Rolex Day-Date: Presidents’ ChoiceBy Wei Koh
Since 1956, the Rolex Day-Date has been an unimpeachable symbol of virility, power and alpha-male cool. If you’re in doubt, let us remind you of Marilyn and Jack.
Sitting imperiously at 12 o’clock, burning as brightly as Prometheus’s torch, cleverer than a border collie with spectacles, and capable of speaking 26 different languages, is the day-of-the-week wheel in Rolex’s legendary Day-Date model. And of all the languages one might choose in which to read the day of the week, I’ve always had a romantic inclination towards French. Not just because I have a passable familiarity with the Gallic tongue (as well as a penchant for Gerard Depardieu movies), but because the language connects us with the origin of these names.
It goes back to between the first and third centuries BC, when the Roman Empire decided to replace the eight-day nundinal cycle with a pattern based on that used by the Etruscans in a seven-day week. Accordingly, they named the days of the week after the planets in Hellenistic astronomy, as follows: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. In French, which is Latin-based, the clear connection with these planets named for the Greek/Roman gods is clear: lundi (in French, moon is lune), mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, and samedi – with only dimanche deviating from a distinct reflection of Roman order and derived instead from the Latin phrase dies Solis for Lord’s day.
Language of The Gods
In comparison, the English words for the days of the week have their roots in the interpretatio germanica, or the German interpretation of the Roman system, which arrived around 200 AD and influenced the names used in Old English. Old English is in fact one of the western Germanic languages. Sunday, for example, comes from Sunnandæg, interpreted from the Latin dies Solis. Friday comes from Frigedæg, the day of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frigg. The connection with the Roman system is that Frigg’s star is the Norse name for the planet Venus.
The point is, regardless of which language you choose for your Rolex Day-Date, the watch will identify you as, in Mick Jagger’s perfect description, “a man of wealth and taste”. The model derives its name from its simultaneous display of a fully written day of the week displayed through the aforementioned aperture at 12 o’clock, and a date display at 3 o’clock that is viewed through a magnifying Cyclops integrated into the watch’s crystal.
Early Rolex advertisements for the Day-Date show a pair of impressively dressed guards standing outside a pair of closed stately doors. The ads refer to the type of men who wore the model. “You know their faces from a thousand newspaper photographs… You have seen them and heard their voices on newsreels and on your television screen.” Another ad reads: “It costs one thousand dollars to own the Rolex Day-Date, the watch you so often see on the wrists of presidents everywhere.” It was clear from these messages that Rolex was happily unabashed about the intended audience for this timepiece.
Launch of a Legend
The Day-Date – sometimes known as the “President” in collector vernacular, thanks to its adoption as the wrist-swag of choice by Lyndon B. Johnson and, allegedly, John F. Kennedy (the watch apparently having been gifted to him by Marilyn Monroe the same night she sang Happy Birthday to him at Madison Square Garden in 1962, and inscribed, “Jack, with love as always from Marilyn”) – was born in 1956. During its 60-plus years of existence, it has made innumerable cinematic appearances and become a symbol of success, virility, power and alpha-male cool.
There is no better example than when, in the midst of his infamous “Always be closing” speech, pummelling a group of underperforming real-estate salesmen in David Mamet’s seminal Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Alec Baldwin unsnaps the hidden clasp on his own yellow-gold, champagne-dial Day-Date and holds it in front of a perplexed Ed Harris saying: “You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car.” The watch is the ultimate exclamation point in this verbal smackdown. Lemmon and his beleaguered peers can only stare slack-jawed at the primal totemic symbol of success and might that is the Rolex Day-Date.
The 1950s was an era in which Rolex had brilliantly asserted its dominance in the tool watch categories. In 1953, it launched the Submariner, which would become the most successful diving watch of all time. In 1954, the brand unveiled the incredible GMT-Master – later adopted by Pan-Am pilots to keep track of two time zones simultaneously while in flight, it was the world’s first dual-time wristwatch.
But in 1956, Rolex wanted to create something different, a timepiece that asserted its ability in the world of ultra-elegant timepieces. Which, refracted through Rolex’s sensibilities, did not mean a small, dandy’s dress watch but a large (36mm), precious-metal-only chronometer with all its iconic robustness characterised by a screw-down crown, water resistance to 165 feet, and fitted with a precious-metal bracelet. The first references launched were the 6510 and 6511; they lasted only a year before being replaced by refs. 6611, 6612 and 6613, which featured a Calibre 1055 with an all-new free-sprung balance wheel with Microstella regulated screws. This new movement resulted in the watches receiving official certification as chronometers; the dials now read “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” (instead of “Officially Certified Chronometer”, as appeared on the 6510 and 6511).
The beloved 1800 family of watches was introduced in 1959. Of these, the 1803 is arguably the most famous. These watches were initially fitted with the Calibre 1555, replaced in the mid-1960s by the Calibre 1556, which featured a faster vibrational speed. In 1959, according to Rolex mythology, a total number of just six steel 6611 watches were made. Although other steel models are known, the tiny number from 1959 makes these the holy grail of Day-Dates. It is not clear whether they were commercially produced models or prototype watches made for internal use that eventually found their way to the market. I’m inclined towards the latter, but there is no definitive answer. In 1969, the Day-Date added a “concealed clasp” to its distinct bracelet, known as the President bracelet.
The 1970s was a period of strong technical advancement for the Day-Date. In 1972, the Calibre 1556 in the Day-Date became equipped with a hacking feature that meant the seconds hand would stop when the crown was pulled out. The watch was also fitted with a sapphire crystal around this time. In 1977, a new Calibre 3055 was fitted to the Day-Date, and the reference numbers for the watches grew by one additional digit: 18xxx.
But the key advantages to the Calibre 3055 were a 4 Hz vibrational speed for better autonomy from micro-shocks, and an all-important quickset function for the date. Before this, the date and days of the week could be adjusted only by turning the central hour and minute hands through the entire calendar cycle.
In 1977 Rolex also launched the Calibre 5055, the brand’s in-house jewelled and decorated 32 kHz quartz Day Date movement, which was used in the Oysterquartz range. These watches were sold until 2001 and, as the very proud owner of a yellow-gold example fitted with burl wood dial, I can tell you unequivocally – because of its unique case shape and its integrated bracelet, as well as the extraordinary movement (Rolex even equipped it with a thermal compensator) – it is a very special watch.
In 1988, Rolex unveiled the new Calibre 3155 for the Day-Date, which was something of a revelation, because for the first time the model had a double-quickset. This meant that both the days of the week and date could rapidly be set using the crown, independent of the hour and minute hands. Reference numbers for the model became 182xx and 183xx (for models with diamond-set cases).
In 2000, reference numbers changed again to encompass six digits: 118xxx. Improvements related mostly to bracelet and clasps. To this day, the Rolex Day-Date 36mm is one of the most stunning watches in modern horology. My favorites from this collection of watches are those bearing particularly evocative coloured dials: a yellow-gold model with a green dial, a yellow-gold model with a cognac dial, a white-gold model with a ravishing cherry dial, and a lust-inducing Everose (Rolex’s proprietary rose gold, which does not fade over time) model with chocolate dial.
What’s better is that these watches have an aesthetic precedent that dates back to the 1970s “Stella” dial Day-Dates. These watches were created for the Middle East market and featured dials in turquoise, hot pink, canary yellow and neon green, which were considered lurid by some people and highly appealing, heart-stoppingly bright by others. The sobriquet Stella is equally attributed to the American artist Frank Stella, renowned for his vivid primary-colour paintings or to the Latin word for “star” because of the luminescent quality of the dials that were crafted using a lacquered multi-layered enamel.
The current collection Day-Date 36 coloured dials were introduced in 2013, and, even though Rolex does not comment on the matter, are clearly a clin d’oeil at the Stella dial Day-Dates, which have achieved cult collectability. These modern Day-Date 36mm watches are each fitted on alligator straps of complementary hues. And for the reader of this magazine, who is unabashedly joyous in his celebration of colour in his sartorial cannon, these charming watches offer infinite chromatic expressive possibilities. It should be noted that one of the world’s ultimate rakes, the style panjandrum Nick Foulkes, wears the 36mm yellow-gold model with antique wood dial with unabashed aplomb.
In 2008 Rolex introduced the Day-Date II, which featured the largest case yet for this model, at 41mm in diameter. The movement in these models was the Calibre 3156. However, in 2015, this model was reduced by one millimetre, to the Day-Date 40mm, and perfectly expresses a greater sense of elegance with a slightly diminished case size.
The modern Rolex Day-Date 40mm is not only a masterpiece of style but its movement, the Calibre 3255, features one of Rolex’s signature technical advancements, the Chronergy escapement. This consists of a pallet and escape wheel made from nickel phosphorus using LIGA technology, which achieves far greater precision than traditional machining or wire erosion. In addition, this material is not affected by magnetism.
The escapement wheel is highly skeletonised, meaning that it is much lighter and has less inertia. This is important because it stops and starts eight times a second, and this lighter weight means 15 per cent greater efficiency. The balance wheel, as with all Rolex watches, is free-sprung, which means that it is adjusted using the weights integrated into the rim instead of changing the tension on the balance spring.
On that subject, the balance spring is made from a proprietary material called Parachrom, an alloy of niobium (a material with exceptional memory) and zirconium that is not affected by magnetism and is far more resistant to shock. All this means that the Day-Date is not just resplendent to behold but one of the most reliable mechanical watches in Christendom and beyond.
My perennial choice for the Day-Date 40mm would be the classic yellow gold with champagne dial, which harks back to the legendary watch Monroe bought for Kennedy and that Baldwin brandished so enthusiastically. The Day-Date is so much more than a watch. It is a symbol of a mental attitude, a lightning rod of empowerment, and a statement of intent that is so clear and resonant that it can be heard the moment you enter a room. No man should feel he is complete without one in his horological arsenal.