If you Google the most famous Rolex watch of all time, you will most likely be given one of two answers: the Submariner or the Daytona. Something tells me, however, that in a post pandemic world – where following watch Instagram accounts is de rigueur, and “speaking Rolex” has moved well beyond athletes and Wall St types – that the Daytona would safely claim the throne of watch infamy.
But how did this watch overtake 007s Submariner and become such a cultural icon? And icon is in no way an overstatement – the Daytona surpasses the millennial definition of “hype status” and sits comfortably in such acclaimed territory.
I spoke with longtime Rolex collector and founder of RollieFest Geoff Hess (who is kind of a big deal in the Rolex hemisphere). He listed certain criteria a watch must possess in order to attain icon status: “First off, the watch must be admired for excellence,” he says. “It must be widely known and instantly recognizable by a critical mass of collectors, there must be a memorable and easy to understand story which compliments the design, and the watch must be copied by other brands.”
The Daytona fits all of these criteria, “maybe more so than any other watch on the planet,” Hess attests.
We know Rolex reigns supreme when it comes to mass producing luxury watches, which is perhaps in part due to their track record of consistency. Consistent yet innovative is a hard balance to strike: “When it comes to innovation,” explains Hess “We are not talking about huge massive revolutionary changes, we are talking much more incremental and slight modifications to make the product minimally better each time.” The Rolex formula, which we have seen in particular with the Daytona, is to keep the product looking largely the same; small enhancements (for the most part) to both the design or to the movement keep the spirit of the watch and, therefore, ensure the model is perpetually part of the zeitgeist.
Let’s start with a walk through the Daytona Hall of fame. It begins with the origin of the pre-Daytona, then on to the pumper pusher Daytona, then the screw pusher Daytona with “Oyster” case, which evolved into a slightly larger Daytona that housed the Zenith El Primero movement, which then led to the Rolex in-house automatic movement right up to the current ceramic bezel model. With the exception of a few “Rainbows” and “Eye of the Tigers,” the changes remain incremental. “This consistency makes it predictable for the collector and it becomes immune to market mistakes”, says Hess. “With so many new collectors now embracing the hobby, there is comfort for them in buying a Daytona, and the odds of the watch holding its value is maximized. It’s a safe bet.”
With so many new collectors focused more on investment potential and the notion of buying safely, collectors are struggling to find the equilibrium between passionate investment and asset building. Hess points out that these watches have become universal liquid assets. They are geography-proof: “If you purchase a Daytona in one part of the world and want to sell it in another country, it’s no problem. Unlike real estate, the value is going to be universally consistent when it comes to a Daytona. No matter where it was bought, sold, or worn, geography isn’t relevant. It’s a universally recognized currency.”
But the Daytona doesn’t just hold monetary value – it’s a universally recognized status symbol, not dissimilar from other high-end luxury products like Birkins or Porsche GTs. It has come to symbolize success, style, and, to some degree, power. Its significance in society is globally acknowledged; everybody knows what a Rolex is, and almost everybody knows what a Rolex Daytona is. “If you saw it at the next table in a restaurant, you would know,” Hess asserts. “And that’s part of its power.”
In order to understand the watch’s rise to power, we need to look at the Daytona’s origin story. The history of Rolex and its alliance with motorsports dates back to the 1930s, but it was in 1959 that Rolex’s association with the Daytona International Speedway began, and in 1963, the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph was launched. A few years later, Rolex added the name “Daytona” to the dial of the iconic chronograph, created for racing drivers to mark its connection with the speedway. The Daytona has arguably become the most important watch in the motor racing space.
Today, Rolex is the official timepiece of Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a partner of the FIA World Endurance Championship, and, of course, sponsor of the Rolex 24 at DAYTONA. Rolex is also the title sponsor of the Rolex Monterey Sports Reunion and supports “The Quail” and “The Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance”: the holy trifecta of Monterey Car Week (aka the most insane car show of all time). Imagine a place where the cars in the parking lot are just the appetizer before the main show (I spotted a Bugatti Chiron Pur Sport, a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, and a Pagani Huayra all within 20 seconds of pulling up). And if you wondered where all the Rolex Daytonas were hiding, I found them – they are all at Monterey Car Week. In hindsight I should have walked around with a tally counter in my hand, I would have made it to 300 clicks within 24 hours.
The Daytona is the car lover’s chronograph of choice, and there is most definitely an emotional connection between the sport and the brand too. Each year, the winning driver at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is awarded a Daytona, and, in turn, the watch has come to stand as a trophy cherished by the driver. I spoke to 9-time Le Mans winner and automotive legend Tom Kristensen who told me his Daytonas represent “A lifetime of ambition… they carry a lot of energy for me.” His favorite is one he purchased in 2000: “I bought it for myself after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the same year to celebrate. This was before Rolex was even a sponsor.”
So how do we account for the evolution of this watch from its motorsports lineage all the way up to its current big ticket status in the wider pop culture universe? “To some degree we have to credit pop culture itself, especially Paul Newman,” says Hess. Initially gifted to Newman by his wife, Joanne Woodward (who purchased it from Tiffany and Co. around 1970), the actor’s affiliation with the watch made him something of an early influencer. He was photographed wearing his Daytona (Ref. 6239) pretty regularly over the next decade; the watch had what Rolex called an “exotic dial,” a style which was largely unpopular at the time. After Newman was seen wearing the watch on and off the race track, collectors eventually began to nickname this style of Daytona “the Paul Newman.”
Paul Newman’s watch eventually went on to sell for $17 million at auction in 2017, which had an even bigger effect on Daytona collecting and watch collecting itself. It’s ironic that a watch which wasn’t a good seller at all in the early ’70s, a $200 watch that sat in windows and was ultimately discontinued, became the most sought after Rolex model in existence. Auction most certainly influences people’s perception of a watch; there’s no public exchange for watches like the stock market, so the most visible sales for public consumption are at auction. “The watches from Rolex, the Daytona in particular, consistently perform,” Hess explains. “They produce crazy results and garner big headlines, possibly more than any other watch. Without question, those headlines lead to price stability and sometimes escalation. The Daytona is a public star in that respect.”
Wanting the rarest item is symptomatic of hardcore collectors, and along with “Paul Newmans,” the upper echelons of Rolex clientele have now taken to collecting the less traditional looking (some might even say radical looking) Daytonas produced by Rolex in recent years. These mostly gem-set pieces – such as the “Rainbow,” the “Leopard,” and the “Eye of the Tiger” – might initially seem off-brand, but Hess highlights that these references signal the taste of today and that, ultimately, “[They] sit in their own bucket. They aren’t the mainstream production pieces, they are made in very limited quantities and are hugely specialized. Most collectors won’t even get a chance to hold one in their hands let alone own one.”
I spoke with Leigh Zagoory, Vice President of Watches at Sotheby’s USA, about Daytona mania. Some of her favorites that have sold in recent auctions include a turquoise “Stella” dial and a lapis stone dial, which both made record prices at the time of sale.
Earlier this year, Sotheby’s New York sold a rose gold “Rainbow” Daytona (Ref 116595) as part of its “Important Watches” sale. The winning bid closed at $630,000, which, in all honesty, sounds anticlimactic in the wake of the $17 million “Paul Newman,” but let’s put things into perspective; that’s over half a million dollars… for a watch. Just before the sale, I had made my bi-annual stop at the auction house to peruse the watch preview and decided, despite my aversion to anything made of rose gold, that I needed to try it on. I can’t deny that it felt good, but part of me wonders whether that was purely because of its status in the watch community. There was certainly an enticing quality to the “Rainbow,” it was kind of like how I imagine meeting a celebrity crush feels; you know they’re a big deal, you know they’re insanely beautiful, and you also know they are so beyond your reach that it’s laughable; doesn’t mean you’re not gonna attempt to flirt a little.
The “Beach” Daytona has also become increasingly popular in recent years, which Zagoory attributes to people’s appetites for a bright Oyster Perpetual “Stella” colored dial. “People are still gravitating towards Daytona more than anything else, so it’s the perfect combination… a fun version of a very substantial watch.”
I asked Zagoory if she could pinpoint the year that (modern) Daytona mania began: “It’s hard to say, because even in pretty recent times, this watch used to be accessible. Growing up, it was one step up from a ‘GMT’ or ‘Submariner’ and was often given as a graduation gift; but it was $12,000, and there was no issue getting it. It was always desirable. Now, given the supply and demand, it’s being hyped up.”
The Information Age has spawned a new generation of Rolex obsessives. The “Paul Newman” Daytona, once an idiosyncratic piece of watch culture, is now available for mass consumption. The “Rainbows” and “Leopards” are rarely touched by mere mortals, but they have staked out a large space and strong presence within the online watch community. Does mass consumption point to a watered down level of prestige? The fascinating thing about Rolex is that they continue to mass produce watches that still feel truly rare. Of course we are all driven by the winds of popularity, and the hype helps keep the Daytona relevant to a wider audience, but it’s a timepiece that exists beyond hype culture; it’s a watch that works across all age groups and appeals to both genders. Put plainly, it’s classic design; it’s what Rolex does best.