Best-Kept Secrets: Finding A Rolex For Under $5,000 Is Possible
I know, Rolex is seriously hyped up these days. That doesn’t change the fact that the brand makes superb watches. For those with an adventurous imagination and a love for avant-garde design, the glacial visual progression of The Crown’s models might make you yawn. But have another look and consider the sweet ’60s or the vintage limbo of the ’80s and ’90s. If you can live with a well-loved appearance, slightly scruffy hands, and faded dials, you will find a good Rolex for under $5,000. My opening search got nearly 280 hits, so the choices are out there. Me? Well, I bought a manual-wind 6694 once, and the mainspring snapped after a day. It was still worth it for $2000, but those days are gone.
The design of any Rolex Datejust, Oyster Perpetual, or Air-King from thirty to forty years ago is timeless. Add the fact that the smaller 35-36mm size is now back in vogue, and now is the time to strike. But, do your research and background checks. You’ll find the best deals through searches like mine on Chrono24 and a few select dealer’s sites, but check the ratings of the seller. The watches below are fresh examples published this week. There is also a chance you can find one at a reputable Rolex dealer like Bob’s Watches, but prepare yourself for a longer search if you’re extremely picky. It’s all worth it, though, because they sure were made to last.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 5015 Bubble Back
Let’s start with a not-so-obvious choice. The Bubble Back ref. 5015 is the thinking man’s vintage Rolex, and to some of you, it might seem very small at 34mm. But if you, like me, enjoyed the dashing suits and sharp slim ties of Mad Men, you’ll realize that this was a normal size for a man’s watch back then. The detailing is as delicious as is the creamy patina on the dial, with a mix of even Arabic numerals and round and arrowhead indices. The crown at 12 is applied, while the spear hands are just right for the aged silver dial. A 14K engine-turned bezel matches the chunky gold crown, and this is a great buy at $4,495 at Bob’s Watches. And even with this Rolex from 1961-62, you also have the benefit of a one-year warranty. Yes, it’s time to suit up again. This sweet-sized piece with its rich glow of gold will be a great conversation starter at the next get-together.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date ref. 1500
I just read Mike’s story on hunting for a pristine blue-dial Datejust ref. 1600, and it reminded me of the similar Oyster Date ref. 1500. At $5,000, this might seem expensive if you’re old enough. Do you remember when these could be had for $2,000? That might seem like yesterday, but it’s more like a decade ago. So, like me, you’re unfortunately getting old. This is not a 100% perfect example with complete box and papers, but it is warrantied. The deep blue dial seems to be quite good for what is obviously a well-worn watch, with only a slight mark at 1 o’clock. I, like Mike, do prefer a smooth bezel, and this Oyster Date delivers, even if it’s not perfect. But if you can live with the slightly scruffy hands, this is still a great entry into understated, blue-dialed love at 34mm.
Rolex Datejust ref. 1601
Here we have a 1967 Datejust, the ever-enduring icon with a Cyclops on the crystal. At 36mm, it’s the same size as the madly popular Oyster Perpetual of a certain light blue color, with a twist. This watch is advertised on Chrono24 for exactly $5,000, and even with this one, you’ll get a dealer warranty. With the silver dial looking as clean as it does, it would have had a higher price had it not been for the quirky details. The strap is custom leather in a nice cognac color, fitted to an Oyster end link, giving it a gentle Tudor P01 quirky vibe. The gold fluted bezel adds a touch of glitz with the matching crown, while the same gold details pop nicely off the smooth silver dial. The dial itself is exceptionally clean, so with its solid 1570 movement and charming acrylic crystal, it is a good buy.
Rolex Air-King ref. 14000
Here is the scary number 34 again. Yes, the Air-King ref. 14000 is 34mm. Get over it. This is a well-kept 1998 model, with the proven 3135 caliber and a decent 42-hour power reserve. For $4,999, this seems to be an absolutely solid buy. You get the timeless, sunray-brushed black-gray dial that makes it look like a two-year-old OP and a case and bracelet that look excellent. Sure, you can’t expect a 39mm Explorer at this price point. But this Air-King only proves that dipping below $5K will still get you a taste for the hallowed halls of Rolex. I happen to think that the Air-King script below the text at 12 o’clock is one of the best fonts on a vintage Rolex dial. Full stop. There’s no date or Cyclops to distract you from what is a flawless dial, and you’ll enjoy the supple comfort of an Oyster bracelet.
Oysterquartz is the winning wild card
This is where profess my love of Rolex quartz. Once the sign of a fake Datejust or Submariner, quartz is real. Shocking as it might seem to some, Rolex has made some superb battery-powered references. This one is a shining example. What hits you first is the fact that Rolex was in on the integrated-bracelet game in the ’80s. Yes, this Oysterquartz from around 1980 is angular cool, with a classic tonneau case of perfect proportions. With a 42mm lug-to-lug and a 36mm diameter, this will sit sleekly on your wrist. Yes, even comfortable enough to make you forget that ticking seconds hand.
I am certainly being tempted by the strong look of what is a brilliant compromise between the Oyster and Jubilee bracelets. The flat main links with their outer bevels look strongly juxtaposed to their yellow gold neighbors. The champagne dial is a rich match to the fluted gold bezel and a more understated look than the gold dials of the period. When you look at it, you will understand that this also wears considerably larger than its 36mm diameter suggests, due to the broad, case width-filling bracelet. For $4,999, quartz might just be the best sub-$5,000 entry to Rolex in 2022, save for that delightful Bubble Back.
When is a bargain really a bargain?
Times have changed, but as you can see, there are still bargains to be had. Saying $5,000 is a bargain might seem a bit rich, but in the right context, it actually is — especially when worn-out and scratched-to-hell Subs sell for millions. But there is a big caveat here, and that is the term “research”. The Rolex market is way too treacherous to enter into without a top-up of knowledge, this is true. Have a look at our Rolex archive here. I would especially recommend you to take your time perusing Brandon Baines’s series on the complete Rolex brand history. When buying, start with a dealer-sourced piece. That way, whether it’s through Chrono24, Bob’s Watches, or another source, you have a safety net in place, not to mention a warranty.
Did this story surprise you, or had you already discovered these great Rolex starters? You might have been holding on to the same secret, but don’t worry. There are still plenty of good examples out there. Let us know about your own buying experience or your Rolex wish list in the comments.
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