The Rolex Day-Date 36 mm, the watch of Presidents, Athletes, Investors, Religious Leaders, and fictitious Mobsters
What do people like Lyndon Johnson, Michael Jordan, the Dalai Lama, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Soprano, and Warren Buffett have in common? Easy: a shared passion. And it’s the Rolex Day-Date, the historic watch of the crowned house that launched the fashion of the day and date complication shown through windows on the same dial.
But the Day-Date isn’t just that. It’s so much more. This Rolex model – decidedly atypical concerning the standard production of the company – has not only adorned the wrists of numerous personalities, both real and imaginary: it has been the protagonist, in its own way, of innovations and customs, which have marked its life, and unquestionably, have made it rightfully reach the elite of the icons of watchmaking.
The birth of the myth of confidence
The Day-Date represents an evolution of the famous Datejust.
Several watches displayed the date, even before the Datejust, but they relied on the so-called “pointer date”: a hand that marked the date on the dial or a sub-dial. This solution was undoubtedly effective but had the effect of visually weighing down the watch and making it more difficult to read. So, Rolex managed to install the date change mechanism inside a water-resistant automatic watch, creating the first Datejust in 1945.
But the company did not stop there and evolved the concept inaugurated then with this new model launched in 1956, the Day-Date, which introduced a dual display, the day of the month and the date, shown in two separate windows on the dial, and retaining the same characteristics that had determined the success of the Datejust: an Oyster case with a diameter of 36 mm, and a movement which was certified as a chronometer, with the indication proudly displayed on the dial and the advertising pages promoting the watch.
The first versions of the Day-Date were produced for about three years. Then, they were replaced by the 18XX version, launched in 1959 and made until 1977, characterized by the Cyclops lens applied to the date window and mounting a new movement, first the 1555 caliber and then the 1556 caliber.
But the main feature that has always distinguished the Day-Date is that, unlike the Datejust, this watch has always been produced exclusively in noble metal – gold (in various colors) or platinum. As a result, it has always been a genuinely luxurious watch, designed from the ground up to be such – so that anyone who saw it on the wrist would draw only one possible conclusion: that the wearer was a person of significance. An actual power play on the part of Rolex, which has made no secret of the watch’s significance throughout its existence.
The watch that was gifted to the President. And refused
In 1962, the Rolex Day-Date made headlines, thanks to the sexy bombshell Norma Jean Baker, or as she is better known, Marilyn Monroe, and her controversial relationship with the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
For in addition to Marilyn’s voice, sheathed in her lamé dress cooing “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” the actress gave JFK another gift: a yellow gold Rolex Day-Date of her own, with a slightly too warm inscription engraved on the back, “Jack, with love as always, from Marilyn.” To say that JFK did not take it well is an understatement: the President immediately handed over the watch to his staff, which discreetly made it disappear. The rejected Day-Date reappeared only in 2005 at an auction, where it realized a hammer price, all things considered, very restrained: $120,000 only.
The (finally) President’s Watch
It was after JFK’s assassination that the Rolex Day-Date resumed its role. Kennedy’s deputy, Lyndon Johnson – whose passion for watches is well known – once he became President, was immortalized in several official photos with this model – in yellow gold with a white dial – secured to his wrist, distinguished by the bracelet with three rows of links that became synonymous with the timepiece.
He loved it so much that he used it as an official gift on several occasions – and Rolex, to take advantage of this all-important endorsement, had no qualms about having a famous advertising page published that depicted the arm of a man in a suit and tie with his hand resting on the handset of a red telephone, one of the symbols of the Cold War, with the title “The President’s Watch.”
The watch on the wrist of people who matter
Since Johnson’s time, so the late 1950s, the Rolex Day-Date has established itself as the watch to wear on the wrist for people who weren’t afraid to demonstrate their role and status. And so it took on a charge of importance and prestige, with that dose of gravitas that made it a more suitable watch for the selected few. Over the years, numerous enthusiasts started wearing it because of its luxury character that is not afraid to be exhibited, given by the precious metal structure for both the case and the bracelet, and its ready recognizability.
And scrolling through the list of its wearers, we can see that these were – and are – people with strong character and appropriate age, ranging from a former legendary golfer such as Jack Nicklaus to the strongest basketball player in history, Michael Jordan, to the most shrewd businessman and investor in America, Warren Buffett, for whom the Rolex President in yellow gold represents one of the few visible concession to luxury.
We also include in this list the character played by James Gandolfini, the crime boss Tony Soprano, who for six seasons of the successful television series wore a yellow gold Rolex Day-Date: a symbol of wealth and success, which was used as a distinctive sign to demonstrate his status publicly.
Curiously, this same assertive timepiece has fascinated religious men as well. The Day-Date 36mm is part of the personal collection of Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the Dalai Lama – who we know from experience to be a watch lover as well as an amateur watchmaker. The version he frequently wears (he owns about fifteen watches that have been donated to him, including several Rolexes) is the one with the lapis lazuli dial, whose meaning is dear to the Buddhist religion, with blue symbolizing the sky and yellow gold leading back to the earth. But not only him: also Martin Luther King wore this watch.
Why does the Rolex Day-Date 36mm represent an investment opportunity?
We all know that the world of watchmaking is subject to fashion, and the world of the green giant of watches perhaps even more so. There are timepieces from the Swiss house that are hugely in demand, while others are, if not forgotten, less “hot.”
This is easily explained by examining the prevailing trend of the last twenty years, where we’ve seen an exponential growth of large watches (all over 40mm) with mostly steel cases – the long wave of the luxury sports style that comes to us from Genta and the early 1970s, which saw the rise of this niche of timepieces and the decline of what was considered the elegant watch of yesteryear, with its restrained dial size and gold case.
With its 36 mm, the Rolex President appeared too small and too precious for the demands of modern fashion, with the result that it was considered a somewhat passé model. So, Rolex in 2008 decided to give it a twist, figuring (correctly) that one of the main issues was the size, and presented it in a more fashion-y size of 41 mm. And it was spot on.
Legions of Rolex-wearers rushed in the stores to grab the new object of desire and strap it around their wrists. Celebrities belonging to the usual watch crowd – Drake, Jay Z, J-Lo, Kevin Hart, and the Kardashians have been publicly displaying the 41 mm version, or the new 40 mm version introduced in 2015.
The success of this re-release of the Day-Date did nothing but relegate the old Day-Date models to the limbo of memories and watches “nice, but not for me.
At least until today.
The Day-Date I’s revenge
But, as they say, the wheels of time turn, as do fashions, and we are witnessing, after so many years, a world that is returning to appreciate watches that are smaller in size and more wearable. In addition, watchmaking is going back to its scope of creating the luxury items that it proposed before the affirmation of this iconoclastic trend that favored immense steely technical watches.
We could see that recently Patek Philippe caused a stir by withdrawing its most famous Nautilus edition, ref. 5711 in stainless steel from the market and replacing it with a Titanium and a Platinum version – two models that would have seemed far removed from the fashion trend just five years ago.
This polarization of the market towards two opposite extremes, the utilitarian and the truly luxurious, is making the Rolex Day-Date, with its precious materials and style that well represents the character of “Old Money,” very current again. All the more so since these particular models in 36 mm can be found at prices that are, if not popular, absolutely affordable, especially when we compare them with the steel timepieces of the house, or with the more recent Day-Date production in 41 and 40 mm, which second-wrist prices start from the $40,000 and skyrocket rapidly.
A few examples of Rolex Day-Date 36 mm models to consider
Seeing that specific Day-Date 36s start below the five figures seems impossible. Yet, it’s true: the “basic” versions of the Day-Date from around the 1970s are available at these prices, with older versions popping a few hundred dollars more. Of course, in these cases, a significant price difference is made by the presence or absence of the gold or platinum bracelet, which among other things makes the watch certainly more iconic, but also more ostentatious – versions with bracelets indeed start around $13,000. This is also the price for bracelet-less models with white gold or Everose cases, while platinum models are much more expensive, around $25,000.
Over the years, the Day-Date has been produced in many versions, with colored dials (like the beautiful Ombrée ones, that slowly fade from color to black), or dials made of precious materials such as lapis lazuli, aventurine, malachite, and mother of pearl. One of these is the so-called Bark version, with a finishing effect on the bracelet that resembles wood, and dials that are often very bold.
Being precious from their inception, these timepieces sometimes display bezels or indexes made using set diamonds – which are not particularly fashionable today, but which contribute to giving the watch an even more “luxury” character than the version in “simple” precious metal. You can find these versions starting at $15,000 and going up to $50,000 and more for the rarest and most precious references, like the Rainbow, which reaches the six figures.
The Oysterquartz version, produced in small quantities at the end of the Seventies, is also peculiar and could become very interesting in the collectors’ field if watch collectors will start being interested in early quartz, as in fact, is starting to happen. You’ll find these versions around $12,000.