The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona has gone from a watch that could hardly sell to a true industry classic. Introduced in 1963, it was developed for professional race car drivers who needed a highly reliable tool to calculate speeds and measure elapsed time.
With a little help from the legendary actor Paul Newman, and the increasing interest in vintage watches, the tides turned for the Rolex Daytona. Today, it is widely considered as the most iconic chronograph – one that every collector wants in their watch box.
The Rolex Daytona celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2023, and fans are growing curious about how The Crown will celebrate this occasion.
In the meantime, let’s brush up on our Rolex Daytona knowledge with the help of SwissWatchExpo’s ultimate guide.
About the Rolex Daytona
Many view the Rolex Daytona as the “Rolex chronograph”, but the brand actually began producing chronograph watches as early as the 1930s.
What set the earliest Daytona models apart and paved the way for the creation of the collection, were two pivotal decisions: in 1963, when Rolex moved the tachymetric scale from the periphery of the dial to the bezel; and in 1965, when the Daytona name finally appeared on the dial. These two characteristics still help define the Rolex Daytona’s aesthetics until today.
The Rolex Daytona’s long and rich heritage is marked by the following events:
1903: The history of racing in Florida begins at Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. From its beginnings as a pastime for the rich, it slowly becomes a popular sport, and Daytona, Florida rises as the World Capital of Speed.
1935: British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell becomes the first person to drive over 300 miles per hour, while wearing a Rolex Oyster
1959: The Daytona International Speedway opens and becomes the home of the Daytona 500, the most prestigious and important race in NASCAR
1962: Rolex becomes the official timekeeper of the Daytona International Speedway
1963: The first Rolex Daytona watch is introduced. The ref 6239 has its tachymeter scale engraved on the metal bezel to enhance the legibility of the dial.
1965: The word “Daytona” first appears on the dial. In the same year, Rolex introduced the “exotic” dial, characterized by a contrasting outer seconds track, and Art Deco font on the chronograph registers
Late 1960s: Actor and racer Paul Newman becomes a devotee of the Rolex Daytona “exotic” dial, often wearing it to his races
1980s: Collectors give the nickname “Paul Newman” to this particular Daytona dial, and interest in earlier Daytona models grows among watch collectors
1988: The second generation of Daytona watches are equipped with self-winding movements
2000: The third generation of Daytona watches are upgraded with Rolex’s first in-house chronograph movement, the Caliber 4130
2017: Paul Newman’s personal Daytona becomes the most expensive Rolex wristwatch ever sold at auction, amounting to $17.8 million
Key Features of the Rolex Daytona
Whether they’re vintage or modern, all Rolex Daytona watches are sports chronographs used to measure elapsed time and calculate average speeds. The aesthetics of the Rolex Daytona has evolved through the decades, but the following components remain:
The Rolex Daytona has always had a tachymeter scale, which measures speed based on time traveled over a fixed distance. It appeared on the perimeter of the dial in earlier models, then was eventually transferred to the bezel to improve the dial’s readability.
Materials used for the tachymeter bezel have also been varied through the years. A black acrylic bezel was used on a sister reference of the inaugural ref 6234.
Second generation Rolex Daytonas have bezels made of precious metals, while the Cerachrom ceramic bezel was introduced in third generation models.
There are also rare and exclusive models with gem-set bezels, with the tachymetric scale swapped out for diamonds or other precious gems.
The first chronograph watches from Rolex were equipped with single push buttons on the side, eventually switching to pump chronograph pushers.
In 1965, Rolex equipped the Daytona with screw-down pushers to improve water resistance and robustness. These would eventually become integral to the design.
The Rolex Daytona has two upper, contrasting subdials at 3 and 9 o’clock. The one at 3 o’clock registers the minutes, while the one at 9 o’clock registers the hours. The subdial at 6 o’clock indicates the running small seconds of the watch.
Before the year 2000s, the running seconds sub-dial was at the 9 o’clock position. It was moved down to the 6 o’clock spot to give the dial a better balance along its vertical axis.
Most Rolex Daytona models are equipped with three-link Oyster bracelets, either in stainless steel, steel and gold, solid gold, or platinum. There are a few exceptions to these: vintage models with five-link bracelets, and modern 18k gold references that are fitted with either leather straps or Oysterflex rubber bracelets with matching gold clasps.
Three Generations of the Rolex Daytona
Over its 60-year history, the Rolex Daytona has undergone three major transformations. These are generally referred to as the three ‘generations’ of Rolex Daytona watches.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona “Paul Newman” ref 6239 (photo: Christies)
FIRST GENERATION (1963 – 1988)
Reference Numbers: 6239, 6241, 6240, 6262, 6264, 6265, 6263 and 6269 / 6270
Movements: Manual Valjoux 72, Valjoux 722, Valjoux 727
The original series of the Rolex Daytona had four-digit reference numbers and manual-wind movements. The movement sets this generation apart from the two succeeding series, which had self-winding movements. It was also during this generation that screw-down pushers and tachymeter bezels were introduced.
SECOND GENERATION (1988 – 1999)
Reference Numbers: 16520, 16523, 16528, 16518, 16568, 16519, 16588, 16589, 16559 and 16598
Movements: Caliber 4030
The second generation of the Rolex Daytona used five-digit reference numbers, and were the first to be equipped with self-winding movements. This generation is considered the transition of the Rolex Daytona from the vintage era to the modern era.
During this period, the following improvements were introduced:
- increased case diameter from 37mm to 40mm
- switch to sapphire crystal from acrylic crystals
- hour markers changed from blocks to elongated arrow head markers sub-dials with contrasting outer track
These changes put the Daytona towards a contemporary standard. However, the movement has yet to become completely in-house, as the Caliber 4130 was based on the Zenith El Primero’s Caliber 400 movement.
THIRD GENERATION (2000 – present)
Reference Numbers: 116500, 116503, 116515, 116505, 116508, 116518, 116519, 116509, 116506
Movements: Caliber 4130
The third generation of the Rolex Daytona was introduced in 2000, and remains in production today. This generation makes use of six-digit reference numbers, and were the first to be equipped with Rolex’s in-house chronograph movement, the Caliber 4130.
The series introduced the following features that we see in Rolex Daytona today:
- introduction of the first models to be made in platinum, white gold & Everose gold
- introduction of the first models to be equipped with Cerachrom ceramic bezels
- introduction of the leather strap and Oysterflex strap options
- running seconds sub-dial relocated from 9 o’clock to the 6 o’clock position
Popular Rolex Daytona Models
There is a broad range of Rolex Daytona watches available, but there are a few that have become cult classics. Here are the most popular Rolex Daytona models of the modern era.
ROLEX DAYTONA PLATINUM ref 116506
This model was introduced in 2013, marking the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Daytona. To celebrate the occasion, this commemorative reference was crafted in the noblest of all metals – platinum.
The ultra-luxe material is hardly the norm for sport chronographs, and the prestige continues with its rich chestnut brown tachymeter bezel made of Cerachrom, Rolex’s patented ceramic, and the glacier blue dial – a shade used exclusively by Rolex for its platinum watches.
Rolex had first introduced the then novel Cerachrom bezel to its Everose (ref 116515) and platinum (ref 116506) models, and fans eagerly awaited for the stainless steel version.
When it was introduced in 2016, it became the most in-demand watch of the year, and until today has years-long waiting lists at authorized dealers.
What makes it so desirable is that it converges almost six decades of Rolex Daytona design in one watch.
Many of its traits are visual references to iconic Rolex Daytonas of the past (such as the ref 6263 and 6265), combined with advancements of modern Daytonas.
One of the most recent references to make waves is the green dial Rolex Daytona. Launched in Baselworld 2016, the watch is constructed in solid 18k gold and paired with a deep “racing green” dial and red “Daytona” text.
This sleeper hit had a slow start, until Grammy winning artist and known watch collector John Mayer showed off his own Daytona Green Dial in Hodinkee’s Talking Watches. John picked it up when not many collectors would, and recognized its potential for being a future grail watch. Today, it can be seen on many celebrities’ wrists including Jonah Hill and Ellen, and many collectors can’t wait to get their hands on this timepiece.
Common Questions About the Rolex Daytona
The Rolex Daytona is the most famous chronograph watch of all time, and one of Rolex’s best-selling models. Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about the Rolex Daytona.
WHAT IS A ROLEX DAYTONA?
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is the brand’s chronograph watch, introduced in 1963. It is characterized by a tachymeter bezel, screw down pushers, and three chronograph sub-dials.
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY ROLEX DAYTONA IS REAL?
Because of the great demand for Rolex Daytona watches, they have become a target for counterfeiters.
Each Rolex watch is made to the highest standards, and with top quality materials.
If even a minute detail comes across as shoddy, you can be certain that it’s not the real deal.
When buying any luxury watch, it is essential to do research on your chosen model and reference.
If you are familiar with its most minute details, then you can more easily spot a fake.
Your best defense against buying a fake timepiece is to purchase your watch from a reputable and trusted dealer, like SwissWatchExpo, who can provide a guarantee of authenticity on the watch.
WHY ARE ROLEX DAYTONA WATCHES DIFFICULT TO OBTAIN?
Rolex Daytona watches are difficult to come by because they are made with limited production runs.
This is especially true for the earliest Daytona models. Because the Rolex Daytona wasn’t popular then, production numbers were also low.
Rolex Daytona watches are also known to have years-long waitlists.
When a Rolex Daytona is introduced to the market, authorized dealers usually have a roster of clients who have reserved their slot to get the timepiece.
This is where buying pre-owned presents many advantages – it opens up your options to include previous versions, limited editions, and even discontinued styles.
HOW DO I WIND A ROLEX DAYTONA?
Your watch has to be wound before being worn for the first time, or if it has stopped.
To wind the watch, unscrew the winding crown until it pops out of its position and is free from the threads securing it onto the case.
Then, turn it several times clockwise or away from you. At least 25 turns are recommended for adequate partial winding.
The watch will stay wound automatically as long as it is worn on the wrist.
Almost 60 years on, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona remains in a class of its own among watches, as a reliable chronograph and style icon. Explore a wide selection of Rolex Daytona watches at SwissWatchExpo.com.