Collecting Modern Rolex: Part 2

Part one of this series on future Rolex collectibles examined the historic significance, investment potential, and vetting process for Rolex collectors seeking a GMT-Master II 16760. This, the second series installment, will offer an equally in-depth treatment of the Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date 1901X family.

Rolex Oysterquartz

Forget what you just read about cheap quartz watches; the Rolex Day-Date Oysterquartz breaks all of the rules. While “Quartz Crisis” refers to a period when mostly Asian-made electronic watches broke the back of Swiss mechanical watchmaking, a small cadre of Swiss brands decided to take quartz technology to the summit of engineering and luxury. Among that select group, the Rolex Day-Date Oysterquartz is the one that should command the attention of vintage watch collectors.

Built from roughly 1977 to 2001, the Oysterquartz is a beacon to watch collectors who seek value, substance, and investment potential. Consider its rarity coming from a maker that produced – and produces – hundreds of thousands of watches per year. Expert estimates of Oysterquartz production range from 20,000 to 30,000 watches – total. And most of those were the steel Oysterquartz Datejust. The precious metal Day-Date model comprises the minority of that miniscule output.

Consider the basic hardware package that sets any Oysterquartz model apart from the scrum of battery-powered watches. Each is a COSC-certified Swiss chronometer. Less than five percent of Swiss watches have been COSC-certified in the modern era; this percentage is far lower when quartz chronometers are taken into account. Almost never is a crystal-shaker run through the COSC’s demanding battery for quartz certification. And while a mechanical chronometer is allowed to earn a COSC certificate despite deviation by as much as -4/+6 seconds per day, Rolex reckoned that its caliber 5055 Day-Date was accurate to -40/+60 seconds… per year.

Rolex Traditional Watchmaking and High Technology

How was that possible? Rolex achieved this precision with a combination of traditional watchmaking and high technology. On the first count, tradition, Rolex built the Day-Date caliber 5055 like a conventional mechanical movement. Bridges, plates, 11 jewels, and a full Swiss lever escapement acted as a vessel for the stepper motor and its timing circuits. On the second count, technology, Rolex equipped its flagship movement with a double quartz circuit designed to allow thermocompensation; any quartz watch without this feature is vulnerable to inaccuracy when very hot or cold conditions prevail. In addition, a trimmer feature was incorporated so that watchmakers could adjust the watch to compensate for the aging or “drift” of the quartz crystals.

That final point bears repeating; all Oysterquartz 5035 (Datejust) and 5055 (Day-Date) were watchmaker-serviceable and designed to last several lifetimes; the first units from 1977 are still in service today.

As with its mechanical counterparts, the Oystetquartz Day-Date was offered exclusively in precious metal, but its case and bracelet design are virtually unique to the model. The appearance is distinctive, exclusive, and is increasingly recognized by collectors as one of the best design efforts of the age. Although born in the heart of the Détente era, the Rolex 1901X  family still looks sharp, smart, and cohesive in the era of rubber straps and NATOs. And even though precious metal is mandatory for Oysterquartz Day-Date buyers, white gold model 19019 ensures that the discretion of silver metal is an option for those whose sensibility is more Wall Street than Miami Vice.

Recent factory service records are a nice bonus when purchasing this model, but case and bracelet condition are paramount. A watch in perfect condition, never polished, and creased as sharp as a Savile Row suit will be worth top-dollar even if its movement hasn’t been touched since it left the factory in the leisure suit era. Mucky movements can be corrected for a price; diminished metal cannot be restored.

How to Evaluate Rolex Oysterquartz

On that note, case and bracelet condition are central factors when evaluating any Rolex Oysterquartz.

These watches featured extensive hand-finishing, and soft precious metals lose their definition when abused or excessively refinished. Bevels, polished facets, and hard character lines should remain crisp, and the fluting of the bezel should appear angular, not rounded. The bracelet should not feel like it’s hanging together by a thread, and the clasp should open and close with a perceptible detent action. The integrated case and bracelet feature serial numbers, reference numbers, and hallmarks on the bottom of the links adjacent to the case, so the fully-assembled watch can be identified and dated in a convenient fashion that is impossible with conventional Rolex watches of the same vintage.

While Oysterquartz Day-Dates are offered in white or yellow gold, many dial combinations expand the universe of options. Malachite, lapis, silver, blue, black, champagne, gold, tapestry stripes, diamond-set, “stella” lacquer in several colors, wood, and other dials were equipped at the factory, so each collector will be able to browse a vast range of options to find his own idea of the ultimate Rolex 1901X.

Due to prejudice against quartz as a class, the Oysterquartz series has remained a sleeper on collector markets, but that is changing. Prices, long static, have begun to rise on marketplaces like Chrono24 and eBay. In general, a sound yellow gold 19018 can be acquired in the $8,500 range, and white gold 19019 references command about a $1,000 premium over equivalent yellow models. The rarest dials already command collector prices in the $11-15,000 range, but this represents the top of the current market. These are special pre-owned Rolex watches, and those prices represent bargains for the historic product on offer.

Don’t wait on this one; many within the Rolex community already are beginning to recognize the style, technical excellence, and absolute rarity of the Oysterquartz family; everything that counts in favor of the “electric” Datejust is doubly true for the scarcer Day-Date. In the modern world of auctions and blogs, the value of an historic Rolex can double or triple in a single year’s trading cycle. For this model family, it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” Rolex collectors with even a hunch that they might fancy a 1901X should buy now, enjoy the watch, and consider themselves insulated from – buoyed in fact – by the price shocks to come.