Rolex watches have a certain something about them. They are first and foremost tool watches, meant to tell the time reliably and accurately for generations, but unlike many other makers of robust timepieces a Rolex is also synonymous with luxury and success. Many of us aspire to one day own a Rolex, but this is becoming increasingly difficult due to ever-escalating retail prices and years-long wait lists for their most popular models.
The key to obtaining that dream Rolex without breaking the bank is to buy pre-owned, and to know which vintage references offer the most reliability. People often (incorrectly) assume that a pre-owned vintage Rolex will always be a compromise compared to one of their modern references bought new from a store, when often the movement used within the watch is identical, or in some cases, actually preferable in the older reference.
To be clear here, I’m not talking about the most desirable vintage Rolexes from a collector’s or investor’s point of view. The rarest early references often cost more than their modern counterparts while utilizing inferior movements, hollow bracelets and plexiglass crystals that will scratch if you look at them askance. While these watches may have investment potential, they wouldn’t hold up to every day wear the same way we’d expect from a modern Rolex.
For the majority of us who want to actually wear our watches, the best Rolexes to buy are the references released between 1988 and 2010 that utilize the caliber 3135 or its variants. Quill & Pad have examined the differences between Rolex’s long-serving 3135 and the new-for-2015 calibre 3235 from a watchmaker’s perspective and found that the older movement is actually preferable in terms of longevity and serviceability. The late 80’s also marked a departure from plexiglass in favor of the far more durable sapphire crystals that we’ve come to expect from modern luxury watches.
Using WatchCharts’ Price Guide makes it easy to find which references are the most affordable on the used market, and filtering the results for models featuring the 3135 caliber provides us with the following results.
Attainable Minimalism: Air-King reference 14000M ($2,600 – $3,400 USD)
The Air-King has long been the entry level Rolex reference and offers a clean, time-only aesthetic. The modern reference 116900 of this watch has morphed into some sort of comic-sans lime-green abomination, and is priced far above what any of us would consider “entry level” at $6,450 RRP. For half the price or less you could have the reference 14000M instead, which debuted in 2000 and comes equipped with the calibre 3130. The only functional benefit of the current Air-King over the earlier model is the inclusion of a Faraday cage to protect the movement from magnetism, a “perk” which might not be of use to everybody and has the drawback of making the watch head much heavier. For my money, the 14000M and a cheap demagnetizer from eBay is the better buy.
Classic Luxury on a Budget: Datejust reference 16233 ($4,400 – $5,400)
A modern Datejust 36 reference 126233 with the obligatory fluted bezel and jubilee bracelet in two-tone steel and gold will set you back a cool $11,700 RRP. For less than half that eye-watering sum you could have almost any Datejust produced from 1988 onwards, which is when Rolex upgraded the series to use sapphire crystals and the calibre 3135. The Datejust and Day-Date have always been flagship models for Rolex, and as such they have tended to receive upgrades before any of the Crown’s other collections. The long production run on this reference makes it very easy to obtain on the used market, and a bit of a no-brainer in my opinion if you’re shopping for a classic, dressy Rolex.
Steel Sports, Sans Waitlist: Explorer II “Polar” reference 16570 ($6,100 – $6,900)
This reference first entered the Rolex catalogue in 1989 and debuted with the calibre 3185, a GMT movement with independently adjustable hour hand. Early versions of this watch had a few issues though, with the GMT hand known to wobble a bit when the time is adjusted and featuring an outsourced Nivarox hairspring. To avoid these issues, look for models produced between 2006 and 2010, as Rolex quietly upgraded the movement in these watches to the cal. 3186 which eliminates the wobble and replaces the Nivarox spring with Rolex’s anti-magnetic Parachrom spring.
Compared to the modern reference 216570 with an RRP of $8,350 USD, you save a few thousand dollars by going with the earlier reference and get more elegant aesthetics to boot. The thick “Maxi” hands, hour markers and that bright orange GMT hand on the current reference all look cartoonish when compared against the well-proportioned design of the 16570.
Diving Deep, but not into Savings: Yacht-Master ref 16622 ($6,600 – $7,600)
The “Rolesium” Yacht-Master (that’s Rolex-speak for Steel and Platinum) is an often-overlooked alternative to the Submariner. An all-steel Submariner Date retails for $8,950, but good luck getting one at retail. Due to the Sub’s popularity and long wait lists at retailers, they often sell between $9,370 to $11,214 on the used market. The modern Yacht-master reference 126622 asks for even more than that with an RRP of $12,000, hardly qualifying it as a value proposition.
The trick here is to look for the older Yacht-Master reference 16622, which is identical to the modern version in most respects. It lacks an easy-link extension mechanism in the bracelet, and has green lume rather than Rolex’s proprietary blue Chromalight, but that’s it. If you’re willing to make those compromises, you get a Rolex dive watch with a luxurious platinum bi-directional bezel, date function and the more desirable caliber 3135 for almost half the price of a plain-Jane steel Submariner.