If you’re looking for a watch that perfectly matches your style, stands the test of time and provides that extra touch of classic appeal, then you’ve likely considered the Rolex. One of the world’s premier watchmaker brands, there’s a reason that these luxury time-pieces carry such a hefty price tag. The ultimate in indulgence, a Rolex isn’t just a purchase; it’s an investment.
However, when it comes to the best Rolexes in the world, it’s not the average piece you can pick up in a store. To go big, you need to go to auction. Especially when it comes to those one-of-a-kind models or unique examples of precisely what Rolex can do. Read on to discover ten of the world’s best Rolexes, and how much they sold for at auction.
1. James Bond’s 1973 Rolex Submariner
When it comes to expensive taste in watches, there are few men with taste as good as James Bond. While the character himself may be fictional, this 1973 Submariner was tailor-made for one movie particular – the eight film in the series, 1973’s Live and Let Die starring Roger Moore. In comparison to the usual Rolex, Bond’s included some additional career-specific features, including a sharp bezel to cut rope. Though the magnetic field is not a feature on the real watch, it still served to provide plenty of entertainment to movie-goers.
Designed in pure silver with gold accent pieces for added effect, this watch is as classic as they come and perfectly matches to 70s Rolex aesthetic, adding that integral final part to any tuxedo look you might choose. Sold in 2015 for $365,000, this piece of movie history is sure to be just as enjoyable for its new owners as it was for Bond fans, especially considering its unique history and famous past owner.
2. Steve McQueen 1967 Rolex Submariner
Another Submariner on the list, proving just how popular this specific model of Rolex is to the right and famous. One of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Steve McQueen’s 1967 Submariner was chosen to match his aesthetic and style and was no stranger to his many fashion editorials and premiere appearances. Clean, classic and always in style; just like McQueen himself.
Featuring a more muted colour palette that worked perfectly for one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors, McQueen’s Rolex is as reliable as it is appealing to look at. With a navy bezel, black face and white accents, all on a silver base, there’s little not to love about this simplistic design. It says it all. Selling at auction for $234,000, its high price was entirely based on its past owner and his ongoing legacy as one of Hollywood’s greats.
3. Dr Rajendra Prasad’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual in Gold
Unique in appearance and with an impressive history that will appeal to any collector, this gold Rolex dates back to 1950, where it was gifted to India’s first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad, on the first day of his constitution. The design of the watch was personalised for the man himself, including an 18k pink gold map of India, in addition to an engraving of the date he became president. Following his death, the watch was lost or stolen before reappearing at auction in 2011, 47 years later.
A true example of the robust nature of the Rolex, this decades-old time-piece continues to be just a striking as the day it was created, thanks to its vibrant gold finish and distinct design elements. With such a unique piece of history, it’s no surprise that the watch went for a staggering $440,000 at auction, continuing its legacy as one of the most valuable Rolexes in history. However, to this day it seems the family of Dr Prasad are still hoping to reclaim the lost time-piece, despite its increasing worth.
4. Paul Newman Ferrari Red Rolex Daytona
If you’ve even considered collecting or familiarising yourself with the world of Rolexes, then you’re likely already heard of Paul Newman’s penchant for some of the most prolific Rolexes in the world. Known for a wide range of different personas, from his work as an actor to a film director, and even his time as a race car driver, Paul Newman’s history is part of what makes this Ferrari Red Rolex so appealing. The watch was a gift to the star directly from Rolex, with only eight of these limited Rolexes still existing today.
Instantly recognisable for their vibrant red face, set against black elements and finalised with a beautiful silver exterior, the Ferrari Red Rolex is impressive enough alone with its fascinating history. However, with Paul Newman’s name attached to this time-piece, this unique piece of the past sold for an astonishing $267,203 at auction.
5. Eric Clapton’s 1971 Rolex Daytona
Known as one of the world’s greatest musical artists, the name ‘Eric Clapton’ is sure to add value to any time-piece. Known for his affinity for luxury wristwear – including several Rolexes – it’s no surprise that the musician was able to take his pick. This ‘Oyster Albino’ Daytona is one of a minimal run of four, further adding to its value and making the piece highly coveted by collectors worldwide.
With a silver appearance and black accents, this watch is as slick as is it attractive, with a distinct 1970s feel to it. Created from stainless steel, Eric Clapton’s 1971 Rolex Daytona is worth far more than the sum of its parts. Though the time-piece has changed hands multiple times over the years, its most recent price at auction was a very impressive $1.4 million back in 2015. As one of the most expensive watches in history, there are very few collectors who wouldn’t want to get their hands on this unique design.
6. Bao Dai Rolex
A completely unique, and utterly fascinating Rolex, the Bao Dai Rolex in unlike anything else. Previously owned by the last emperor of Vietnam, and known for its visually striking appearance, this Rolex has a fascinating history, and was initially sold at auction in 2002 for a far lower price than you’d expect for such a luxury item; $235,000.
With a striking black dial, diamond indexes and a yellow gold finish, including a moon phase and calendar, it soon turned out that over $250,000 for this Rolex was an excellent deal; with collectors the world over soon gaining interest in the truly one-of-a-kind watch. In 2017, the watch sold for twenty times its original auction value, at an astounding $5.1 million, proving that a profit can certainly be made when it comes to collection the world’s most famous watches.
7. Paul Newman’s Personalised Rolex Daytona
When it comes to Rolexes, Paul Newman’s name is a regular occurrence. In comparison to his Ferrari Red Rolex, however, this unique time-piece tops the charts by a large margin. One of the most sought-after Rolexes on the planet, this beautiful watch was originally a gift from Newman to his wife, Joanne. Personalised with ‘drive carefully me’ and purchased originally in New York, this rare time-piece is a popular favourite not just for its design, but for its unique history too.
With a more contemporary leather strap and a combination of creams, browns and silvers, this Rolex could be considered understated in comparison to some of the other watches on this list. However, the ultra-rare design, combined with the engraved message, resulted in a mind-blowing auction price of $17.8 million for this fascinating historical piece.
8. The 1971 ‘Unicorn’ Rolex Daytona
When it comes to the types of Rolex available, the Daytona seems to always come out on top. From Paul Newman’s priceless models to the beautiful and luxurious Unicorn, these watches always seem to fetch an excellent price. Named for its almost mythical design and impressive construction, the Unicorn originates in the 1970s and is one of the rarest variations of the Daytona on offer.
Created in an elegant 18k white gold, and utilising quality metal instead of acrylic in its design, the Unicorn is unique and one-of-a-kind, making it highly sought-after for its attractive appearance and style. As you’d expect for such an incredible time-piece, the Unicorn fetches an excellent price at auction, with its latest sale in 2018 costing $5.9 million. It’s marginally more expensive than the Bao Dai Rolex, making it the second most expensive Rolex ever to be auctioned.
9. Paul Newman 1969 Cosmograph Daytona
Paul Newman’s excellent taste in watches doesn’t end with his personalised watch for his beloved wife. The Cosmograph Daytona is yet another example of excellence in design from Newman’s extensive time-piece collection. Created in 1969, this legendary time-piece included screw-down pushers as well as an Art Deco style design, making it a piece that’s more highly coveted than practically any other watch in existence.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the elegant time-piece is still in like-new condition fifty years after its creation, further adding to its value. Thanks to the robust and functional design, this Rolex will still function like new for its new owner, should they choose to wear it rather than store it away. As with Newman’s other watches, the Cosmograph Daytona auctions off for an outstanding amount at auction, selling in 2017 for $3.7 million.
10. 1942 Rolex Antimagnetique
The oldest Rolex on this list, the Rolex Antimagnetique has origins back in 1942, making the time-piece now over 77 years old. Finely-crafted to gift to racing drivers, the popularity of Rolexes increased from this time due to their rarity and attractive style. With 12 watches in total, each with a wide diameter of 44mm, they are the largest Rolexes ever produced.
With several different variants of the famous wristwatch available, these watches are increasingly sought-after by collectors. In 2016, one of the 12 sold at auction for an incredible $2.4 million, doubling its previous sale only a couple of years prior. At this rate, the Antimagnetique range will only continue to skyrocket in value as they become rarer and more challenging to maintain.
If you’re a fan of Rolexes, or if you love the feel of a valuable watch on your wrist, then auctions might be the way to go. With more and more sought-after Rolexes being found at auction every year, there’s never been a better time to pick up that variant you’ve been coveting, or that design you’ve fallen in love with.
The history of Rolex watches…
In the world of high-end watches, there are many worthy brands to choose from. Watch collectors and lovers will wax lyrical about their favourite makers – but ultimately there is one which has done something incredible.
One brand has made the leap from being revered in watch-circles, to being globally known as a style, design, and mechanical marvel. Over the course of a century, that brand has continually grown in popularity through innovation, while retaining their classical elegant appearance.
That brand is, of course, Rolex, and this is their journey.
What is Rolex?
It is the biggest single watch brand famous throughout the world. In 1905, Hand Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis laid the foundation of this brand that is now in the heart of every watch lover. Initially, the duo was the importer of Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movement. Later on, Wilsdorf started his own business with his partner, and they became the most successful watch brand in the world. The most iconic Rolex pieces are the Submariner, Daytona, GMT-Master, and Lady Datejust. The most surprising fact is that Rolex manufactures 2,000 watches just in a day.
From humble beginnings
Rolex is now a multi-billion dollar company, making multiple hundreds of thousands of watches a year which are sold and revered in every corner of the world. But an icon is never born an icon, it’s the result of hard work and humble beginnings – Rolex is no different.
Hans Wildorf founded Wilsdorf and Davis, the company which would later become Rolex S.A with his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, in 1905. Despite Rolex being renowned in Swiss watch-making, Wilsdorf himself was German-born and the shop was established in London, England.
The company’s long connection with Switzerland first began through Wilsdorf and Davis importing Swiss watch movements from Hermann Aegler. These movements would be implanted into cases made locally, and the resulting watch could be sold to local jewellers – many of whom were able to customise them by engraving their own names within the dial.
Wilsdorf had a vision that encompassed much more than making a little profit – he wanted to transform the wristwatch itself. At the time, wristwatches were little more than mostly re-purposed pocket watches. They were bulky, tempramental, and unreliable.
It was Wilsdorf’s goal to make a wristwatch that was everything the current wristwatches weren’t. He wanted to offer customers something truly reliable, an accurate timepiece that could be comfortably worn. This is why he began importing the superior quality Swiss movements.
The birth of an icon
1908 would be the birth of the word “Rolex”, the year the name was trademarked. But, what’s in a name? Well, in the case of Rolex, quite a lot – it was a name that was hard thought and had to satisfy several strict criteria.
Wilsdorf had a view of a global watch brand, and so he wanted his watch to be very easy to pronounce in any language. The name Rolex itself is famously attributed to his belief that it was onomatopoeic – he thought it was similar to the sound of a watch being wound. The name also had to be short, so as to easily fit on the face of a compact wristwatch.
La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland would become the sight of a new office from which Wilsdorf and Davis would sell their new brand of “Rolex” watches. The company would not become known as Rolex until later years.
Wilsdorf had a passion for making accurate timepieces, and the company quickly became known for the accuracy of their movements and the reliability of their watches. Rolex became the first watchmaker to earn chronometer wristwatch certification, in 1910.
A “Class A Precision Certificate” was awarded to a Rolex watch in 1914 by the Kew Observatory. This was notable because a regular wristwatch was being awarded a precision certification usually reserved for marine chronometers – which are of course held to a higher standard of accuracy.
Following this, the company name would begin to change. Firstly to Rolex Watch Co. Ltd in 1919, and then Montres Rolex S.A. a year later – this would later be shortened to Rolex S.A. The move to Geneva came in 1919 when a combination of heavy import costs for the precious metals used in the watch cases, and post-war luxury import levies forced Wilsdorf out of England.
The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation currently runs the company, and has done so since 1960 when Hans Wilsdorf died. The foundation itself was established after his wife’s death in 1944, and in which Wilsdorf would entrust his Rolex shares.
Most popular Rolex models
The Rolex catalogue of watches is filled with historical timepieces, too numerous to mention each in depth. There are, however, certain models among the brand’s offerings which have become cultural institutions of their own accord. Here are the most popular Rolex models.
If you’re a watch lover, or you have paid any attention to watches, you’ll notice that most of the modern watches you see today can trace their lineage back to the Rolex Datejust. Introduced in 1945, it combined a date feature on the watch dial with an automatic winding capability.
This allowed the date to be automatically adjusted at midnight, every day, and it would become the foundation for the overwhelming majority of wristwatches that followed over the next fifty years. The Datejust is a highly versatile watch, equally suited to everyday wear as well as special occasions.
Rolex created their highly famous waterproof watch and named it the Submariner. It was the second watch ever created that could remain waterproof up to 330 feet, with a multi-directional bezel to monitor both depth and diving time. The goal was for the Submariner to be easy to operate even when wearing gloves and underwater.
Rolex has a strong history with diving and waterproof watches. A specially made Rolex “DeepSea” was attached to the side of the underwater exploration vehicle Trieste during its historical exploration of the Mariana Trench. It kept perfect time on the 11,000 metre dive and the journey back to the surface.
Rolex has a history of sponsoring great sporting events, and their partnership with the famous Daytona Road Beach Course culminated in the release of the Rolex Daytona in 1963. As official timekeepers, the watch was designed to be worn by racing drivers, with features to match.
The Daytona is a strongly build watch, waterproof, and capable of resisting the g-forces drivers experience when racing at high speed. It’s also capable of measuring speeds of up to 400 kilometres per hour, with three sub-dials within the face for measuring seconds, minutes, and hours.
Many of Rolex’s most famous designs are several decades old, which makes the relatively new Yacht-Master something of a modern classic. It was released in 1992 and, as the name implied, had sailors in mind thanks to its waterproof construction and easy to read dial.
The Yacht-Master is a consistent favourite among Rolex lovers because of its striking design, its reliability, and its usability. The face has been designed to be easily read, even in strong storms and adverse weather conditions, making it an excellent choice for an “everyday Rolex”.
Rolex has a history of designing watches to suit the needs of certain types of people – the Submariner for divers, the Daytona for racing drivers, and the Yacht-Master for sailors. The GMT-Master was designed with pilots and navigators in mind, in conjunction with Pan Am Airways.
One of the most famous features of the GMT-Master is its ability to display two alternate time-zones at the same time, allowing for much easier cross-continental travel. The face has also been designed to be as easy to read as possible, when working in dimly lit cockpits and cabins.
Notable wearers and sponsorships
Rolex has become a global icon of watch-making not only through their exquisite quality and accurate time-keeping, but as a result of their popularity with a large number of celebrities and cultural icons. Rolex have also been known to sponsor a large number of high profile sporting events.
Famous wearers of their watches include Hollywood A-list celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Robert Downey Jnr. They were also popular with cultural icons such as Steve McQueen and Paul Newman – Newman’s specially designed Daytona became the most expensive watch ever sold in 2017, when it made $17.75 million at auction.
Rolex also found favour with many other historical icons. Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Llama have all been photographed wearing, or expressed their appreciation for, Rolex watches. Marilyn Monroe gifted a Rolex Day-Date to John. F. Kennedy before her famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” performance.
Rolex Oysters were worn by Tenzing Norgay, along with other Hut Expedition members, when they famously ascended Mount Everest in 1953. Rolex is also an official timekeeper in multiple tennis tournaments, such as Wimbledon, the Grand Slams, as well as the US, French and Australian Open.
Rolex serves as the official timekeeper for multiple golf events, including the Open Championship, U.S Open, as well as the European and PGA tour. As exhibited with their famous Daytona model, Rolex serves as title sponsor for the 24 Hours of Daytona, and since 2013 has been the official timekeeper of FIA Formula 1.
All of this storied history, cultural importance, and time-keeping excellence has led to Rolex still being at the top of many people’s list when they consider a truly premium watch. An impressive feat for a company established well over a century ago – however, Rolex appears to be going from strength to strength.
Rolex still makes its home in Geneva, from which they operate a multi-billion dollar company selling high-class watches to customers the world over. Rolex are famously guarded about certain statistics regarding their business, but it has been estimated they currently make in excess of 800,000 watches a year.
Purchasing a Rolex is, at its heart, purchasing a fine-quality timepiece. But, it’s about more than that. When you buy a Rolex, you buy something truly special. If you choose your model well, you have an investment-grade watch that will always be desirable.
Rolex is, and always will be, synonymous with excellence.
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