In-Depth: Five Reasons Why The Rolex Datejust Is A Wristwatch For The Ages
Watchonista shines a spotlight on the model that quietly turned 75 last year.
By now, most watch lovers have heard the news: President Joe Biden is a Rolex man. The wristwatch he chose for his inauguration on Jan. 20 — a Rolex Datejust with a black dial — was a Christmas gift from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. And it not only made big news on the style pages, but it also sparked a social media firestorm, with some users taking issue with the timepiece’s perceived elitism.
Ask a watch aficionado, however, and you’ll realize that as far as Rolexes go, the Datejust is as everyman as it gets. And even though the model doesn’t generate the excitement associated with its brash sport-model siblings, the Submariner and Daytona, the classic reference with the signature Cyclops lens is, arguably, Rolex’s most popular and important wristwatch. Here’s why:
It Was the Watch Industry’s First Real Icon
Introduced in 1945, the Datejust was the first automatic watch to feature a date window on the dial (at 3 o’clock, specifically). It turned 75 in 2020 — not that you’d know it. Rolex isn’t the type to make a fuss over milestones, which, in the case of the Datejust, is fitting.
Beloved for its no-nonsense, utilitarian vibe, the Datejust conjures a steadfast image that has made it the wristwatch of choice for some of history’s most influential leaders. Including President Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, who famously wore a gold Datejust gifted to him by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf.
“It stands for confidence, for maturity, for greatness — it’s almost like a historic institution,” Geoffrey Hess, international watch specialist at Phillips, told Watchonista. “The Datejust was defining and transformative — it was the first watch to achieve a reputation as being important because it was associated with a particular essence, an essence that a respected grandfather or a senior statesman carried.”
It’s the Perfect Starter Watch
The Datejust, which made its debut during Rolex’s 40th anniversary year, is known as the pillar of the Geneva-based watchmaker’s Oyster Perpetual collection. Understanding its historical context is key to appreciating its place within the Rolex pantheon — and its reputation as the classic starter watch.
Cameron Barr, CEO of the Los Angeles-based vintage watch dealer Craft & Tailored, told Watchonista that the brand initially considered naming the model the “Jubilee” (in honor of its ruby jubilee). But, given that the post-war years heralded the dawn of the Atomic Age and the Cold War, the Datejust name felt more appropriate. Instead, Rolex placed the model on a Jubilee bracelet, lending it a more refined vibe that has been key to the model’s versatility — and its ability to walk the line between casual and dressy in all the decades since.
“If someone comes to me and says I want one watch and one watch only, I’d recommend a Datejust,” says Barr. “It’s a go-anywhere type of piece. You could wear it with a suit or with jeans.”
The model’s crossover appeal helps explain why Matt Donohue, a vintage Rolex collector based in Raleigh, N.C., considers the Datejust “a gateway drug.”
“Any collector deep into Rolex at some point had a Datejust,” he says. “No Rolex aficionado would poopoo it because, ‘Hey, I was there one day.’
Its Collectability Quotient is High
For all its newbie appeal, the Datejust is not just a wristwatch for beginners. “I know collectors who have pièce unique collections, and they’ll geek out over a Datejust,” Barr says.
That’s because, over the past 75 years, the model has had scores of variants and subvariants that make it exceedingly collectible, starting with its many varieties of dials (i.e., Buckey, Sigma, Pie Pan).
“There are Rolex references, like the Day-Date, that, with a few exceptions, are always produced in noble metals like platinum or gold,” Barr says. “But the Datejust is produced in steel, two-tone, yellow gold, white gold. There are exotic stone dial variants like malachite and lapis. You have luminous and non-luminous dial variants. You can have three Ref. 1601s, but all could be different.”
It Offers Something for Everyone
There is virtually no going wrong with the Datejust — its unisex styling makes it the ideal 21st-century timepiece. “Regardless if you’re a man, a woman, an elite collector, or a guy who has one watch you inherited from your grandfather, it’s iconic,” Barr told Watchonista.
In September, when Rolex unveiled its 2020 timepieces, the Datejust collection welcomed a quartet of new Datejust 31 models in white Rolesor (a combination of Oystersteel and 18k white gold) that emphasize its feminine appeal. One features a bezel set with 46 brilliant-cut diamonds and an aubergine, sunray-finished dial. The other three are adorned with fluted bezels in 18k white gold and a range of colorful dials, including mint green, white lacquer, and dark gray.
Like All Rolexes, the Datejust is Built to Last
In 1961, Donohue’s grandfather, a schoolteacher in Princeton, N.J., was gifted a two-tone Datejust by the father of a student he’d tutored in math.
“He wore it every day for 40 years,” Donohue, who credits the watch with igniting his passion for Rolex, told Watchonista. “The thing that’s always impressed me about the brand in general, and the Datejust in particular, is the way he wore it — the thing never left his wrist. He traveled the world with it. He was religious about maintaining it, but he did not baby it, and that longevity is what embodies a Rolex.”
(Photography by Pierre Vogel)