September 25, 2022

Buyers new to Rolex face mountains of information, which makes getting to know the brand intimidating and confusing, not to mention choosing a model to buy all the more difficult. Today, the catalog of Rolex watches is comprised of hundreds of individual references, each falling into one of 16 families:

  • Rolex Submariner
  • Rolex GMT Master II
  • Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
  • Rolex Sea-Dweller
  • Rolex Explorer
  • Rolex Explorer II
  • Rolex Milgauss
  • Rolex Air-King
  • Rolex Yacht-Master
  • Rolex Yachtmaster II
  • Rolex Oyster Perpetual
  • Rolex Datejust
  • Rolex Day-Date
  • Rolex Sky-Dweller
  • Rolex Cellini

    Note: The above taxonomy is Rolex’s own. For our purposes, we’ve separated Yacht-Master and Yacht-Master II into two separate categories, as they’re very different watches, and did the same for Explorer and Explorer II models. We do not, however, differentiate between Datejust and Lady-Datejust, the way that Rolex does. Further, the Deepsea is a Sea-Dweller variant, and thus we include it within that particular model family.

    The Rolex Catalog: Classic vs. Professional

    Rolex’s lineup is split roughly in half between “Classic” and “Professional” models. The Classic watches — which include the Day-Date, Datejust, Lady-Datejust, Oyster Perpetual, Sky-Dweller, and Cellini — are essentially dressier watches more suited to everyday (or dress) wear, and weren’t developed for a specific professional pursuit.

    The Professional watches — which include the Air King, GMT-Master II, Yacht-Master, Submariner, Cosmograph Daytona, Sea-Dweller, Explorer, and Milgauss — were each developed for a specific purpose, be it SCUBA diving, yachting, driving, spelunking, etc.

    It’s important to note that while certain of the Professional watches do include specific functionality and increased water resistance, the Classic watches are no less well built. (The Sky-Dweller, one of Rolex’s most complicated watches, is housed within the Classic collection, after all.) There’s also no clear delineation in price between one collection vs. the others — there are $5,500 Oyster Perpetuals in the Classic collection, and there are also $46,750 Sky-Dwellers. A similar range is true of the Professional collection.

    Rolex Pricing and Availability

    Speaking of pricing: Rolex watches range from roughly $5,000 for a basic ladies’ Oyster Perpetual to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an “iced-out” Daytona with diamonds. This is one of the wonderful things about the Rolex catalog and deserves to be celebrated — for one of the most well known luxury brands in the world, the price of entry, though certainly not insignificant, isn’t prohibitive in the way that, say, a watch from Patek Philippe is.

    One thing to keep in mind about the way we’ve noted pre-owned pricing: We’ve included the lowest commonly found price of any model within a given model line, vintage or new, men’s or ladies’. So for example, if you’re wondering why it is that you can’t find a pre-owned, current-model Oyster Perpetual for $3,000, it’s because that’s the lowest common price we’ve found for a used OP, period — in this case, something like a vintage 34mm OP from the 1950s or 1960s.

    Unfortunately, such is the case with Rolex watches at the moment that many aren’t readily available at retail, and this includes watches that were once plentiful, such as Oyster Perpetuals. For example, a new, 36mm Oyster Perpetual in the light blue color that came out in 2020 will currently cost you perhaps $20,000 for the 36mm model — and this is for a watch that retails for $5,800. The bottom line is: Do not expect to pay below retail for any current-catalog Rolex model, full stop. Expect to pay more. Way more.

    Pricing on vintage models is much more forgiving. Because so much focus is placed on sports models such as Subs, Daytonas, GMT-Masters, etc, if you’re willing to look smaller, or older, you can get yourself a fantastic watch for under $5,000. There are a few important points to be made here, however: One is that Rolex has restricted the sale of parts to independent watchmakers, meaning that it’s only becoming harder to source correct parts and service vintage Rolex watches. It is expensive to do so.

    Secondly, there are countless “frankenwatches” — watches made of parts from different models — and outright fakes out there. That’s why we recommend buying vintage watches from reputable dealers, such as Eric Wind of Wind Vintage, James Lamdin at Analog/Shift, Jacek Kozubek at Tropical Watch, and more.

    Lastly, here’s some good news: Rolex makes something like one million-plus watches per year. If money is no object, you can find the watch you’re looking for on the secondary market. You’re just gonna pay for it.

    So without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about each Rolex watch, including prices (both new and pre-owned), history and, for readers ready to make the leap, handy links to buy them.

    This story is part I of a two-part series, The Complete Guide to Rolex. For an in-depth breakdown of every movement, bracelet, clasp and bezel currently offered by the brand, click here.

    Rolex Submariner

    • Current Variations: 8
    • Price: $8,950+
    • Pre-Owned Price: ~$9,100+

      Rolex, Blancpain and Zodiac were neck in neck in releasing the first dive watches with rotating bezels. However, when in 1953 Rolex put an external diving bezel on a more robust version of their already famously water-resistant Oyster Perpetual, kept the automatic winding in place, and added a sturdy adjustable bracelet, the most iconic and important dive watch in history was born. (Rolex, however, was prevented from implementing a unidirectional dive bezel for years due to possible patent infringement.)

      It wasn’t really until the 1980s, however, that the Sub became the fashionable item it is now, largely due to preppy folks sporting them as an assertion of an active lifestyle that, more likely, revolved around cocktails at the yacht club. Alas, tool watches became fashion items during this decade, and the rest is horological history.

      Rolex understood that their Submariner had ascended from tool to jewel, and so gold, two-tone, and even diamond-encrusted versions cropped up during the decade of materialism. Today, however, it’s the plain steel models that are impossible to come by at retail, and which sell for as much as 25 percent above retail among enthusiasts, while gold models are much less sought after. It’s a strange phenomenon, but people around the world are clamoring for steel Subs.

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          Rolex GMT-Master II

          • Current Variations: 10
          • Price: $10,550+
          • Pre-Owned Price: ~$13,000+

            When Pan American Airlines ruled the trans-Atlantic skies in the 1950s, Rolex designed the GMT Master for their pilots, who needed to track multiple time zones simultaneously. In 1982, the Crown upgraded to the GMT Master II — a new movement and an independently adjustable local hour hand turned out to be big hits as steel and gold models asserted a pitch-perfect jet setting attitude. Plenty of folks knew to rock a Rolex Submariner for maximum panache, but rocking a GMT Master II was a slyly stylish move that demonstrated the owner’s uniqueness. To this day, the GMT Master II emits a reserved eccentricity.

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            In 2007 Rolex put out an improved GMT Master II with ceramic bezel and a new movement that hosted a suite of modern updates. Since then, it’s been all about metal and color combos, which are judiciously and painfully released at a rate of about one a year, at best. 2022, however, saw a rather unexpected model featuring a left-handed orientation and hitherto unknown colorway of black and green for its bezel.

            Getting your hands on a steel GMT Master II at retail is nearly impossible. However, the “Batman” (blue and black), “Pepsi” (blue and red), and “Rootbeer” (brown and beige) have all been released to great applause. (Many of us fans are hoping for another “Coke” {black and red} sooner rather than later!)

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              Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

              • Current Variations: 44
              • Price: $14,550+
              • Pre-Owned Price: ~$19,000+

                    Before the 1960s, Rolex housed third-party chronograph movements in Oyster cases. Then the company upped the case size, redesigned the dial and put out the space-age sounding “Cosmograph.” Shortly thereafter, when the Crown sponsored races at Florida’s famous beach-side track and put its name on the dial, the legend of the Rolex Daytona was born. Though not to much fanfare … that would come later.

                    Paul Newman’s wife bought him one with a creamy Bauhaus-inspired dial — now called the “Newman” dial — and the famed actor casually gave it to his son-in-law sometime in the 1980s. He auctioned it off for $17.2-million dollars in 2017, making this once humble and unpopular Daytona variant the most expensive wrist watch ever sold.

                    The auction transformed what was already becoming an increasingly coveted watch into a crazed run on all Daytonas, old and new. Now you can hardly get one at retail, especially in all stainless steel, and the used market for Daytonas of any era in any style or metal with any dial has gone completely berserk. Like so many steel Professional models, the Daytona remains in-demand and sells above retail on the secondhand market — a remarkable result for what was initially an unremarkable watch.

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                        Rolex Sea-Dweller

                        • Current Variations: 4
                        • Price: $12,950
                        • Pre-Owned Price: $9,800+

                          As SCUBA matured beyond surface-level military and recreational uses, commercial, research, and exploratory techniques were developed for going deeper for longer. The Sea-Dweller was Rolex’s answer to the demands for watches capable of withstanding the pressure of these deeper dives. In 1967 upon its initial release, the Sea-Dweller was rated to a depth of 4,000 feet (1,220 meters). In 2007 a newer Sea-Dweller was rated to 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), at the time a record-breaking figure.

                          The Sea-Dweller is essentially a beefed-up Submariner, but that beefing up shouldn’t be taken lightly: Rolex had to entirely re-engineer the case, the crystal, the case back and more to get this kind of water resistance, so while the Sea-Dweller resembles the Submariner on the outside, the guts are a different animal. Waterproofness in nano-scale wristwatches has turned out to provide useful tech that can be ported over to small submarines, cameras, and other scientific tools that are plumbing the depths of our largely unexplored oceans. Rolex often backs those scientific expeditions, linking the watch and the brand to the essence of professional SCUBA diving.

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                              Rolex Explorer

                              • Current Variations: 2
                              • Price: $7,200+
                              • Pre-Owned Price: ~$5,500+

                                It was actually an Oyster Perpetual that accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary’s team on the first successful summiting in 1953. After that, Rolex developed a dedicated Oyster Perpetual model called the Explorer with a larger case size (36mm as opposed to 34mm or smaller) and sold it to a new wave of midcentury mountaineering enthusiasts. The Explorer went on to become an “entry-level” Rolex sport model, due only to price, and remains in that position to this day.

                                The current Explorer comes in a divisive two-tone edition as well as the more classic all-stainless variety.

                                Rolex

                                Like all Rolex models, the Explorer has gone through many permutations, including more modern iterations like the 14270 (1989-2001), now popular among vintage collectors because its tritium luminescence has finally turned beige. Rolex upped the case size with the 2002 release of the 39mm Explorer, though since 2021 the Explorer is back down to 36mm, indicating that the trend toward smaller watches is quite real today. In 2021, Rolex shocked us with a two-tone model, bringing gold to the lineup for the first time.

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                                    Rolex Explorer II

                                    • Current Variations: 2
                                    • Price: $9,500+
                                    • Pre-Owned Price: ~$9,000+

                                      A spelunking watch? That’s right. The boldly luminescent 24-hour GMT hand was included to help those living in caves keep track of day and night. While spelunking isn’t exactly a popular sport, the Explorer II became a rather popular watch among those who love a cool design and GMT functionality.

                                      Offered today with either a black or white (“polar”) dial, the Explorer II came out in 1971 in order to “perpetuate the privileged relationship Rolex shares with exploration,” according to current marketing materials. However, the spelunking history is largely forgotten as the watch increasingly serves as a tool for adventurers of all kinds. (The more recent editions — unlike the original — feature fully functional GMT movements, so the watches can be used for tracking second time zones.)

                                      A vintage Explorer II paired with its modern counterpart.

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                                      Though the Explorer II went from a tasty 40mm case up to a 42mm Super case in 2011, the reference 216570 was intended to celebrate the original design of 1971, which amounts to an orange GMT hand in the “correct” arrow shape. Those two extra millimeters don’t feel significant on the wrist, however, and only seem significant when compared directly with a 40mm model.

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                                          Rolex Milgauss

                                          • Current Variations: 2
                                          • Price: $9,150+
                                          • Pre-Owned Price: ~$10,000+

                                            In 1956, when the Milgauss came out, the world was abuzz with nuclear research, especially at places like CERN, still the most advanced particle accelerator. Meanwhile, all the incredible technology developed during WWII was being ported to commercial uses, making electrical engineers one of the most important professional groups on the planet at the time. Rolex gave them what they needed, a watch able to withstand 1,000 (“mil”) gauss (a measure of electromagnetic fields).

                                            mil gauss

                                            The Milgauss also comes in a (slightly) more reserved black-dialed edition, though it maintains the electric-orange seconds hand and green-tinted crystal.

                                            Courtesy

                                            Sadly, scientists and engineers aren’t the famous heroes they ought to be, and the Milgauss is the only current Rolex model to go out of production, from 1988 to 2007. However, when the watch returned in 2007, it was a rather exciting surprise for Rolex enthusiasts, and the lightning bolt seconds hand remains the most playful feature of any Rolex model to date. The modern version isn’t entirely impossible to get your hands on at retail, and more than any other Rolex model the Milgauss is the most likely to help you stand out in a crowd. It is, for sure, a watch for those in the know.

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                                                Rolex Air-King

                                                • Current Variations: 1
                                                • Price: $7,400
                                                • Pre-Owned Price: ~$3,000+

                                                  Like The Explorer, the Air-King had existed as the Oyster Perpetual for a long while before Rolex printed “Air-King” on the dial and began marketing it to a new set of post-WWII jet setters — men who adored and imitated the former war pilots now flying jumbo jets across the Atlantic. Released in 1945, Rolex’s new model caught that wave of enthusiasm for the future, and nothing at that moment said “future” like beautiful commercial jets that turned a weekend jaunt across the ocean to Paris, New York, Rome, or London into a reality.

                                                  Today’s model is 40mm across, and carries one of the most divisive dials in Rolex’s catalog (along with that of the Sky-Dweller). Admittedly, the intermittent hour and minute markers on the modern Air-King — which are inspired by dashboard instruments — are visually unique (for some, jarring), as are the touches of green and yellow. It’s the only Rolex watch to feature the colored logo style on its dial. For 2022, the Air-King got a thorough refresh with the latest movement, design tweaks and, most notably, a new Oyster case featuring crown guards — giving the new Air-King a unique feature set among the brand’s collections.

                                                  For today’s Rolex enthusiasts, the Air King is positioned at the periphery of the Professional series watches. However, you can (theoretically) get an Air King at retail relatively easily, and that’s almost impossible to say of any other all steel model on the Professional side of the catalog. A bird in hand beats two in the bush.

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                                                      Rolex Yacht-Master

                                                      • Current Variations: 14
                                                      • Price: $11,600+
                                                      • Pre-Owned Price: ~$6,000+

                                                        By the 1980s, the Rolex Submariner had come out in gold, and preppy folks around the world were rocking them as status symbols. Rolex kind of punched the preppy class on the nose with the all-gold Yacht Master of 1992. Interestingly, the Yacht Master’s evolution has been one of increased sportiness and reduced bling since its release — not the common direction for Rolex’s evolution. The toning down of glamor and upping of ruggedness has made the Yacht Master a bit of a sleeper model in the Rolex catalog, but it is every bit as capable as the Submariner, which it resembles.

                                                        In 1999 Rolex offered the Yacht Master in platinum and steel (reference 16622), and from there it’s been an endless riffing on precious metal combinations (though never has an all-stainless steel model emerged). Todays’ Yacht Master is 37mm or larger, and the watch carries all the latest Rolex technology inside and out. Distinguishing features include the “relief” ceramic bezel, and the optional Oysterflex rubber strap, which is surprisingly luxurious and durable on the wrist.

                                                        What has always seemed lacking, however, is a timing mechanism specific to racing a sailboat, usually a 10-minute timer of some kind that’s activated when the starting gun goes off. However, given the watch’s roots as a schmancy timepiece for hanging around the docks in style, the less utilitarian design makes sense.

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                                                            Rolex Yacht-Master II

                                                            • Current Variations: 3
                                                            • Price: $18,750+
                                                            • Pre-Owned Price: ~$20,000+

                                                              Now we’re talking serious sailboat racing technology, with one of Rolex’s more sophisticated movements featuring a ten-minute countdown stopwatch complication, running seconds on a traditionally placed subdial above 6-o’clock, a large 42mm case, a ceramic bezel, 300m of water resistance and more yachting style than any other sailing watch on the market.

                                                              The Ring Command bezel allows one to select between one to ten minutes to be timed. (However, as a sailor who used to race on pretty big boats, I can attest that the two-handed moves required by this mechanism are entirely unsuited to the dangerous scenarios of crewing in a race, especially during the start when things are truly hectic.) Nonetheless, this is one of Rolex’s coolest and most complicated mechanisms (along with that of the Sky-Dweller), and most people aren’t actually crewing on real racing boats — or climbing mountains, or flying jets, or SCUBA diving, though those watches all sell out fast, too.

                                                              Released in 2010, the Yacht Master II is the latest new model from Rolex, and it has yet to gain historical significance. As such, they’re more readily available at retail, and for those who dig the maritime vibe and the cool movement, the Yacht Master II is a hit.

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                                                                  Rolex Oyster Perpetual

                                                                  • Current Variations: 24
                                                                  • Price: $5,300+
                                                                  • Pre-Owned Price: ~$2,000+

                                                                    In many ways, this is the watch that launched Rolex as the king of industrial watchmaking. The “OP” was, upon its release in 1950, both highly water-resistant and automatically wound, a first-time combo. “Perpetual” refers not to it being always wound, but to its rotor swinging 360 degrees around a central axis — so, perpetually winding (despite it only winding in one direction). But none of that matters much to end users, who adore these waterproof watches for their durability and midcentury, function-forward appearance.

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                                                                    The Oyster Perpetual has perpetually been in production since then, and this model formed the basis for most other Rolex models, including the famous Submariner, the Explorer, the Air King, the Datejust and the Day-Date. Today’s Oyster Perpetual comes in many sizes, many colors, and was generally one of the few Rolex models readily available at retail. (That is, such was the case until the release of the new crop of brightly colored dials in 2020 — now an OP can be as tough to track down as a Sub or a GMT-Master II.)

                                                                    With no date, no cyclops, no complications, no fluted gold bezel, and a sleek polished and brushed case and matching bracelet, the “OP” is a pure expression of the Rolex brand, one that’s instantly recognizable despite it lacking some key iconic visual cues.

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                                                                        Rolex Datejust

                                                                        • Current Variations: 733
                                                                        • Price: $7,100+
                                                                        • Pre-Owned Price: ~$3,000+

                                                                          Rolex took their Oyster models (first released in the 1920s) and in 1945 added the first date complication that changed “just before” midnight, rather than taking hours to turn over. (Or was “just,” as in “accurate,” depending on your interpretation.) Sounds like a simple thing, but in the 1940s, and even now, that feature was unique and convenient. The “cyclops” date magnifier was also a first on the Datejust of 1945.

                                                                          The most iconic modern Rolex Datejust retains the fluted bezel of the early Oyster models, though it serves no function now. (Originally that bezel was the receiving end of a tool that unscrewed the bezel ring to release the crystal from the mid-case. Today, that bezel is integrated into the mid case, and the fluting is purely decorative.) Combined with the cyclops, these visual cues say “Rolex” more loudly than any other features on any other model, including the Submariner and the Daytona.

                                                                          Neither too sporty, nor too dressy, the Datejust is the perfect solution for the person seeking one watch to do it all. Robust, ready for water and shocks and all kinds of abuse, but dressy enough to go to a wedding or funeral, the Datejust is a midcentury classic that remains the centerpiece of Rolex’s catalog. Essential, iconic, perpetually in vogue, a Datejust might be the only watch you’ll ever require.

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                                                                              Rolex Day-Date

                                                                              • Current Variations: 197
                                                                              • Price: $36,850+
                                                                              • Pre-Owned Price: ~$8,500+

                                                                                In 1956, Rolex released a new model with both the date at 3 o’clock and the day of the week boldly displayed in an arced aperture at the top of the dial. It also came on a newly designed five-link bracelet that glimmered in the lowest of lighting. Few would have expected this more complicated version of the Datejust to have become the chosen watch of multiple US presidents — LBJ, JFK and Regan among them — but that’s what happened. (It certainly didn’t hurt that the watch has only ever been available in all-precious metal cases — a signifier of wealth and power if ever there was one. Its day display is also available in no fewer than 26 different languages, making it a favorite watch the world over.)

                                                                                Now nicknamed “The President” — though, technically, this is the official name of the watch’s unique bracelet, not the watch itself — the Day-Date is the other most recognizable Rolex after the Datejust, and no dressy Celini or any other model seems capable of outshining it, literally and figuratively. As such, the Day-Date is always on offer in an array of sizes and with enough precious metals and diamonds to cross that thin line into gaudiness — though a stock, unadorned Day-Date remains one of the classiest watches on the market, a sign of sophistication and good taste.

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                                                                                    Rolex Sky-Dweller

                                                                                    • Current Variations: 24
                                                                                    • Price: $15,200+
                                                                                    • Pre-Owned Price: ~$21,000+

                                                                                      The year 2012 saw Rolex release the Sky-Dweller to a very mixed response. Some hate how it looks quite vehemently, which makes it a bit of a rebel choice, while others applauded the mechanical accomplishment.

                                                                                      What distinguishes the Sky-Dweller is, indeed, the brilliant movement inside. This is a full-on annual calendar (displaying months, but not years), and it uses a truly clever mechanism and display: The months are indicated by a tiny aperture that turns red at each of the 12 markers around the dial, while the date is in the traditional position at 3-o’clock. A 24-hour GMT indicator is located on the ring above 6-o’clock, which is the most divisive visual feature of the Sky-Dweller.

                                                                                      But what truly distinguishes this movement is that the bezel works as a selector for whatever function you’re looking to set via the crown: One rotates the bezel to any of seven positions and uses the crown to adjust the affiliated function. Sounds tricky, but after one try it’s entirely intuitive. A brilliant design, and quite unique.

                                                                                      It’s also 42mm across, which is on the larger side for a Rolex, but for those who want their watch to leap off their wrist, the Sky-Dweller is a perfect choice.

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                                                                                          Rolex Cellini

                                                                                          • Current Variations: 1
                                                                                          • Price: $26,750
                                                                                          • Pre-Owned Price: ~$2,200+

                                                                                            Historically, Rolex hasn’t been a big dress watch company, but, ironically, it’s in their dressy Cellini collection that the brand has been the most daring stylistically. It’s almost as if the Cellini line exists as an aesthetic playground for Rolex, though that was more true during the 1970s when seemingly every shape known to geometry was tried and abandoned on an annual basis.

                                                                                            Today’s Cellini line has been reduced to a single model: the Moonphase. This particular model stands alone not merely as the only moonphase in the current collection, but also as one of Rolex’s most complicated and quirky timepieces: Look closely and you’ll see that it displays not only phases of the moon, but also the date using a pointer rather than the typical aperture — a feature common in vintage timepieces from the mid-20th century.

                                                                                            Like past models in the collection, it’s dressily styled in that 1930s way that still marks the main offerings from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Rolex makes no pretense to hand-building their watches, however, and as such the Cellini line represents a reasonable entry point into the world of high-end Swiss dress watches.

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