Fashion / Style File

$17.8 Million Rolex Shows the Power of the Brand and Paul Newman — An Inside Look at the World of Rare Rolex Collecting

The Most Coveted Watches on the Planet are Status Symbols Like No Other

BY // 11.18.19

On the evening of October 26, 2017, more than 400 people packed the New York auction house Phillips for its Winning Icons Auction — Legendary Watches of the 20th Century. Some of the finest timepieces ever made by esteemed watchmakers Patek Philippe, Cartier, Rolex, and Vacheron Constantin were up for bid. But the watch everyone in the room had their eyes on was a 1968 Rolex Daytona stainless-steel chronograph with an impeccable provenance.

Worn for years by film star Paul Newman, it was given to him at the start of his passion for car racing by his wife, Joanne Woodward. The back is engraved with a note: “Drive Carefully Me.”

Newman had been photographed so often wearing the watch that the model was nicknamed the Paul Newman Daytona. Between 2,000 and 3,000 of the watches were made, and it’s not known how many vintage specimens from the era exist. Collectors consider it the Holy Grail and had been searching for the original “Newman’s Newman” with its simple black strap for decades.

It had attained almost mythical status by the time consignor James Cox presented it for auction. Cox, a former boyfriend of Newman’s daughter Nell Newman, had been given the watch by the star in the summer of 1984, when Cox and Nell were restoring a tree house on Newman family property. At the time of the gift, the watch’s value was $200, far less than the 2017 auction estimate of $1 million to $2 million.

After 12 minutes of feverish bidding, the gavel came down at an astonishing $17.8 million (including buyer’s premium), a world’s record for any wristwatch sold at auction.

This dazzling sale illustrates the importance of the vintage market for Rolex. Brands such as Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Universal Genève, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin command a large part of the booming pre-owned market, but Rolex has skyrocketed in value, says Jim Wolf, director of timepieces for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. And, at Richard Eiseman’s 51-year-old NorthPark Center jewelry store, new and pre-owned Rolexes are big business.

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Eiseman Jewels, which expanded in 2013 to include the first Rolex shop-in-shop in the United States, employs a Rolex-trained watchmaker to inspect and service vintage watches. Only authorized Rolex components are used for repairs, which is critical to keeping the value of the watches.

“No one parallels Rolex in resale value,” Eiseman says. “Many of the old models sell for more than new.”

In the past few years, Rolex has introduced watches with gemstones that are incredibly collectible, notably the Rainbow Daytona which debuted in 2012, and became an instant cult item among rock stars and prominent collectors. With a bezel set in 36 rare, naturally colored sapphires in a rainbow gradation, it’s flashier than other models and counts as Rolex’s most artisan piece yet. The watch originally retailed for around $106,000 brand-new and now goes for as much as $300,000 on the vintage market.

Rolex has long collaborated with exceptional personalities from the fields of sports, exploration, and culture. In 1935, race-car driver Sir Malcolm Campbell broke the world’s speed record wearing an Oyster, as did test pilot Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier in 1947. The Oyster has been worn on numerous Himalayan expeditions, including the historic first summit of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their way to Mt. Everest in 1953, wearing Rolex watches.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their way to Mt. Everest in 1953, wearing Rolex watches.

In the 1950s, Rolex developed Professional (or tool) watches with dedicated functions for specific activities, such as the waterproof Oyster Perpetual Submariner diver’s watch, equipped with a bezel for displaying immersion and decompression times. The Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master, which launched in 1955, was the world’s first watch to display times from different locations around the globe. In 1953, the Submariner was launched as the first diver’s watch, and the 1956 Oyster Perpetual Milgauss, equipped with a Faraday case to block electromagnetic fields, was designed for scientists and engineers.

Its most legendary watch, the Cosmograph, was introduced in 1963 and served as the official watch for NASCAR’s Daytona 500. The watch has been nicknamed the Daytona ever since and was the same style worn by motorsport enthusiast Paul Newman.

Rich and Famous Rolexes

Throughout history, Rolexes have been worn by the rich and famous, including Sir Winston Churchill, who owned a Rolex Datejust with a personalized coat of arms; Martin Luther King Jr.; and presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan, and Obama. John F. Kennedy’s Rolex Day-Date was gifted to him by Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and inscribed on the back with the message: “JACK with love as always from MARILYN.”

Elvis, Picasso andf Hemingway all wore Rolexes. Today, the watch is on the wrists of Jay-Z, whose Perpetual Calendar was customized by watchmaker Franck Muller; Eric Clapton, whose collection features a rare stainless-steel Milgauss with white and orange luminescent hour markers; and Brad Pitt, whose Rolex collection includes an elegant gold Day-Date II with black dial.

Rolex designs, develops, and crafts watches at its four high-tech facilities in Switzerland. It’s the only watchmaker to have an in-house foundry to smelt and cast gold and platinum, and the only one to use costly 904L steel, which requires special tools and skills to machine. All its movements, cases, dials, and bracelets are hand-built. Gemstone watches have only flawless, colorless diamonds, along with rare naturally colored sapphires.

Since 1960, Rolex has been owned by a private family trust, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. Known for its aura of secrecy, Rolex guards all its information, including production and sales numbers. According to Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), which last published figures in 2015, Rolex produces around 800,000 watches each year. Industry analysts have put the company’s annual sales between $5 billion and $8 billion, making it the world’s most valuable luxury watch brand.

Which vintage Rolexes are the most collectible right now?

“Any of the sport watches are the most desirable, with ones from the 1960s and 1970s being super hot,” Heritage’s Jim Wolf says.

Rolex Deep Sea Special, 1960.
Rolex Deep Sea Special, 1960.

Some 30 to 40 vintage Rolexes were offered at Heritage Auctions’ Watches & Fine Timepieces Signature Auction this past June, including an extremely rare 1967 stainless-steel Submariner, originally retailed by Cartier and with documented provenance. It sold for $175,000.

Rolex introduced a raft of variations to its existing lineup this March at Baselworld, the international watch and jewelry show held in Basel, Switzerland. Two in particular are generating buzz among collectors: the “Batman” GMT-Master II and the “Pepsi” GMT-Master II, both with upgraded bracelets and movements. Even the slightest changes in models with limited production generate a flurry of excitement, Eiseman notes.

“A lot of collectors like to have watches in each variation of a model they love, and they change them throughout the day – stainless steel for the golf course, gold for dinner that night,” he says.

“Watches are unique in the luxury world, because you take them wherever you go.”

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