How the Rolex Daytona Became the World’s Most Desirable Watch

Man wearing a Rolex Daytona
Image credit: section215 / CC BY 2.0

In the watch world, the Rolex Daytona is a truly unique entity. It is perhaps the single most sought-after mass-produced watch on the market today and in just a few decades went from languishing unsold in shop windows to breaking auction records as the most expensive wristwatch ever sold. How did this happen, you may ask? 

To answer this question, we’ll be focussing here on the overarching story of the Daytona — on tracing the trajectory of its meteoric rise, in other words. And while that will occasionally overlap with specifics like design changes and reference numbers, this is not intended as an in-depth buyer’s guide or a niche play-by-play of the development of the watch in question. Plenty such articles exist already. Instead, this will be a broader look at the Daytona as a phenomenon; an attempt, that is to say, at understanding its spectacular popularity and attendant scarcity, not to mention its price tag.

But, to understand the value of the Daytona in the present, we must look first to its past. The Daytona — or the Cosmograph, as it was originally known — was introduced by Rolex in 1963. While not the brand’s first chronograph (those date as far back as WWII when the brand released chronographs housed in Oyster cases), it has, however, become the defining chronograph for Rolex and much of the watch world beyond. 

Like every other ‘professional’ timepiece made by Rolex, the Daytona was created with a specific purpose in mind. While the Submariner was for divers, the Explorer was for outdoorsmen, and the GMT was for pilots and globetrotters, the Daytona was built for racecar drivers. Hence the chronograph or stopwatch function which drivers could use to time their laps. 

Racing is also how the Daytona got its name. Around the same time that the first Cosmograph was launched, Rolex had become the official timekeeper of the Daytona, Florida speedway. In the hopes of appealing to racing enthusiasts, Rolex sought to associate their watches with the premiere athletes of motorsport as they had done previously with swimmers of the English Channel and climbers of Everest. To this end, they offered one of their racing watches as a prize to winners of the Daytona 500 (certain winners at Daytona and Le Man are still awarded them today) and in 1964 added the letters ‘DAYTONA’ to the dial of their recently-minted chronograph. It proved to be a savvy bit of marketing, so much so that should you call the model in question by its original name of Cosmograph — a title which still appears on the dial — you’re likely to be met by blank looks even among watch enthusiasts. 

Rolex Daytona on a wrist
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

In terms of design, as per Hodinkee, ‘over the decades, the watch has changed, both very much and in some respects not at all’. The original 1963 ref. 6239 was powered by a hand-wound Valjoux cal. 72 movement and housed in a 36 mm case. This set of specs endured until 1987, at which point the more compact, hand-wound era ended with the introduction of the first automatic model in 1988 which was housed in the 40mm case we still know today. That first automatic movement was based on the Zenith El Primero calibre, famous for being one of the very first automatic chronograph calibres released back in 1969, and was introduced by Rolex as a means of competing with the quartz movements that were wreaking havoc among traditional watchmakers at the time. The modified Zenith movement lasted until the year 2000, at which point Rolex introduced its first in-house movement for the Daytona. In addition to this, there have been innumerable tiny but significant aesthetic and technical changes with every new release, all of which are forensically catalogued by collectors and can have a huge impact on a given watch’s value. However, as with all of Rolex’s signature models, there is still a clear continuity between the very first reference and the current model in production. 

What has changed massively over the nearly six decades of the Daytona’s existence is its price. The first Cosmograph was not a hit right out of the gate. While chronographs in general were beginning to take off in the 1960s, the nascent Daytona was not a big seller. A story told by the Rolex historian James Dowling (as recounted in a GQ piece a few years ago) illustrates this well. In 1975 Dowling was gearing up to buy his first proper watch in the form of a Rolex GMT. Before surrendering his credit card, Dowling asked the salesperson whether he might get a discount if he paid in cash. He was informed that Rolex never offers discounts. Unless, that is, he considered buying a Cosmograph Daytona, for that they would be willing to knock twenty per cent off the price. Dowling did not take them up on it and nor did a lot of other people, by all accounts. 

Interest in Daytonas was so middling that in the mid-’80s when Paul Newman gifted to his daughter’s boyfriend the very watch that would go on to break auction house records, the model in question would have been worth just a few hundred dollars. Of course, the allure of Paul Newman the man was instrumental in driving up the value of the Daytona, both the individual watch that went on to fetch an eye-watering $17.8 million in 2017 and the model as a whole. A so-called ‘Paul Newman Daytona’, a term coined by Italian collectors in the 1980s for the ref. 6239 with a black-and-white ‘Exotic’ dial popularly associated with the actor, is among the most highly-prized watches in the world. Newman’s own ‘Newman’ Daytona (if you will) was a gift from his wife, Joanne Woodward, who got it for him at Tiffany & Co. and featured the engraved words ‘Drive Carefully Me’ on the caseback in reference to the actor’s successful side career as a racing driver. 

As important as Paul Newman was in driving hype around the Daytona, though, there is more to the story of its success. While there is no question that the near $18 million that Newman’s watch sold for was largely down to the fact that it belonged to the actor himself, that sum also speaks to the dramatic appreciation in the value of the Daytona in general and the fact that this watch was the very one that kicked off a rabid, industry-wide obsession. 

Paul Newman Rolex Daytona
An example of the highly sought-after Paul Newman Daytona
Image credit: Robert PST / CC BY 2.0

At the heart of the Daytona’s unique success is a kind of obliquity that borders on the mythical. By which I mean this: It would have been impossible for the Daytona to become the phenomenon it is today without first failing in the way that it did. This is at its heart a simple story of supply and demand. Had the Daytona been a smash success on release, Rolex would no doubt have made more watches in this line than they actually did; as it stands, Rolex’s already limited supply across the board was even more scant in the case of the Daytona for lack of any real commercial interest initially. This scarcity massively drove up the price for both vintage and new Daytona models once demand eventually kicked off in subsequent years, but it was only scarce to begin with because no one was interested. Were O. Henry or Joseph Campbell ever to write a business manual, this is the tale they would tell. 

Add to this the Daytona’s racing pedigree, how it holds value (better than gold, lest we forget), the allure of its now-iconic design and build quality, and the general halo around Rolex as a brand, and you have a perfect storm of factors to produce one of the world’s most sought-after watches. It also doesn’t hurt that Rolex, like any luxury brand, has applied the same principles that first drove up the value of vintage Daytonas to its newer models by strictly limiting their production and availability to maintain exclusivity and keep demand sky-high. It has also introduced ultra-luxurious versions of the watch made of rare materials and encrusted with exotic gemstones. All of this means that buying a new Daytona is next to impossible unless you’re willing to spend years on a waiting list, in addition to dropping a whole lot of extra money in order to prove your worth to a seller. An older model, meanwhile, might be gotten more easily but only at a considerably higher price. 

To quote Hodinkee again:

‘What this means is that for anyone putting on a Daytona for the first time, it is very difficult to see the watch for all the hype. You don’t so much see a stainless steel chronograph from Switzerland, as you see a watch whose notoriety and desirability, both as a collectable and as a piece of virtually unobtainable luxury watchmaking, have become so widely known that it has transcended its category to become a bona fide global cultural phenomenon – something you can say about few other watches, if any.’

Not bad for a watch that once went perennially unsold even at a discount. What any of us wouldn’t give for a time machine to take us back to those days — although for the presumed price of time travel, for the same money you may as well just buy a Daytona right here in the present. 

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