Rolex Daytona, the origins of a myth

Today, sometimes it is taken for granted that a Rolex wristwatch represents a status symbol, something that is accomplished, certain and safe, a synonym of quality and prestige. Indeed, more and more people are approaching the world of the watch also thanks to Rolex that, due to its fame, is often one of the top class watches we get to know first. From there onward, it is the birth of a passion because the world of watchmaking is truly fascinating. It is a fact that Rolex is for many people a springboard to the endless world of the watches, whether one approaches it for curiosity, passion, or mere investment. Indeed, as reported also by Sole 24 Ore in an article of April 2019, today, wristwatches represent an actual investment, safe and sound, thanks to the big number of enthusiasts. As we said, you get passionate about this world thanks to its vast array of stories and details, anecdotes, and the technical and style innovations of iconic wristwatches that have made history. It is interesting to discover the history behind every icon. This is what we will try to do, step by step, in our monthly review. This month, we talk about a great classic Rolex, the Daytona. Searching for the origin of the Rolex Daytona, the bestselling wristwatch worldwide means, first of all, to analyze a more general subject: the success of the Rolex brand.
In 1926, Rolex patented a case called OYSTER, a waterproofness system that, thanks to the screw-down winding crown and case back, became the template for all the future models of diver and sports watches. The chronograph with the manual winding of the early ’60s, simply known as ROLEX COSMOGRAPH (where the term “chronograph” is changed to exalt the precision) wanted to evoke the trend of those years: space travel. The name Daytona was added only later to celebrate the historic 24-hour car race already sponsored by Rolex. However, the response of the public was rather mild, or, at least, not comparable to the watch’s current success. We must not forget that, in those years, fashionable watches were of classic style and ultrathin. Such a sporty and modern model was not fully in line with the taste of the time.
In 1965, Rolex released a sportier version with the addition of the screw-closing buttons and crown, a guarantee of water resistance. To highlight the waterproof improvement, Rolex called the watch Oyster Cosmograph. But even this version (which boasted also other innovations that we will analyze later on in a dedicated article) did not satisfy the public that complained about the size of the case and the buttons, too bulky and, a rather weird detail, considered responsible for wearing out the shirt cuffs! This lack of interest at commercial level lasted almost twenty years, first with the release of the quartz models in the ’70s, and then in the ’80s, when the hand-wound watches became obsolete. Nevertheless, the iconic Daytona brand written in red became the symbol of the watch, even though it was missing on the earlier models. The dials are at the origin of the Daytona model that is probably the most sought after, the so-called “Paul Newman”. The main distinctive characteristic of this watch is the contrasting two-color graphics of the dial: the background of the sexagesimal scale has the same color of the indicators, in contrast with their background, and is made on a double level, thus creating an imperceptible step with the central part of the dial. The indicators have concentric circles and differentiate from the traditional ones for the execution of the indexes, small faceted squares, and for the graphics of the Arabic numbers.
It is the quadrant that turns a Daytona into a “Paul Newman”, also considering that these dials are indifferently applied to all the models made at that time. But why Paul Newman? The reason for this nickname rests in the belief that the legendary American actor wore it in the movie “Winning”, on the world of car racing… although watching carefully the poster of the movie, one can see that the actor is, in fact, wearing a Rolex, but not a stopwatch! The name “Paul Newman”, created, as it often happens, by Italian collectors and now also shared worldwide, is however justified by the fact that the actor was seen wearing a Daytona many times, in his visits to racing tracks, with the famous two-tone dial, but also with the classic versions. In this case, too, the product reached its success, ratified by collectors from all over the world, only after being removed from the catalog, a success that cannot be compared to the mild welcoming received when it was still produced.
In the never-ending attempt to extend the watches’ life and reliability, Rolex replaced the hand-wound Valjoux calibers with the exceptional movement of the Zenith El Primero, the best industrial self-winding movement available on the market in those times. Rolex made over 200 modifications, equal to approx. 50% of the parts, to bring the mechanism up to its standards. It made structural changes like the removal of the date display and the reduction of the oscillation frequency from 36,000 to 28,800 alternations, and replaced the original balance wheel with its own, based on the Microstar setting mechanism, already used in the chronographs of the ’60s. So, another writing was added to the wording Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona on the dial, i.e. the definition of Officially Certified Superlative Chronometer.
All this led to the design of the caliber 4030, the movement of the first automatic chronograph, the Daytona ref. 16520. In 1988, the launch of the new Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona was a huge public success. In the early ’90s, the limited production by Rolex, also due to the scarcity of the Zenith caliber, triggered the hunting by international collectors. This watch was taken off the catalog in 2000 and replaced by Reference 116520, which featured for the first time the caliber 4131, made entirely by Rolex. All the previous models of the hand-wound Daytona chronographs became articles for collectors only a few years later, making this watch the object of desire of enthusiasts from all over the world even today. The exceptional technical characteristics are surely not enough to justify the extent of this phenomenon that marked and still marks the history of the Daytona. The long waiting lists, its availability only at prices higher than the price list, and the search for models as coeval as possible set this watch outside the common market laws, making it a status symbol, a true myth of the modern era!