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 4 minutes

Rolex Daytona Guide: From Shelf Warmer to Watch Icon

By Donato Andrioli

The Rolex Daytona is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The legendary chronograph is looking back at its heady history, full of highs and lows. Today, the Rolex sports watch is one of the most popular and most sought-after watches in the entire Rolex portfolio; it’s hard to believe that it spent a number of years as a shelf warmer. How has the Rolex Daytona changed over time? What are the differences between the model’s four, five, and six-digit references? In honor of the chronograph’s 60th birthday, let’s look back over the many generations of the Rolex Daytona.

Four-Digit References: The Hardest Part Is Getting Started

The Rolex Daytona‘s small (by today’s standards) 40-mm diameter is one of the legendary chronograph’s very few points of contention among watch enthusiasts. Funnily, this wasn’t always the case: When the Rolex Daytona made its debut in 1963, it measured 37 mm across and was considered a bit on the larger side, which is why the watch had a rather lukewarm reception. The first Daytona reference 6239 featured a black metal bezel, plexiglass crystal, and manual Valjoux movement. The iconic screw-down pusher for which the Daytona is famous only appeared in 1965 with the release of the reference 6240, a watch that was also water-resistant to 50 m (5 bar, 164 ft). Later, the references 6265 and 6263 featured a steel or black acrylic bezel and water resistance to 100 m (10 bar, 328 ft). Today, the so-called “Paul Newman” dials that emerged from this era are legendary, but we can only speculate as to how many of these watches are authentic. What is certain, however, is that the “exotic dial” so coveted by Daytona fans today was produced in tiny numbers, as this version of the Daytona sold even worse than the others. And while a Rolex dealer in the 1960s might well have thrown a Rolex Daytona at you to get rid of it, nowadays, you need to dig deep if you want to call a four-digit Daytona reference your own. Depending on the model, prices range from $42,000 to a dizzying $540,000. Makes you wish you had a time machine, am I right?

The "Paul Newman" Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 with its "exotic" dial.
The “Paul Newman” reaches dizzying prices.

Five-Digit References: From Shelf Warmer to Watch Icon

Rolex began producing five-digit Daytona references in 1988. These models come surprisingly close to the current Rolex Daytona references, even if – thanks to their brushed finish – they still look more like a tool watch by comparison. The steel 16520, steel and gold 16523, and gold 16528 not only share the famous 40-mm case, they also feature a sapphire crystal and automatic movement. By the way, it’s important to note that until the late 1990s, this movement was not manufactured by Rolex itself but by its competitor, Zenith. The El Primero caliber 4030 was specially designed for the Daytona with a reduced frequency of 28,800 vph (from 36,000 vph) and without a date display. Meanwhile, the Rolex Daytona slowly but surely developed mythical status: Despite the fact that there was nothing of the hype we see today, the wait time for a Rolex Daytona back then could be up to 10 years. That’s amazing, especially if you consider the legendary chronograph’s bumpy start. Today, the five-digit Daytona references have lost none of their appeal, and are anything but a bargain, even for the seasoned watch collector. If you’re looking to add a Rolex Daytona reference 16520 to your collection, plan on spending at least $25,000.

Rolex Daytona 16520
The Rolex Daytona ref. 16520 was powered by a Zenith caliber until the late 1990s.

Six-Digit References: The Pursuit of Perfection

With the introduction of six-digit Daytona references in 2000, Rolex’s in-house movement finally found its way into the model, beginning with reference 116520. The tool watch character of the previous Daytona models was written out of the story at this point: Even early six-digit Daytona references look both robust and refined, and are hardly inferior to the latest editions of the iconic Rolex timepiece. The case is highly polished, and the partially polished Oyster bracelet features a modern, solid clasp. Rolex eventually brought the iconic watch into the modern era with the reference 116500LN in 2016. The Daytona now looks more luxurious than ever, thanks to its new ceramic bezel. The latest version of the iconic chronograph is the perfect blend of sportiness and elegance. It goes just as well with casual wear as it does with a stylish suit, and looks great in any setting. Compared to other chronographs, like the Omega Speedmaster or the Breitling Navitimer, the Daytona’s 40-mm diameter seems a bit small, especially nowadays, but I personally like the most modern edition of the Rolex Daytona just the way it is. Don’t agree? Then you have reason to hope: It’s the watch’s 60th anniversary this year, which means the release of a new Rolex Daytona is practically a foregone conclusion. Will it be the same watch with a new anniversary dial? Or will it be a completely new reference with a 41-mm case that appeals to contemporary watch lovers? We’ll have to wait for Watches and Wonders 2023 to find out. If there really is a new version with a larger case, the last 40-mm Daytona is sure to reach astronomical prices. At the time of writing, market prices for the current Daytona reference 116500LN are still below $33,000. You may want to strike now, before it’s too late.

Will the current Rolex Daytona with a ceramic bezel be the last 40-mm version of the legendary chronograph?

About the Author

Donato Andrioli

With the purchase of my Tudor Black Bay 41, I discovered a passion for mechanical watches. I am particularly drawn to iconic watches with long and exciting histories.

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