The watch investor: Rolex Submariner, Daytona and Explorer II

A look at the history behind Rolex’s most sought-after sports references — the Submariner, Daytona and Explorer II — with analysis of how prices for each have appreciated over the years


Rolex Submariner

There is perhaps no more important sports wristwatch than the Rolex Submariner. It is, for very good reason, the purpose-built timepiece that comes to mind when conversation turns to the tool-watch class. Like all the Swiss watchmaker’s other offerings, it was, and still is, a fully functioning dive watch, but one that nevertheless maintains the timeless elegance of a Rolex.

Like many other of the brand’s sporting lines, the Submariner’s origins date back to the 1930s. Rolex first began to experiment in the field of wristwatches designed for underwater use through the production of 47 mm timepieces that are still regarded as oversized. These watches proved to be successful among military and commercial divers, but the brand founded by Hans Wilsdorf wanted to bring its functionality to the masses.

Development of the Submariner was driven in part by René-Paul Jeanneret, a member of the Rolex board of directors and a diver with a passion for this highly technical sport. Jeanneret’s relationship with Jacques-Yves Cousteau furthered his interest in developing such a watch — an ambition that was finally realised with the brand’s release of the Ref. 6204 Submariner in 1953.

The Submariner has subsequently taken on many forms, becoming more functional and even more iconic with the passing of the years. In the case of modern references, depth ratings have increased and the option of date functionality has been added.

The earliest executions of the dive watch remain the most collectible and sought after by serious collectors. Just last year, Christie’s sold an example of the desirable Ref. 6538 ‘Big Crown’ Submariner that set a new auction record for a Submariner when it sold for over $1 million.

Collectors seeking references that tell a story have begun to turn towards ‘transitional’ references of the Rolex back catalogue, watches that represent eras of change in the brand’s history. In the case of the Submariner, one of the most popular transitional references is the Ref. 16800, which follows the Ref. 1680.

Like its predecessor, this reference made use of a traditional matte dial as seen on Submariners of the late 1960s and 1970s, though it incorporates a more sophisticated Cal. 3035 movement, complete with a quickset date function, along with the addition of a sapphire crystal. These watches originally retailed for just over the $1,000 mark. The Ref. 116610 is the closest modern equivalent of the 16800 and sells for $8,550 in authorised retailers.

Prices for references like these have been steadily increasing over recent decades, making the purchase of an honest example a wise investment. With demand for stainless-steel sports Rolex models higher than ever before, it’s safe to say the future for these Submariners is bright.

Rolex Daytona

No discussion of the models that have defined Rolex’s history would be complete without mention of the celebrated Daytona. The first Daytonas left the Rolex factory in Geneva in 1963, although the watchmaker’s association with motorsport and Daytona Beach can be traced back to the early 1930s.

At the time, the British racing driver and multiple land-speed record-holder Sir Malcolm Campbell was preparing for his latest bid to break his previous record of 253.09 mph, inspiring Hans Wilsdorf to supply him with an Oyster timepiece for his speed trials.

Campbell would go on to achieve his goal after reaching a speed of 272.46 mph at Daytona Beach in 1933 — while wearing a Rolex on his wrist. The reliability and accuracy of the Oyster during this remarkable human and technical achievement was made known to consumers across the globe, beginning Rolex’s longstanding relationship with motorsport. Indeed it could be argued that the unrivalled reputation Rolex now enjoys owes much to its outstanding marketing, in addition to its production of truly superlative chronometers.

Just over three decades later, Rolex would cement its place in the history of watchmaking and motorsport with the introduction of the Ref. 6239 Daytona that began it all. Unlike the brand’s previous chronograph offerings, the Daytona was far more sports-oriented thanks to the implementation of contrasting, inverse colour subdials that increased legibility while affording the timepiece a more aggressive overall aesthetic.

The chronograph would go on to be championed by many notable figures within the world of motoring, thanks to its accuracy, timeless styling and reliability under the most demanding of conditions. Today, the winners of the Rolex-sponsored 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race are presented with Daytonas that feature commemorative engraving on the caseback.

Vintage Daytona references now represent some of the most desirable vintage watches for collectors, with prices rising every year

More recently, the Rolex Daytona has become arguably the most desirable sports chronograph on the market. This can be explained by an increased awareness of its importance in the history of watchmaking, motorsport, and pop culture as a whole.

It is worth noting, however, that things weren’t always this way. Watches such as the Ref. 6263 Daytona — which are now blue-chip, investment-grade timepieces — were once regarded as far less desirable than other Rolex offerings like the so-called ‘Bubbleback’ references that were especially popular throughout the late 1980s and 1990s.

During this time, stainless-steel Daytonas sold at retail for just over the $1,000 mark, equating to roughly $2,500 in today’s economy, while examples traded for as little as a few hundred dollars on the second-hand market. Those days are long gone, as the equivalent modern reference 116500LN sells for $12,400 at authorised dealers — if you can find one, that is.

With demand so high, examples of this modern production reference now trade for far above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Respectively, vintage Daytona references now represent some of the most desirable vintage watches for collectors, with prices rising every year. All of these factors make investing in a Daytona an appealing and prudent proposition.

Rolex Explorer II

Rolex targeted a different but equally daring market with the production of its Explorer references. The line dates back to 1953, although its roots lie in the decades of preliminary testing that went on to achieve optimal resilience and dependability.

In 1933 Rolex began strategically outfitting participants in Himalayan climbing expeditions with Oyster wristwatches to serve them on their adventures. The feedback from these intrepid individuals would be of crucial importance in ensuring the future success of the line of great adventuring Rolex wristwatches.

Through the use of strengthened cases and lubricants capable of withstanding the effects of extreme temperatures, Rolex had created a watch worthy of its title, Explorer

In 1952, the Explorer began to near its final form, as modified versions of existing Bubbleback references were released with the brand’s more active enthusiasts in mind. These included Ref. 6098, 6150, and 6298, which are now commonly regarded as ‘Pre-Explorer’ references by collectors.

One year later, the Explorer name would make its first appearance on dials with the launch of the Ref. 6350 — the first true Explorer. Through the use of strengthened cases and lubricants capable of withstanding the effects of extreme temperatures, Rolex had created a watch worthy of its title. The Ref. 6350 was released shortly after the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition, which had seen Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first men to reach the summit of Earth’s highest mountain, a feat supported by Rolex through sponsorship and the supply of timepieces.

The Explorer II represents the next chapter in the Explorer story, but it is not a successor in the traditional sense because the Ref. 1016 Explorer remained in the catalogue. Instead, Rolex developed this watch to further its reach into the world of adventure, and to serve another breed of explorer — speleologists.

The watch was realised after cave explorers expressed interest in a hardwearing timepiece that could indicate whether it was night or day — an important consideration when underground. Rolex approached the project with the same dedication to durability and resilience that defined the early Explorer references, with the Ref. 1655 Explorer II meeting the needs of speleologists through the addition of a brightly coloured, orange 24-hour hand, which traced a fixed bezel finished with markings much like that of the GMT Master.

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Much like the Submariner and the Daytona, the collectability of Explorer II references has increased significantly with the passing of time, as collectors have grown to love the everyday usability of the brand’s sports models. Just over 20 years ago, an Explorer II could be purchased new from a retailer for roughly $2,000, or just under $4,000 in today's prices. Today, the modern equivalent Ref. 216570 sells for $8,100.

Those in search of something less conventional generally opt for older references, including the Ref. 16550. Scholarly collectors have taken notice of the uniquely bold typeface found exclusively on this reference, which explains why clean examples now sell for upwards of $20,000.

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