A Mid-Century Icon

Everything You Need to Know to Buy a Rolex Datejust


September 5, 2019 Watches By Photo by Rolex; HQ Milton

A Mid-Century Modern Classic

Like the Fender Stratocaster and the Porsche 911, the Rolex Datejust was so elegantly conceived and executed during the mid-20th Century that it has remained in production to this day, more or less in its original form. And like the Strat and the 911, the Datejust has undergone development as new ideas, materials, and technologies emerged, but the basic design has been remarkably stable. These companies knew not to mess too much with a classic.

The Fender Stratocaster, the Porsche 911, and the Rolex Datejust remain largely the same product they were when introduced in the middle of the 20th Century, incorporating modern technology over the years without abandoning the basic form and incredible vibe of the original designs.

And, yes, the notion that the Rolex Datejust is the Strat or the 911 of watches is exactly the point. The Datejust has been a brand icon for Rolex ever since it came out in 1945, and today — just like the Strat and 911 — the Datejust looks so current, so fresh, that it’s easy to forget that these watches were initially designed over 70 years ago.

1945-1953: The 4xxx Series Datejust

Since the 1920s, decades before the Datejust, Rolex had been successfully selling their Oyster Perpetual watches; “Oyster” because the watches were watertight like an oyster, and “Perpetual” because they automatically wound themselves, thus seeming to run perpetually.

To celebrate the firm’s 40th Anniversary in 1945, Rolex produced reference 4467, an Oyster Perpetual with a date complication, and they called it The Datejust. The Datejust was the very first waterproof, automatic wristwatch to incorporate a date window, and this mechanism changed dates very close to midnight (unlike most date complications which take hours to change over).

The original Datejust 4467 from 1945 possess nearly all the earmarks of the modern version. The most conspicuously missing feature is the cyclops date magnifier that would become a telltail of the Rolex brand in 1953. The very first Datejust was released to help commemorate Rolex’s 40th anniversary.

We’ve heard two versions of where the name ‘Datejust’ comes from: that the date changes just before midnight, and that the date is always “just”, as in correctly displayed. Either story makes sense.

The 1945 Datejust was also the first Rolex to include the now famous five-link Jubilee bracelet, thusly named because Rolex was celebrating its 40th anniversary.

For about a decade, Rolex continued to produce the Datejust with their Caliber 7xx movements. The shape of these movements required the rear case to bulge out, much like many other Rolex models of the era, and these watches are affectionately called “bubblebacks.” Collectors should be warned that Rolex no longer produces parts for, nor services, Datejusts from this era. Engaging a third party watchmaker who specializes in maintaining bubblebacks can be costly.

The Early Datejust at a Glance
-“Waterproof”
-Automatic-winding movement, with date changing close to midnight; no quickset date
-Delicately fluted bezel
-Jubilee bracelet
-7xx Series movements (no longer serviced by Rolex, parts hard to get)
-“Bubbleback” case
-Yellow gold only
-“Pie pan” dial (slopes down at the outer edge)
-36mm

1954-5: The Birth of the 6xxx Series Datejust

In 1954, the word “Datejust” began to appear on the dial. The updated movement switched the date exactly at midnight, rather than just before. Also in 1954, Rolex began introducing the “cyclops” magnifying lens to the Datejust (it was invented in 1953), and by 1955 Rolex included chunkier fluting on the bezel. The name on the dial, the cyclops, and the new bezel style combined to turn the Datejust into Rolex’s most potent icon.

This Datejust Reference 6305 from 1955 includes “Datejust” on the dial, a more boldly fluted bezel, cyclops date magnification lens, and a waffle dial. Image courtesy of HQ Milton.

The 6xxx Series Datejusts at a Glance
-“Waterproof”
-Automatic-winding movement, with date changing instantaneously at midnight
-Boldly fluted bezel
-Jubilee bracelet
-7xx Series movements (no longer serviced by Rolex)
-“Bubbleback” case
-“Datejust” printed on dial
-Cyclops date magnifier
-Case metals include yellow gold, white gold, and two-tone Rolesor (steel + gold)
-“Pie pan” dial (slopes down at the outer edge)
-36mm

1957: Rolex Begins to Phase Out the Bubble Back

Around 1957, Rolex began outfitting Datejusts with the short-lived Caliber 1065 movement. This unit used a newly designed rotor that allowed the case back to be flat, thus bringing the bubbleback era to an end. It wasn’t a hugely significant change in 1957, but for today’s collectors the Caliber 1065 movement indicates an important line in Datejust history because service and parts are far more accessible today than they are for bubblebacks.

The Caliber 1065 movement inside a 1958 Datejust Reference 6605. For today’s collectors, this movement marks the starting point for easier service and parts sourcing.

1958: The 160x Series

Around 1958, Rolex began to introduce the Caliber 1560 movement, and by 1960 the Datejust had shifted wholly to this movement to become the 160x Series, which would endure until 1979. Around 1966, Rolex began introducing Caliber 1570, which beat at a slightly higher frequency, but the updated movement didn’t change the Datejust line in any essential way until around 1972, when the movement incorporated a hacking function that stopped the second’s hand while setting the time, allowing for accurate synchronization with a reference time source.

Other key features that started to appear around this time were the stick hands and stick markers (these would vary slightly over the years, but have endured). With these features, the Datejust took on the familiar appearance that has served as the aesthetic template for Datejusts ever since.

Understanding the reference numbers for the 160x series Datejusts is quite simple: a 1600 will sport a smooth bezel; 1601 a fluted gold bezel; 1603 a stainless steel “engine turned” bezel (the latter features very fine radial etchings). What isn’t simple is that Rolex offered a wide range of metals for the case and bezel (from all steel to solid yellow, rose, and white gold, to tow-tone), and the dial colors and patterns were even more varied. In other words, Rolex riffed prolifically with the 160x series.

The author’s personal 1603 Datejust from 1972 sports an “engine turned” stainless steel bezel, a “pie-pan” dial (sloped down at the edges) and is 36mm. Being a 1972 model, the 1570 movement hacks. The long lugs assure that it wears like a modern watch. Photo: Allen Farmelo.

The 160X Series Datejusts at a Glance
-“Waterproof”
-Caliber 1560 or 1570 movements, automatic winding, instantaneous date change at midnight, no quickset date, hacking (1972 forward)
-Boldly fluted gold bezels, or “engine turned” stainless steel bezels
-Jubilee bracelet (5-link style), or Oyster bracelet (3-link style)
-Flat case back
-“Datejust” printed on dial
-Case metals include yellow gold, white gold, two-tone Rolesor (steel + gold), and steel only models
-“Pie pan” dial (slopes down at the outer edge)
-36mm

1977: The Oyster Quartz Datejust

Datejusts with quartz movements existed in a kind of parallel universe that lasted for around 25 years. Rolex began developing the in-house Oyster Quartz Caliber 5035 movement around 1972, releasing the first Oyster Quartz Datejusts in 1977. Certainly not Rolex’s most popular technology among today’s collectors, the OysterQuartz Datejusts are still serviceable, provide dead-accurate timekeeping, and — at least among watch collectors — can be interesting conversation pieces. They also have angular lugs with a distinct 1970s vibe. Reference numbers are 17xxx.

With its faceted lugs and bracelet, this 1977 OysterQuartz epitomizes the 17xxx Series Datejust.

1979-1988: The 160xx Series Datejust with Quickset, Smooth Sweep, and a Flat Dial

Around 1979, Rolex began installing the Caliber 3035 mechanical movement into the Datejust, setting off a run that lasted until 1988. A quickset function for the date was a big improvement. Quickset dates are so common today that it may be difficult to appreciate how significant this feature was at the time; anyone requiring proof only need set the date on a watch without quickset, a seemingly endless endeavor.

The Caliber 3035 beats 28,000 times per hour, which equates to eight ticks per second. This rate has since become the industry standard for mechanical watches, and it produces the almost-smooth sweep of the seconds hand that, for some time, was one way to identify a genuine Rolex.

Aesthetically, the only significant change was that Datejust dials were now completely flat. The long-standing pie-pan dials have yet to return to the Datejust.

At a glance, this 1985 Datejust 16013 would be difficult to distinguish from the previous 160x series until you witnessed the seconds hand making its smooth 8-ticks per second sweep around the dial. The two other indications would be that you could quickly set the date without changing the time, and the flat dial.

1979-88 16xxx Series Datejusts at a Glance
-“Waterproof”
-Caliber 3135 movements, automatic winding, instantaneous date change at midnight, quickset date, hacking
-Boldly fluted gold bezels, or “engine turned” stainless steel bezels
-Jubilee bracelet (5-link style), or Oyster bracelet (3-link style)
-Flat case back
-“Datejust” printed on dial
-Case metals include yellow gold, white gold, two-tone Rolesor (steel + gold), and all steel models
-Dial is flat to the edges (the “pie pan” dial was phased out)
-36mm

1988 — Present: The Modern Datejust

In 1988, Rolex introduced the Caliber 3235 to the 36mm Datejust, and this movement currently powers both the 36mm and the 41mm Datejusts. This movement is now loaded with proprietary amagnetic materials and lubricants, and, due to these improvements, currently outperforms the COSC Certification standard. The 41mm Datejust came out in 2016 in gold, and in 2017 Rolex brought out the first steel versions.

Rolex has nudged the aesthetics of the Datejust forward every so slightly since 1988, but these changes are hardly worth mentioning because the design has been so stable for so long. Gone are the “engine turned” steel bezels; you’ll have to go for a smooth bezel if you’d like a steel Datejust. The watches are simply more accurate and more durable versions of one of the most stable designs in watchmaking.

The current Rolex Datejust is available in a wide range of configurations, Above is a 36mm Rolesor rose gold and steel with a diamond-set Roman numeral dial.

About the Turn-O-Graph (a.k.a. “Thunderbird”) Datejust

In 1953, Rolex offered the first wristwatches with rotating timing bezels. One of them, dubbed the Turn-o-Graph, was issued by the U.S. Air Force, thus making these the first true Rolex tool watch as well as their first true military issue watch. Rolex marketed these watches to the US as “Thunderbirds,” named after the US Air Force squadron that used them, and before long they joined the Datejust family.

During the ‘oughts, Rolex brought the Turn-O-Graph back into the Datejust line, and these 36mm watches sold crisply to those seeking a perfect sport-dress balance. They’re not entirely hard to find — especially those later models — and they really do stand out.

A Turn-O-Graph Reference 116264 from 2004.
The Complete Rolex Buying Guide

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