When something is described as “purpose built” it generally means that it was built for a specific purpose. Musical instruments are purpose built… they are made to make music. Some musical instruments are made to not only make music but to make a specific style of music. Rock guitars are brought into this world to play rock music… you don’t plug a Gibson into a Marshall full stack with the volume all the way up to play folk music. Vintage Rolex is just that… purpose built.
Vintage Rolex watches were built as tools built to preform specific tasks. Before the days of smartphones, Rolex watches were the “apps” you needed to survive. You didn’t buy a Rolex because you wanted to show off, you bought a Rolex because it was the tool you needed to get the job done. The Submariner, Daytona, Explorer and GMT are among Rolex’s most influential and useful watches… these are their stories.
Introduced in 1953. The Submariner’s rotatable bezel is the key to its functionality as a dive watch. Divers must keep track of how long there are underwater in order to ensure they don’t run out of oxygen too soon. The Submariner’s bezel can be set to accurately and safely monitor a diver’s dive time and decompression stops. Before the advent of digital timing devices an accurate dive watch was essential of a safe dive.
Rene-Paul Jeanneret was a part of the Rolex board of directors and an avid diver. It was his idea to develop a watch that was suitable for use in the water but also elegant enough for use every day.
The Submariner received the ultimate endorsement when James Bond wore one in his first appearance on screen – Dr. No (1962). In the scene Mr. Bond emerges from the water wearing a wetsuit but quickly removes it to reveal he was wearing a Tuxedo underneath. He plans explosives, sets his Submariner to time the blast and gets away in style.
Introduced in 1954. The GMT-Master was originally designed in a partnership with Pan American Airways and given to the pilots on long-haul flights. Pan-Am (as it was known) was looking for a watch that would give their transatlantic pilots multiple times zones.
GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time (now also known as Coordinated Universal Time). The GMT-Master featured an additional hand to that was intended to always be set to GMT. At the time, it was an absolute necessity that pilots have an accurate wrist watch at all times. In addition to the additional hand, it also featured a two color bi-directional rotating bezel to quickly add or change time zones.
Almost immediately the GMT-Master caught on with business men who traveled internationally and wanted to have the time at home and the local time on their watch. Today it has a reputation as a useful watch for the Jet-Set.
Vintage GMT-Masters are famous for the way their bezels transform over time. Depending on what colors it started out with and how much exposure it’s had to the sun, vintage GMT-Masters all have a unique character. The Pan-Am inspired GMT-Masters featured a Blue and Red bezel nicknamed the “Pepsi Dial.”
Introduced in 1963. Daytona is the name of a city in Florida revered by motorsports enthusiasts for its smooth, compacted sand, perfect for high speed racing (in the early 1900’s land speed records were actually set on the beach). In 1936 Daytona had its first stock car race and years later would eventually become famous for the Daytona 500.
Since many land speed records were set at Daytona by the famous Sir Malcom Campbell in the early 1900’s; Rolex later decided to capitalize on the racing spirit of Daytona and name their evolving manual wind chronograph the “Daytona.” To Rolex, Campbell and Daytona embodied the brand.
In 1972 Paul Newman was photographed wearing a Daytona featuring an “exotic” white dial and black sub-dials. Despite the fact Newman was not a Rolex ambassador that watch (ref. 6241) became a cult hit and was nicknamed the “Paul Newman Daytona.” Today, the Paul Newman Daytonas are among the most sought after vintage Rolexes in the world.
The Explorer II
Introduced in 1971. As the name implies, the Explorer II was the sequel to the first Explorer in 1953. The first Explorer was a time only piece marketed as a watch that could survive tough expeditions. The Explorer II on the other hand was designed as a tool watch for cave explorers. In addition to the time, it featured a bright orange 24-hour hand designed to keep track of day and night.
While exploring caves, the lack of sunlight makes it very easy to become disoriented. The 24-hour hand on the Explorer II was added to indicate what part of the day it was outside. The movement was the same as the GMT-Master models (which also featured a 24-hour hand) but the case did not have a rotating the rotating bezel.
Sales of the Explorer II were slow in the early years. Watch dealers would sometimes keep them for years waiting for a buyer. Now, early examples of the Explorer II command impressive bids at auction.
While all these watches have a modern day interpretation, it’s the vintage examples that have the most style and character.