Rolex Two-Tone Watches Hit the High NotesBy Ross Povey
Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that the only Rolexes people care about are steel sports watches: the ceramic Daytona, BLNR “Batman” or BLRO “Pepsi” GMT Masters, “Hulk” Submariners, “Orange Hand” Explorer 2s. Even the Datejust 41 in steel is becoming a premium watch and creeping up on the grey market. With vintage prices rising higher than even the biggest market champions could have expected, where do watch buyers go next?
White-gold Daytonas can be cheaper than steel watches of the same era and yellow gold has its own market that is taking off in a big way. Have you tried to locate a green-dial, yellow-gold 116508 recently? But is there a watch that is still under the radar in both the modern and vintage arenas? There just may be: step forward the two-tone.
Steel-and-gold, two-tone, bi-colour and Rolesor (Rolex’s official term) – there are numerous ways to describe the combination of steel and gold in the execution of a watch. With some of Rolex’s most high-profile launches in the last two years being Rolesor pieces and with Tudor also presenting their own regional version of the dish with Steel-and-Gold (S&G) Black Bays, it is time to look at the bi-colour watch with a fresh pair of eyes.
I recently had lunch with a prominent Mayfair watch dealer who loves steel-and-gold Daytonas. “The beauty of steel-and-gold is that it matches both white gold and platinum jewellery as well as yellow gold,” explains Burlington Arcade specialist David Duggan. “These pieces were always a great option for lady customers, but now men are also wearing a lot more jewellery and so it is a consideration for them, too.”
We live in eclectic times, where mixing and matching is de rigueur. The tense focus on matching your wedding ring to your watch metal and belt buckle colour is utterly unimportant. Rolesor is, therefore, arguably the perfect companion for the modern man (and woman).
Rolex patented the term Rolesor in 1933, but they were producing white and yellow-gold watches as early as 1928. The rectangular Rolex Prince watches were available in “Tiger Stripe” yellow-and-white-gold cases and the Prince Brancard watches were produced in stainless-steel and yellow-gold cases. In 1931, Rolex’s first Oyster-cased automatic watch – the Bubbleback – was unveiled. Immediately the watches were available in all steel, all gold and steel-and-gold, with notable use of rose gold.
The Rolesor formula was, and still is, a steel mid-case with gold bezel and winding crown. In the case of chronographs, the pushers are also in gold. The concept was, from a financial point, half-way between utilitarian steel watches and the luxurious 18kt gold pieces. Semi-bling or toned-down lux: whichever way you want to look at it, two-tone worked!
Three is the Magic Number
Reference 3133 was introduced in 1931 as a beautiful steel-and-gold watch that is a product of Rolex’s knack for producing timeless and elegantly beautiful watches that are as relevant today as they were almost 100 years ago – albeit back then in a diminutive 31mm case size. That’s the incredible nature of vintage Rolex: it never gets old. Rolesor stayed in production through the 1930s and 1940s in the Oyster watches and chronographs.
In the early 1950s, Rolex began experimenting with its earliest designs for sports watches. Both the Turn-O-Graph and the early dress Explorers (before the classic black 3-6-9 dial) were available in Rolesor livery. The Explorer finally settled down as a steel watch whereas the Turn-O-Graph continued to be available in Rolesor for all of its life.
As far as the “rock star” Rolex sports watch references were concerned, the world had to wait until 1971 for a Rolesor GMT-Master (Reference 1675/3) and until 1983 for a Submariner when Reference 16803 was released. In 1977, Rolex launched the Rolesor Datejust and gave the two-tone model its own reference number, 16013. With this the system was set. Rolesor model references always ended with a number 3, while steel is 0, yellow gold 8, white gold 9, Everose gold 5 and platinum 6.
Rolex has had a big push on Rolesor pieces over the past two years. In 2018, we were treated to a re-issue of perhaps the most iconic of Rolex’s Rolesor rollouts in the new “Root Beer” GMT Master. First available in 1971, the Root Beer was simultaneously launched with the black dial/black bezel 16753. The Root Beer was different due to its brown dial and brown/cream bezel insert. Also known as the Clint Eastwood, owing to the actor’s penchant for the model, the watch has always been a cult watch amongst collectors, even when bi-color was seriously out of favor. The 2018 iteration is a Rolesor that amalgamates Oystersteel with Everose gold. It was one of the hottest Rolex releases of 2018 and continues to be very much in demand.
Then 2019 brought a move that nobody saw coming: the ultimate tool watch and no-nonsense bruiser of the family, the mighty Sea-Dweller, was offered for the first time in Oystersteel and yellow gold. Since its birth in the late 1960s, the Sea-Dweller has been the real business end of the dive watch family. It has resisted the move towards precious metal cases or gem-set hour markers (unlike the Submariner and GMT-Master), but in 2019 the Rolesor Sea-Dweller reference 126603 brought half the bling to the deepest diver.
Vintage dealers have always been very reserved about offering two-tone pieces, as the market has always been quite soft. The only exception to this (notwithstanding the Root Beer) has been the Datejust. However, the market for bi-color vintage pieces is starting to rally now, as collectors and first-time buyers look for ways to collect pieces that are still relatively accessible.
There was never an officially produced Rolesor manual-wind Daytona and it wasn’t until 1988 and the release of Rolex’s first automatic Daytona that two-tone Daytonas were up for grabs, in the form of reference 16523. These watches house a number of bezel and dial variations that make collecting the Zenith-era Daytonas so much fun (the Rolex Daytonas from 1988 to 2000 were powered by modified Zenith El-Primero movements). With a Rolex Daytona 16520 so-called “Floating Cosmograph” in steel now selling for £80-100,000, a 16523 steel-and-gold model with the same dial type and bezel version can still be found for £25-30,000 ($31-38,000). With the Daytona occupying and driving its own market microcosm, will two-tone begin to climb steeply over the coming years? Time will tell.
Bi-colour is making its mark and is being acquired by younger, savvy buyers who like the look and versatility of the watches. I have two acquaintances in their late 20s who have been very successful in business and can buy whatever watches they choose. With no input from me, both guys independently bought Rolesor Rolex Sky-Dwellers. Not because they are “good value” or easier to locate than steel models, but because they look cool and work with whatever they choose to wear. In simple terms, these guys see Rolesor as bad-ass watches. And David Beckham’s choice of the S&G Black Bay in the Tudor campaigns has undoubtedly had a big impact on the popularity of these models. Becks really does have the Midas touch.
In closing, I’d like to share a story from the Phillips May auction in Geneva, when – along with my esteemed colleague Mr Sumit Nag – I witnessed the setting of an unexpected world record on the Sunday night sale. During one lot, someone sitting in front of us waged war against an online bidder to win a Rolex GMT-Master Reference 16753. This Root Beer was the non-nipple-dial version and was offered without a bracelet or boxes and papers – what dealers term as “head-only.” On a good-condition bracelet this watch can be bought for around CHF9000. This lot ended with an inclusive price of CHF24,375. Rolesor is back with a vengeance.