During my early teens – we’re talking late 80’s into the 90’s – I can recall walking by Mayor’s jewelers in any one of the many South Florida malls and looking longingly at the Rolex’s displayed behind thick security glass. I’ve mentioned before that South Florida is Rolex land and it’s for all the right and wrong reasons. What was the reason for the popularity? Call it a mix of Oceanside utility blended with seedy braggadocio and that pretty much comes to the point of why the Submariner is so ubiquitous in this region. Of course, Rolex makes a carnet of other watches and it’s one of the non-sports models that enters the focus of today’s #TBT article. This watch, when I looked through those heavy glass portals, was like viewing a Rolls-Royce; it was royalty and something for the very well-heeled. Don your white-collared blue dress shirt and settle in with an illegally imported Cuban Cohiba (supplied by a guy who knows a guy who can always get the stuff) and let’s look at the legend that is the Rolex Day-Date. And yes, because there’s just something apropos about it, we’re going to talk yellow gold (remember, we’re into gold now).
That’s right, above all watches at the high end mall retailers in the USA, and they carried Pateks, Breguets, and Blancpains, the Rolex Day-Date was the watch. It was portrayed as a mark of extreme success when buying any old gold watch just wasn’t enough. Famously worn by presidents such as Kennedy and Johnson and infamously worn by those who have achieved power via more questionable methods, the Day-Date has a reputation of being an aspirational good that appeals to high flyers on all sides of the law. It’s been called the “Texas Timex” for its popularity amongst oilmen back in the 1980’s and it likely found a home on any number of junk bond traders and corporate raiders.
The Rolex Day-Date debuted in 1956 (a nice timeline exists here) in yellow gold as the first automatic chronometer watch to contain both a day wheel at the top and a date wheel at 3:00. It was offered only in precious metal and was positioned as the top of the top within the Rolex portfolio. It achieved fame by becoming the go-to choice of American Presidents, which ultimately led to its nickname, “the President”, and the official name of its bracelet, a slightly more complex and sparkly take on the Jubilee. Since 1956, it has undergone movement changes that have gradually brought in quick-set functions for both wheels, adding a sapphire crystal (Rolex’s first) in 1978, and gaining a solid bracelet in 2000.
The Rolex Day-Date has been expensive for as long as I’ve been semi watch cognizant. As an example, the 1987 version featured in this article (a reference 18038 with quick-set date, not day) cost roughly $13,500 at that time. Available in yellow gold, rose gold, and the undeniable platinum – this watch simply shrugged off, and continues to do so, steel as it just wasn’t exclusive enough. Today, just to keep you up to speed, a President will set you back roughly $35K. Yes, this is one of those watches that follow the age-old motto of “if you need to ask, you’re not the right buyer”. But, as we’ll see later, the savvy vintage buyer can take advantage of some decent post-sale depreciation and score the watch worn by “the most powerful men in the world”. But honestly, with a watch that looks so much like a Datejust and one that also brings to mind so many unbuttoned shirt, linen sporting, and grey hairy chested questionable wearers, why would you want one? Well, it’s my job to try and make you look past those awful images and focus on the watch itself.
I was at work a few weeks ago when a friend and colleague came in and told me there was a Rolex Day-Date in the family and he wanted me to take a look and give an overall opinion about its condition, etc. I kind of rolled my eyes – yes, the images above scrolled through my cortex – and thought, what the heck? The next day, my friend brought in the 18038 and, as sometimes happens with me, I was rendered speechless. This watch was in fantastic condition – not a guarantee with a watch made of soft 18K gold – and, as they say, it spoke to me.
I had long thought of the Rolex Day-Date as a bit of a loud, crass watch that was essentially a Datejust done in gold topped with a price tag that lured in big-moneyed buyers. I felt it was a sucker’s watch and that there were much better ways to spend 5-figures, but this was a mindset borne out of seeing this on the wrists of others, seeing many used or new watches in showcases, and just having a general distaste for all things yellow gold. Well, we know team Fratello has warmed to the yellow metal and then I finally got to hold a President. The detail and quality of this watch are superb.
The Rolex Day-Date is nothing more than a 36mm oyster case with 20mm lugs. But in these older models, perhaps the alloy was slightly different than today’s versions, the gold has seemingly aged to a warmish, slightly brassy color. It will never face accusations for being subtle, but it is less “dry” looking than photographs would admit.
Plus, a close look between those lugs shows a little extra case material that seems to have been added in order to give the lugs more support against inevitable knocks that may come from wearing. This extra material, by the way, is your “tell” when looking at white gold Datejusts and Day-Dates. For the purposes of keeping an elegant profile, the President does not contain lugholes. It has a fluted bezel that catches the light perfectly while somehow not overpowering the rest of the watch. The crown? Yes it’s a twin lock screw-down – this watch can handle whatever 99% of people can throw at it with a 50M depth rating.
This Rolex Day-Date has somewhat of an exotic dial often referred to as a “tuxedo dial” owing to its striped pattern that’s often found on the formalwear shirts. Let me tell you, it dazzles, and while it might not be my first choice, it’s catchy and it wears you down with its depth. Presidents have been offered with scads of dial choices and, like the Datejust that just might be a limitation in terms of collectability. As long as a dial is correct for the model era, there’s no documentation stating which dial originally shipped with the watch. From a practical perspective, though, it does give the collector the ability to swap a non-desirable dial on an otherwise nice watch to something more attractive. This dial features some subtle lume dots at the end of the applied hour indices and a beautiful applied crown. Overall, after wearing this for about a week on and off (yes, my friend was trusting), I could rock this!
Detail wise, flipping the Rolex Day-Date over shows that three of the four lugs are signed. There are two gold hallmarks and one simply stating “18K”. The rose gold-colored bracelet clasp also features a surprising number of signs telling you that, yes, you have bought gold. And about that bracelet…it is a work of art. First off, all the screws are 18K gold and it’s a very easy bracelet to size. The suppleness of the links, the way the endlinks meet the case and the overall finishing screams of quality. (By the way, this version does have some wear and the outer links should possess more of a matte finish.) Granted, when you spend this much, it had better be good! The “hidden” clasp (introduced in 1969), which is opened purely by getting a fingernail underneath the famed coronet, is also a piece of iconic jewelry art. It works well and while the bracelet doesn’t contain any type of microadjust, I admire it for the fact that it is very smooth and certainly was made to slide under dress shirts.
Movement wise, this Rolex Day-Date contains the caliber 3055 automatic, which is chronometer certified and does have a quick set function for the date. It’s rock solid like any Rolex movement and there’s zero issue in having it serviced. Plus, with at least the date function allowing convenient change, it’s a matter of scrolling through a maximum of six days to make everything correct (the double quick set 18238 was introduced in 1988/89). Character wise, it’s nice to see an open six, date wheel on this model and an English day indicator. Other languages were available and can be fitted if desired, but do note that some patina usually shows on these.
When I took the Rolex Day-Date home, I received none of the negative feedback from my wife that accompanied the debut of my Rolex “Clint Eastwood”. Instead, my better half found the Day-Date to exude quality – the thing is certainly heavy – and she even came close to saying it’s something she’d consider wearing. At 36mm, this is a watch that goes both directions today. On my wrist, it felt perfect and, here again, I’d struggle to go with the larger 41mm Day-Date II case that Rolex offered (now 40mm) alongside this original interpretation. I sized it to give just the slightest dangle and, honestly, it was like putting on a comfortable, broken in, pair of jeans. The watch just feels good and like you’re wearing something of substance. What to wear it with? The Day-Date pairs with almost anything if you’ve got the courage to pull it off and it does look entirely different on a leather strap.
I did some scouring on various sites and the sales ads for the Rolex Day-Date were all over the map. “Head-only” pieces are common as this was a less costly option and many pre-2000 hollow link bracelets have unfortunately stretched beyond use. Today a nice head can cost somewhere in the range of $4,500 – 6,000 depending on the dial and condition. Add $2,000 – 4,000 for a bracelet. In the end, though, you end up with one hell of a classy watch and one serious hunk of gold. The pitfalls on the President are relatively few aside from ensuring the dial and hands are correct for the model, but the biggest concern I’d highlight is case condition. Similar to the “Root Beer”, these watches often led a charmed life and that meant regular service – aka polishing. Finding spindly lugs on a Day-Date is par for the course and it should be avoided. Today’s example is about as thick as they come and after seeing some heavily polished versions, you should just definitely hold out and find the right one. For an expensive watch, these aren’t rare and they definitely don’t change hands as often as a sports Rolex; it takes a special person to go after a Day-Date.
I mentioned that the Rolex Day-Date was, and is, available in yellow, rose, and white gold (we’ll eschew discussions on platinum as that’s a different kettle of fish altogether). I get it that white gold is sort of the “yeah, I want something rare and I’m not that showy” metal, but seriously, I think it’s overrated and overpriced. The rose gold is lovely, a bit too effeminate on bracelet IMHO, and unique but for me, it’s yellow gold on the President or pack your bags. This watch became iconic in yellow gold, it’s what I think of when I hear about the President, and it’s stunning if the right dial is chosen. Finally, when you consider the price, there’s a lot of watch for the money.
When it comes to considering a Rolex Day-Date, you can very easily, and mistakenly in my opinion, pass this watch off as being too loud and showy. However, it’s a finely built watch that really exudes a lot of character in person. If you’re worried about being cast into the same lot as of the questionable characters you’ve seen wearing these, just think about the fine cars also driven by these people. In the end, you’ll need to decide for yourself if you can pull of a President, but I would recommend handling one if you get the chance – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Michael was born in South Florida in the USA. As a full-time role, he works in the Automotive Industry. He's lived and worked in many locations and when he's not cruising at 30,000 feet, he calls Germany home. Michael became... read more