From Air King to Z

The Complete Rolex Buying Guide: Every Current Model Explained


January 31, 2019 Buying Guides By Photo by Rolex

Deciphering the nuances that distinguish, say, a 1970 Rolex Submariner from a 1980 version can require the sharp eye of a forensic analyst and the patience of a research librarian. Indeed, Rolex experts tend toward detailed taxonomies of minuscule modifications, and Rolex does indeed introduce these incremental annual updates to the point where many modifications seem more mythical than material. People new to Rolex face mountains of such information, and that can make getting to know the brand intimidating and confusing.

If we drop the year-to-year analysis, however, and stick to the current offerings, the Rolex catalog is actually quite easy to understand. Rolex makes relatively uncomplicated movements, formulates five case alloys, offers five types of bracelet, two types of clasp, a handful of bezels, some dial variations, and with just these components the Crown builds out its entire catalog. Get a loose grip on the basic building blocks, and the entire Rolex oeuvre becomes surprisingly simple to navigate.

Model or reference numbers within a particular series of watch (Submariners, say) tend to follow an evolutionary scheme (to wit: the modern Rolex GMT Master II with Pepsi bezel is the 126710BLRO, which sounds like a mouthful — but when you realize that the ref. 16710 was the last generation of the “Pepsi” bezel-quipped GMT Master II that Rolex produced before the current one came out, you can see how one reference number evolved into the next one).

Rolex Terminology

Oyster: This is the name that Rolex’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, gave to the earliest waterproof watches from the 1920s. “Oyster” remains the essential metaphor for Rolex, and it shows up in a number of phrases, model names, and neologisms.
Cyclops: Patented by Rolex in the early 1950s, this is a magnifying device that makes the date appear larger. Originally part of the crystal on early plexiglass models, the Cyclops later became an added piece of glass on sapphire crystal-equipped models that was glued to the main crystal.
Helium Escape Valve (HEV): Originally co-developed by Rolex and Doxa, this is a small, spring-loaded one-way valve that is integrated into a watch case and allows helium and others gasses to escape the watch as a SCUBA diver ascends following a dive to great depths. Originally developed for commercial saturation divers who found that the crystals on their watches were popping off in decompression chambers as the pressure within the watch equalized to that of the outer environment.

The 9 Basic Rolex Materials

Rolex formulates and produces most of its materials in-house. Discounting a number of esoteric materials used specifically in Rolex movements, nearly all Rolex watches are made from just nine materials.
Oystersteel: As part of the 904L family of steel, Oystersteel can achieve the corrosion resistance and high polish of precious metals.
Everose Gold 18k: By adding copper and silver to its formula, Rolex achieves its uniquely warm rose gold.
Yellow Gold 18k: This alloy is proprietary, trusted, and has an iconic hue.
White Gold 18k: Rolex’s white gold seems to radiate light.
Platinum: Rolex uses 950 platinum exclusively (and sparingly). 950 is a high-concentration alloy that includes ruthenium for strength and shine.
Rolesor: Not really its own metal, this is a name Rolex gives to its patented method of combining Oystersteel and gold in its many two-tone models.
Cerachrom: Rolex’s proprietary ceramic is scratch-proof, impervious to UV rays, and is the current standard for the bezel inserts on Rolex’s sport watches.
Precious Stones: Name it, and Rolex has likely mounted it to a watch, but diamonds are most common.
Chromalight: Rolex’s lume. Blue by night, bright white by day.

The 2 Rolex Clasps

Crownclasp/Crownlock: The dressy and sophisticated bracelet-locking mechanism that virtually disappears once secured.

Oysterclasp/Oysterlock: This is what Rolex calls its most popular and most secure deployant clasp. In includes a secondary locking mechanism that folds over the main clasp.

The 2 Rolex Clasp Expanders

Easylink: This simple mechanism allow you to expand a bracelet by 5mm, handy when swelling occurs on an airplane or, perhaps, after a big meal.

Glidelock: Rolex’s patented bracelet extension mechanism that allows for up to 20mm of adjustment in 2mm increments for use over wet suits.

The 6 Rolex Bracelets

Jubilee Bracelet: The refined five-piece links make for a dressy look, but the Jubilee remains a staple of Rolex sport watches, too. Offered in the various metals plus the three Rolesor combinations, the Jubilee can be fitted with either an Oysterlock or a Crownlock clasp.

Oyster Bracelet: The larger three-piece links make for a simpler, sportier look. Oyster bracelets only ship with Oysterlock clasps.

President Bracelet: Less common, the President uses elegantly rounded three-piece links and only comes with a Crownlock clasp.

Pearlmaster Bracelet: The refined five-piece links make the Pearlmaster Rolex’s most elegant bracelet. Crownlock clasp only.

The Rolex Leather Bracelet: Offered in a variety of colors and hides, Rolex’s in-house leather straps are fitted with Oysterlock clasps or a simple pin buckle.

Oysterflex Rubber Bracelet: Few rubber straps will blow your mind, but the Oysterflex just might. The attention to detail and innovative design add up to suppleness, comfort, and style. Oysterflex bracelets are fitted with Oysterlock clasps.

The 6 Rolex Bezels

Plain Bezels: As basic as you’ll find on a Rolex, plain bezels can be had on a number of models in steel and in precious metals.
Fluted Precious Metal Bezels: Iconic and hard to miss, today’s fluted bezels are offered in precious metals only.
Engraved Fixed Bezels: Found only on the Explorer II and the Daytona Cosmograph, demarcations are engraved into either Oystersteel, a precious metal, or Ceracrom.
Rotating Bezels with Inserts: The classic for the Professional watches, scratch-proof Ceracrom inserts are the norm.
Rotating Precious Metal Bezels: Exclusive to the Yachtmasters, these deeply engraved bezels achieve a compelling balance of sportiness and elegance.
Bejeweled Bezels: Rolex has encrusted just about every bezel with precious stones at some point.

The 5 Essential Modern Rolex Movements

You can pretty much get by knowing only about Rolex’s 3000-series auto-winding mechanical movements and a few smaller 2000-series versions. Beyond that, we’re really only talking about the Sky-Dweller’s Ref. 9001 and the Daytona’s Ref. 4130.

3255: Introduced in 2015, the core technologies of the 3255 will likely soon be the basis for a majority of Rolex’s movements. Rolex claims that the 3255 handily doubles the accuracy of +6/-4 secs/day set out by Switzerland’s official accuracy testing program, COSC.

3135: Only incrementally changed since 1988, the 3135 still forms the basis of most modern Rolex movements. It includes an instantaneous date change at midnight, a classic Rolex feature. The 3135 is the basis for many variations.
3155 — day-date complication
3130 — no date
3131 — no date, with anti-magnetic shield
3132 — no date, with Paraflex anti-shock system
2235 — smaller with date (2236 gets an updated hairspring)
2230 — smaller without date

3186: Rolex’s 24-hour GMT movement (the 3187 picks up the Paraflex anti-shock system).

9001: Rolex’s most complicated movement with two time zones and an annual calendar (Sky-Dweller only)

4130: No-date chronograph movement (Daytona only)

The 3 Modern Rolex Watch Categories

Oyster Perpetual Professional (7 models): Rolex’s most robust, purpose-driven sport watches.
Oyster Perpetual Classic (6 models): Dressy yet sporty, always waterproof, always classic.
Cellini (4 models): Traditional, sometimes complicated, moderately waterproof.

Buying Guide: The 8 Rolex Professional Models

Cosmograph Daytona

Get on the waiting list or rush and get gouged on the used market, Rolex makes too few Daytonas to satisfy what seems to be an endless demand. Paul Newman’s vintage model remains the most expensive watch ever sold at auction in North America.

Case Size: 40mm

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 4130 with a-magnetic Parachrom hairpsring and vertical clutch

Movement Features: 3 sub-dials show running seconds, 30-minute and 12-hour totalizers

Bezel Type: Fixed bezel with tachometer scale

Bracelet Type: Oyster or Oysterflex bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: $12,400 (Oystersteel — available with many precious metal versions at higher prices)

Read our history of the Rolex Daytona here.

Sea-Dweller

Rolex’s largest watch, the Sea-Dweller sports skull-crushing underwater capability. Always striving toward the ultimate in Oysterness, Rolex also makes the Deep Sea version, which went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench with James Cameron.

Case Size: 43mm (Deep Sea: 44mm) only available in Oystersteel

Water Resistance: 1,220 meters / 4,000 feet (Deep Sea: 3,900 meters/12,800 feet)

Movement: 3135

Movement Features: Quick-change date with cyclops magnifier

Bezel Type: Unidirectional rotating 60-minute dive bezel with Ceracrom insert

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp and Glidelock extension mechanism

Base MSRP: $11,350 (Deep Sea: $12,550)

Check out our brief on the ref. 126600 Sea Dweller here.

Submariner

The granddaddy of all dive watches, the Submariner may be the single most iconic wristwatch the world has ever known.

Case Size: 40mm

Water Resistance: 300 meters/1,000 feet

Movement: 3135 for date models; 3130 for no-date

Bezel Type: Unidirectional rotating 60-minute dive bezel with Ceracrom insert

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp and Glidelock extension mechanism

Base MSRP: $7,500 in Oystersteel without date (available in many configurations)

Check out the history of the Rolex military Submariner here.

GMT Master II

Rolex’s pilots watch exudes the confidence and ruggedness of a world traveler. Famous for nicknames involving soda, like Pepsi (red and blue bezel), Coke, (red and black), and Rootbeer (two different gold/brown tones).

Case Size: 40mm

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 3186

Movement Features: 24-hour hand and date complication

Bezel Type: Bidirectional rotating 24-hour bezel for tracking multiple timezones

Bracelet Type: Oyster or Jubilee Bracelet

Base MSRP: $9,250 in Oystersteel (available in many configurations)

The Rolex GMT Master II 126710BLRO was one of our favorite watches of 2018.

Explorer

When Sir Edmund Hillary’s team took some Rolex Oysters up Mt. Everest in 1953, Hans Wilsdorf was quick to capitalize on the achievement and rebranded an Oyster with numerals at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock as the Explorer. Simple, rugged, legible, and ready to seek out the corners of the world, the Explorer remains a staple of the Rolex catalog.

Case Size: 39mm case in Oystersteel

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 3132

Movement Features: No date and robust anti-shock system

Bezel Type: Fixed

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp and Easylink expander

Base MSRP: $6,550 (only one version available)

Explorer II

The Explorer II, which was developed for spelunkers and other adventurers who might need to tell the time in an always-dark environment, is larger than its older brother, and it incorporates a 24-hour GMT function with fixed 24-hour bezel. Another shining example of a tool watch developed for a very specific, niche purpose to do one job very, very well.

Case Size: 42mm Oystersteel

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 3187

Movement Features: 24-hour GMT function and Paraflex anti-shock system

Bezel Type: Fixed 24-hour bezel

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: Base MSRP: $8,100

Read our history of the Rolex Explorer II here.

Milgauss

A lightening-bolt shaped orange seconds hand indicates that the Milgaus can withstand electromagnetism in extreme situations like, say, when one is working around a particle accelerator or an electric plant (its original intended purpose when the line debuted in the 1950s). Currently fitted with green tinted crystals, the Milgauss is, at least aesthetically, perhaps Rolex’s most playful watch.

Case Size: 40mm Oystersteel

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 3131

Movement Features: no-date with anti-magnetic shield

Bezel Type: Fixed steel

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: $8,200 (chose either blue or black dial)

Read our introduction to antimagnetic watches here.

Air-King

The Air-King was marketed after WWII as an aviation watch because so many WWII pilots bought themselves a Rolex Oyster for the superior (read: lifesaving) legibility and accuracy. Today’s Air-King sports a divisive dial in two senses of the word: (1) it divides its markers between hours and minutes, and (2) Rolex aficionados tend to argue divisively about that dial.

Case Size: 40mm Oystersteel

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 3131

Movement Features: No-date with anti-magnetic shield

Bezel Type: Fixed steel

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: $6,200

Read our story on branded Rolex Air Kings here.

Yacht-Master

The Yacht-Master would be a dive watch if it’s bezel only turned in one direction, but this bezel turns both ways for quick alignments with starting guns and buoy passes aboard huge racing boats that are, on a good day, passing within inches of each other while heeled over and crashing through ocean swells.

Case Size: 37mm or 40mm in a variety of metals

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 2236 in 37mm; 3135 movement in 40mm

Movement Features: Time; date complication

Bezel Type: Bidirectional 60-minute timing bezel made from precious metal

Bracelet Type: Various bracelets available

Base MSRP: $11,050 (37mm); $11,550 (40mm)

Yachtmaster II

When racing sailboats, all boats stay behind the starting line jockeying for position, and they all try to cross the the line moment the race starts. When you hear a gun go off, someone on board better start a 10-minute count down, because that’s exactly when your boat will be allowed to cross the line. The Yachtmaster II is all about that crucial 10 minutes. Cleverly, the countdown chronograph is programmed by rotating the bezel and crown.

Case Size: 44mm in various metals

Water Resistance: 100 meters / 330 feet

Movement: 4161

Movement Features: Regatta chronograph with countdown timer

Bezel Type: Rotating bezel programs the timer, available in Ceracrom or precious metal

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: $18,750 (available in various metals)

Read our story on the Rolex Yacht Master II in Portugal here here.

Buying Guide: The 6 Rolex Oyster Classic Models

Oyster Perpetual

Rolex’s most basic watch is also the direct descendant of the original Oyster watches that put Rolex on the world’s stage. These three-hand, time-only watches are as classy as they are sporty.

Case Size: Oystersteel in 26mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm, and 39mm

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 2231 (26mm and 31mm models); 3130 (34mm and 36mm models); 3132 movement (39mm model)

Movement Features: Time-only

Bezel Type: Fixed steel

Bracelet Type: Oyster bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: $4,850 to $5,700 (price increases with size)

Read our coverage of the Oyster Perpetual here.

Datejust

Like most Rolex names, the Datejust is a cute neologism, this one shorthand for “the DATE changes JUST before midnight.” And that’s what it does, rather than taking hours to change like most date wheels. The Datejust might be the quintessential Rolex dress watch, but it has the same adventure-ready technology found in the Oyster Perpetual.

Case Size: (28mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm, 41mm) available in various metals

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 2236 (28mm model and 31mm model); 3135 (34mm model); 3235 movement (36mm model and 41mm model)

Movement Features: Date complication

Dial: Vary widely, and one can configure one’s own Datejust online

Bezel Type: Options vary from smooth steel to classic fluted style to diamond-encrusted

Bracelet Type: Various bracelets available

Base MSRP: $6,300+

Day-Date

Add the day of the week to a Datejust and you’ve got the Day-Date. Generally offered in fancier configurations than the Datejust, the Day-Date is sometimes called the President because so many world leaders wore them (though there is typically a specific bracelet type associated with a “President”). Note that the 40mm version is the only one sporting Rolex’s newest movement, the Cal. 3255.

Case Size: 36mm and 40mm available only in 18k gold and platinum

Water Resistance: 100 meters/330 feet

Movement: 3155 (36mm model); 3255 (40mm model)

Movement Features: Day and date complications

Bezel Type: Smooth, fluted, or bejeweled bezels

Bracelet Type: Various bracelets available

Base MSRP: Starting at $23,550 for a 36mm model on leather

Pearlmaster

These are Datejusts with a ton of jewels on them. Prices are typically outrageous, and the look can be, too. Rolex is an ethical purveyor of precious stones, meticulous in selecting them, and their stone-setters are considered some of the best in business.

Case Size: 34mm and 39mm (in precious metals only)

Water Resistance: 100m/330 feet

Movement: 2235 (34mm model); 3235 (39mm model)

Movement Features: Date complication

Bezel Type: Various, with precious stones

Bracelet Type: Pearlmaster bracelet

Base MSRP: $36,100

Sky-Dweller

Novelist Gary Shteyngart wrote in The New Yorker that, “If you want a watch that looks like a Russian oligarch just curled up around your wrist and died, you might be interested in the latest model of Rolex’s Sky-Dweller.” Rolex’s most complicated watch, the Sky-Dweller uses a non-concentric 24-hour GMT disc to indicate a second time zone, and the annual calendar cleverly uses the 12 hour markers to indicate the month. Surprisingly, the Sky-Dweller is not all that expensive (relatively speaking, of course).

Case Size: 42mm, available in Oystersteel with gold bezel or in all gold

Water Resistance: 100m/330 feet

Movement: 9001

Movement Features: Second time zone with GMT disc; annual calendar

Bezel Type: Fluted gold

Bracelet Type: Oyster or leather bracelet with Oysterlock clasp

Base MSRP: $14,400

Read our brief on the Sky Dweller here.

The Cellini Collection

Though Rolex is notable for being a maker of hard-wearing tool watches, they also have a dress watch line, called Cellini. As Rolex puts it in their catalog, the Cellini Collection uses “sober and refined lines, noble materials, quality finishings: every detail respects the codes of the art of watchmaking.” Notably, Barack Obama wears one.

Case Size: 39mm in precious metals

Water Resistance: 50 meters/165 feet

Movement: 3132 (time-only); 3165 (date); 3180 (dual-time); 3195 (moon phase)

Movement Features: Time-only; date; dual-time; moon phase

Bezel Type: Various (fluted; precious stones)

Bracelet Type: Leather bracelet with traditional pin-buckle

Base MSRP: $15,200

Read our brief on the Rolex Cellini Moon Phase here.

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