An Ode to One of the Most Classic and Important Watches of All Time
Surprise! It’s a Rolex
Originally published by Jack Forster on Hodinkee.
“...as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.” –Howard Carter, The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen
In 1972, I was living in Pennsylvania, after my folks had escaped to the suburbs from a more glamorous but comparatively cramped New York apartment. (That apartment was a two bedroom on 86th Street off Central Park. Still mad about that one.) My mother was a first generation immigrant to America (Dad, on the other hand, was good old solid Connecticut Swamp Yankee) and her family in New York were mostly diplomats. One of them in particular – an older brother of hers – had a senior posting to the UN, and one summer we drove up to New York in Dad's Ford Falcon to hit the museums, catch a piano recital at Carnegie Hall, and have Uncle Diplomat take us on an informal walking tour of the General Assembly Building (this was back in the days when you could actually toddle around the UN more or less unescorted).
For a young kid used to a semi-rural life, it was pretty awe-inducing (for all that my folks tried to impress on us that we should consider ourselves honorary New Yorkers, and therefore cosmopolitan sophisticates, we still felt like rubes when we visited the Big Apple) but one thing that stayed with me from the trip was unexpected. Sure, there were the dinosaur skeletons at the Museum Of Natural History (with the T. rex still positioned incorrectly upright, its tail dragging on the ground) and even getting a chance to sit in the chair of the Secretary General (my feet didn't touch the ground) and look out at the chairs where the gathered nations of the Earth sat in conclave. But what also wowed me like I'd never been wowed, was a watch – a gold Rolex Day-Date, on my uncle's wrist. I have no idea why, but I was absolutely thunderstruck; I remember looking at it (it was yellow gold and I'm 99% sure it was an 1803) and thinking, more or less, "now that is a watch that says that a man is a power in this world."
That was almost the first watch I ever really noticed (the very first was my Dad's triple calendar Benrus, which was a pretty elevated watch in Central PA in those days; the second was the Omega Speedmaster Professional, in ads as well as pictures of the Apollo astronauts in National Geographic). Quite a few years went by, and I basically totally forgot about it. Then in graduate school, I got interested in watches again, and in talking to people online about watches, and meeting up with other watch nuts. Like a lot of us, I didn't want to have anything to do with Rolex, at first; if you are a graduate student who is trying to radiate an air of being in possession of champagne tastes, while surreptitiously living on a Coca-Cola budget, the last thing you want is a watch you consider exclusively the domain of especially successful used-car salesmen and other clueless nouveau riches arrivistes. I got out of school and went to work, but I kept talking to people about watches and fiddling with watches. Sometime thereafter, I ran afoul of another Rolex, at a collectors' dinner.
This was a Thunderbird, with a pink gold bezel, and it did two things. First, it made my jaw drop, in a way I'd forgotten Rolex could make anyone's jaw drop. Second, it reminded me of my uncle's long-forgotten Day-Date.
They say that certain tastes are formed and fixed early, and while it's true that you can develop more educated tastes, and that experience adds context and may even change preferences, and that knowledge makes for a much richer experience, I think it's also true that on some basic level, first loves never dim (there was a great story in the New Yorker a while back – I wish I could remember by whom – in which the author observes at one point, "The half-life of love is forever.").
If experience provides context, though, the one experience (what with one thing and another) that I'd never had was actually wearing a Day-Date for longer than a couple of minutes. Time to fill the gap, I thought – and here we are.
There are currently two sizes of Day-Date available: 36mm and 40mm, and you can have either model in, well, let's see: white gold, yellow gold, Everose (Rolex's proprietary rose gold formula), or platinum; you may at whim bedeck your Day-Date with diamonds; you may have it with a bewildering plethora of different dial colors and finishes; you may have yours on a bracelet or a strap.
However, the ur-Day-Date doth not hide its light under a bushel by mimicking steel, whether with platinum or white gold; and though there is a certain sense of barbaric opulence to be found in an Everose case and bracelet, I honestly think that the sort of triumphant, sacker-of-cities vibe you get from that combination works better for a Daytona. The most essential version of the Day-Date – the one most unadorned in its pure Day-Date-ness – is yellow gold; and thanks to my early exposure to Uncle's 1803, as far as I'm concerned it's a 36mm yellow gold Day-Date that represents the Day-Date as it should be consumed – straight, no chaser.
"This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I've been in love with its color...its brilliance, its divine heaviness." – Goldfinger, 1964
The 36mm Rolex Day-Date, Champagne Dial
Wearing a solid gold Day-Date is a study in conflicted feelings. First of all, if you've had a horological history like mine, there's a straight-up kick in the pants of pure nostalgia, which is what you want out of a watch whose design has not changed significantly since its launch in 1956 (the year it debuted at Baselworld, which at the time was known as the Schweizer Uhrenmesse). By both general modern standards and modern Rolex standards, 36mm is on the small side, but the watch is so intense visually (and heavy physically) that 36mm seems more than large enough. Certainly it's an extremely substantial watch – it weighs, more or less, 174 grams, which is noticeably heavier than our reference watch for mass, the Seiko SKX-007 (142 grams). The model we got in for this story was nothing if not gold with a capital G – gold dial (okay, champagne, but it looks pretty darned gold), gold hands, gold bracelet, fluted gold bezel, and, of course, the gold case.
As is almost invariably the case with Rolex, the quality, fit, and finish of just about every aspect of the watch is virtually flawless, and I'm putting in feeble qualifiers like "almost" only because I feel that basic journalistic respectability demands it, not because there are any issues with quality, fit, and finish. Hands and dial markers are not the least bit ornate or ornamental; they are, however, of obvious and extremely high quality.
Another point of noticeable quality is the bracelet. The clearances between the links are extremely small, so there's no play whatsoever, and taking the watch on and off is simple and quick – a fingernail under the crown-shaped clasp, and the bracelet opens easily, giving you even more yellow gold to look at. Despite the ease of operation, the buckle feels extremely secure. The bracelet flexes easily with just the right amount of slight resistance, and the tolerances are so close that you almost feel as if you are wearing something made out of a single piece of magically flexible gold, rather than individual gold components (if you can imagine such a thing).
There is absolutely no question that this is the single most recognizable and most noticeable wristwatch I've ever worn, for review purposes or otherwise. It seems everyone knows what a gold Rolex looks like. Maybe it's because the phrase "gold Rolex" is so deeply ingrained via mass and entertainment media – it's the watch of everyone from Fidel Castro to Tony Soprano to several U.S. presidents, to Jennifer Aniston, to Keyser Söze (I think; it sure looks like that's what he's got in the movie), and even the Dalai Lama, and it seems to produce a seemingly instant burst of recognition in people who see it – even, and especially, in people who don't know a Patek from a bidet.
People ask if they can touch it; people ask if they can hold it (it's rather like having a newborn infant out in a stroller for the first time, come to think of it); people ask, "is it . . . yours?" in slightly incredulous tones. It has an impact out of all proportion to its presence as a piece of gold jewelry; as a display object, it is dramatically more impactful than just about anything else you can wear on your wrist. That it is extremely comfortable to wear and that it keeps excellent and reliable time is icing on the cake. It should be mentioned that watching the day and date switch instantaneously at midnight is a lot of good clean fun as well, should you be up at midnight on any kind of a regular basis, which I feel you should be if you have one of these.
Thanks to the mass distribution and bracelet quality, the 36mm Day-Date is very comfortable.
The downside? The downside is, oddly enough, identical to the upside. If it is not in your comfort zone to wear a wristwatch that is instantly recognizable to a surprisingly large fraction of the Earth's citizenry, in good light or bad, from half a city block away, this is not for you.
People who have never worn one often say that this watch is a violently noticeable display object and I'm here to tell you, they're right. It is a declaration of your presence in the world that borders on overtly aggressive. In the same way that a red Ferrari is an invitation to, sooner or later, hear someone's shout of "aaassshhoolllee" dopplering past you as you blow by them on an Interstate, so the gold 36mm Day-Date (with gold everything) is a guarantee of a non-zero chance that at some point, someone will mumble something equally uncomplimentary in intent, if not identical in expression, as you amble by. If you're the least bit insecure about other people's opinions, reconsider this watch; there is much in discreet, under-the-cuff, high quality, under the radar watchmaking out there for the price – albeit, "more discreet than a solid gold Day-Date" isn't setting the bar very high for discretion.
The 40mm Day-Date, Silver Dial
Four millimeters may not be much in everyday life, but for a watch it can make the difference between enthusiastic adoption and instant infamy. Let it never be said that I think the 40mm Day-Date is infamous, but it is four millimeters bigger than the 36 and that makes a significant difference in how the watch is perceived by the wearer (this wearer, anyway) and others.
The 40mm Day-Date isn't just a bigger watch than the 36mm – it's also arguably a technically better watch (as we discussed last October). The movement inside is a fairly new one for Rolex: caliber 3255, which is fitted with the optimized-geometry Chronergy escapement. Rolex claims a 15% increase in efficiency in energy delivery from this alone. The Parachrom balance spring (niobium-zirconium) and nickel-phosphorus lever and escape wheel make the watch highly resistant to magnetism, and when it was launched, the 3255 was the first movement to be regulated to the new Superlative Chronometer standard of -2/+2 seconds maximum deviation in rate per day (which Rolex subsequently extended across its entire product line). By contrast, the 36mm Day-Date uses the caliber 3155 – an excellent movement capable of keeping a very stable rate, but perhaps not loaded with the fourteen patents-pending bells and whistles of the 3255.
While the 36mm Day-Date feels like a sort of neutron star of Day-Date-ness – with so much of what is essential about the Day-Date packed into it that any more would make it collapse into a kind of luxury singularity – the 40mm seems almost too big to be believed. And in not just a physical, but also a psychic, sense. Strangely enough, this was borne out in the noticeably different reactions people had to the 36mm and 40mm Day-Dates.
While the 36mm produced an almost instant recognition from all and sundry that they were in the presence of The Real Thing, the 40mm is so large that it seemed as if people literally didn't believe their eyes. It was sort of like what happens when you see a dinosaur stomping across a movie screen; you just automatically assume you are seeing a special effect. I found that fewer people took notice of the 40mm, which wasn't what I was expecting at all. It was almost as if, on seeing the watch, people's brains automatically rejected it as obviously physically impossible, and instead, made the assumption that it must be from Michael Kors or something. In 36mm, a gold-colored (okay, champagne) dial on a Day-Date is a natural part of the overall ensemble; but I think in 40mm, it would just be too much gold – you actually need something to cut the richness, which the silver dial on ours did nicely. (By the way, it's also a whopping 204 grams to the 36mm's 174, so you can feel, as well as see, the difference.)
All that said, this is still a solid gold Rolex Day-Date, and if its recognizability is just slightly dimmed thanks to reflexive incredulity, well, that sort of underscores just how big the watch really is – as we've said, both physically and psychically. The best fit for this guy is probably someone with a larger physical frame, on which the presence of the watch will seem a better fit. On me it was too much of a good, golden thing.
"Now, as he was sinking – had he the gold? or the gold him?” —John Ruskin, Unto This Last, 1860
There is no disputing that these are two extremely well-made watches. The fact of the matter remains, however – and the experience of wearing them bears this out – that their throw-weight as social signifiers significantly exceeds that of their purely horological significance. They're quite a bit more than just jewelry, too; it's hard to wear one without feeling like you've become part of a certain tradition, and one of ultra self-confident posturing at that.
A great deal of that, of course, has to do with the very old and totally inexplicable allure of gold itself. I said up above that a really correct (so to speak) Day-Date has to be yellow gold, and I think I feel that way because that is gold as it was most anciently known. Gold is yellow, ductile, incorruptible and precious; it's how we first met the metal culturally and it remains the most primitively satisfying way to wear it. Of course, there has always been some question about the degree to which our treasures become our masters. In 1860, John Ruskin put it succinctly:
“Lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking – had he the gold? or the gold him?”
That's really the conundrum posed by the Day-Dates: exactly who's wearing who? For me, it seemed easier at first to wear the 36mm than to be worn by it – but having worn both, I now wonder which is really the most overwhelming of the two. The instant recognition afforded by the 36mm, stacked up against the also recognizable, but slightly less iconic, 40mm Day-Date, also made me wonder if opting in to being just slightly subordinated by your own watch – at least, a watch that scratches such a very, very old itch as the utterly irrational and very potentially destructive love of gold – might not be part of the fun.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36mm retails for $31,350 as configured here; the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40mm retails for $34,850 as configured here.
See all the Day-Dates and more at Rolex.com.
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