Along with the 6239, these would later garner their own nickname: the Rolex Paul Newman Daytona.
The Accidental Icon
According to modern watchmaking lore, sharp-eyed fans spotted the legendary “Cool Hand Luke” actor wearing a 6239 Cosmograph on an Italian magazine cover in the early 1980s. A sports car enthusiast and prize-winning racer himself, Newman also happened to be a fan of the watch and was said to have owned several models, including a Daytona Zenith.
Of course, “Paul Newman Daytona” was never declared an official moniker, but the term spread like wildfire amongst Rolex aficionados and is still used today to refer to a very specific type of dial on these references. Though there are several, very precise methods of recognizing a Paul Newman “exotic” dial, these two design characteristics are the easiest to spot: contrasting colours between the dial and subdials; and a seconds track placed an outer ring that must be the same colour as the subdials.
These pieces, which once retailed for about $200 and could remain on boutique shelves for months before being sold, today boast a minimum asking price of $100,000, according to Hodinkee watch blog. The most expensive Paul Newman Daytona ever sold was auctioned off for a whopping $1.1 million at Christie’s auction house in 2013. Two years later, a non-Paul Newman 6263 that once belonged to singer Eric Clapton went under the hammer for $1.4m.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, several more iterations of the Daytona were released boasting improved movements. Rolex became a bit more adventurous in their designs, experimenting with materials and choosing colour schemes that at times bordered on flashy – such as gold dials on 18-karat gold cases. But it was the launch of the El Primero line (reference 16520) in 1988 that truly pushed the Daytona into a whole new horological stratosphere, officially cementing its superstar status.
Powered by a hybrid movement built around the very rare Zenith Calibre 4030, this self-winding piece had a much larger case of 40mm and was one of the first to use a sturdier sapphire crystal instead of acrylic. It also came at the tail-end of watchmaking’s so-called Quartz Crisis, when Japan’s quartz technology had lost its nuance and collectors were once again on the look-out for superlative mechanical watches. Demand for this new “Zenith Daytona” surged to the point that authorized dealers worldwide began to keep waiting lists of potential buyers and pieces sold on the grey market (pre-loved) nearly doubled in price.
It’s nearly three decades later and not much has changed. This astonishing trend of demand far outweighing supply is still seen today – perhaps even more so now that the Daytona comes equipped with a 100% Rolex movement. Its most recent iteration, reference 116500 LN, was unveiled at luxury watch and jewellery show Baselworld 2016 with the in-house calibre 4130 movement and a monobloc Cerachrom bezel. Flooded with orders of “the watch Rolex lovers have been waiting for,” authorized dealers are predicting to see waiting lists that could extend up to five years, according to The New York Times.
To horology fans familiar with Rolex, this almost child-like excitement for a new Daytona was not unexpected. But why – in this digital age of smartphones and smartwatches – is there still such a frenzy surrounding a mechanical timepiece that came out more than 50 years ago? As watch blog Hodinkee succinctly explains: “Rolex produces icons, and the Daytona is arguably the icon in a family of nothing but icons.”