Buying Guide: Finding The Right Vintage Rolex Datejust For You
Chasing a vintage watch is one of the most rewarding pursuits within this shared passion of ours. It can also be one of the most daunting. That’s why, in this article, I will try to provide some guidance for when you find yourself longing for a vintage Rolex Datejust. And let’s face it, we all find ourselves in that position at some point in our watch-collecting journeys.
I have spent roughly 14 months studying examples of vintage Rolex Datejusts from the 1945–1990 era. This was part of an effort to document the rich history of this influential watch. The project resulted in a book, The vintage Rolex Datejust buyer’s & collector’s guide, released in the spring of 2022. Here, I will distill the contents of the book down to an accessible starting point for aspiring Datejust owners. Hopefully, I can help you decide which variant is for you and what to look for when chasing one down. For the sake of readability, I will stick to the 36mm full-size models for now.
Vintage Rolex Datejust — The early generations
The Rolex Datejust story begins in 1945 with the introduction of the ref. 4467. At the time, the Datejust was the flagship within the crowned brand’s lineup. It was only available in precious metals until the Day-Date took over the top spot about a decade later.
These early models tend to be a little too fragile and challenging to service for the average Datejust-buying audience.
Between 1945 and 1959, we see a number of generations under the 44xx, 50xx, and 6xxx reference umbrellas. Although you will find many amazing variants within these generations, they are generally not what the casual wearer is after. These early models tend to be a little too fragile and challenging to service for the average Datejust-buying audience. I will, therefore, not go into these here. If you want to see a dedicated article about this era, let me know in the comments below.
The four-digit, five-digit, and sapphire Datejusts
With the introduction of the 16xx references in 1959, we really start to get into the popular vintage Datejusts. The two following generations bring us all the way up to the mid-2000s. The succeeding 116xxx references brought the Datejust into thoroughly modern Rolex territory.
In short, then, you will most likely be on the lookout for a 16xx, 16xxx, or 162xx Rolex Datejust. These are packed with vintage charm. You do not have to worry about wearing them every day either.
Let’s have a look at the differences between these three popular generations of vintage Datejusts.
Rolex Datejust — Four-digit references
The 16xx references that debuted in 1959 are commonly referred to as four-digit references. Early examples still came with alpha hands and arrow indices. The early ’60s, however, saw the introduction of the now-familiar baton hands and stick indices.
The most common variants of this generation are the refs. 1600 (smooth bezel), 1601 (fluted bezel), and 1603 (engine-turned bezel). The fluted bezels are always executed in precious metals. The engine-turned 1603 bezels exist in gold, but in most cases, they are made of stainless steel. As you would expect for this era, these bezels all embraced a tall acrylic crystal.
Two traits are most characteristic of this generation of the Datejust. First, we have a pie-pan dial. The outer perimeter of the dial is slightly lowered, which provides a beautiful sense of depth. Second, Rolex fitted these models with the calibers 1565 (18,000vph) or 1575 (19,800vph), both lacking a quickset date. This means you will be setting the date by just turning the hands around the dial in 24-hour cycles. Depending on your watch rotation and habits, this might be a nuisance to you.
The four-digit Datejust came with several bracelet options, the most archetypal of which is the Jubilee. Introduced on the first ref. 4476, it predates the Oyster and President bracelets. The Jubilee was made up of folded steel links until around about 1974. By then, Rolex phased in an updated version with solid outer links. As such, you can come across four-digit Datejusts on either style of Jubilee depending on the year of production. The widespread notion that the half-solid Jubilee was introduced alongside the five-digit Datejust is a misconception.
Rolex Datejust — Five-digit references
In 1977, Rolex introduced the 16xxx generation of references, commonly referred to as the five-digit generation. The same popular bezel styles remained:
- The smooth-bezel ref. 1600 became ref. 16000
- The fluted-bezel ref. 1601 became ref. 16014 in steel and ref. 16013 in two-tone
- The engine-turned-bezel ref. 1603 became ref. 16030
There are two changes that are certainly worth mentioning. First, the pie-pan dial of the earlier models was replaced by a completely flat dial. Second, Rolex fitted the new caliber 3035 with a quickset date feature.
Flattening the dial may be a relatively small change, but it certainly has a big visual impact. As a result, this generation of Datejust looks cleaner, but it also lacks the depth of the previous one. As is often the case, it all comes down to personal preference.
The first sapphire generation
Rolex kept the 16xxx generation in production until 1988 and followed it up with the 162xx models. Again, the recognizable bezel styles remained:
- The smooth-bezel ref. 16000 became ref. 16200
- The fluted-bezel refs. 16013/16014 became refs. 16233/16234
- The engine-turned-bezel ref. 16030 became ref. 16220
This would be the final generation to use roughly the same case proportions as the older variants. Later models got the beefier lugs and a totally different wrist presence. The 162xx generation still has a thoroughly vintage vibe to it, even though it is fitted with a sapphire crystal. If the prospect of wearing an acrylic crystal does not appeal to you, this generation will offer you the best of both worlds, while still wearing like a vintage Rolex Datejust.
Take your pick
Considering all of the generations above come in a near-endless array of materials, dial styles, bracelets/straps, and bezels, there should be a perfect model for you. If you want to get that ultimate 1980s vibe, go for a two-tone ref. 16233 with a vertically striped tapestry dial. If you prefer the most classical look, go for a steel ref. 1601 with a silver dial. And if you want the ultimate in rare luxury, track down a full-gold ref. 16018 with a stone dial. With a little patience, you will find your dream configuration.
If this whets your appetite for a deeper dive into vintage Rolex Datejust models, check out The vintage Rolex Datejust buyer’s & collector’s guide.
What is your favorite vintage Rolex Datejust?
How about you? Would you go for a four-digit classical beauty? Or would you rather have the convenience of a quickset caliber or even a sapphire crystal? Do you want your Datejust in steel only? Or perhaps two-tone or even full gold is more to taste? Since the possibilities are near endless, I would love to hear about your favorites. Feel free to tell me about them in the comments below.