The Rolex Daytona enters my consciousness with tenacity roughly once per calendar year. Rolex’s sports chronograph, which has captured mine among millions of imaginations since 1963, is a recurring personal obsession that my general disinterest in the brand can’t hold at bay. Each year – and it’s generally around the start of the auto racing calendar – I start thinking about the Daytona. And I have three perennial favorites.
I must admit that I don’t love Rolex. I respect Rolex. The brand and its highly cultivated public image never captured my imagination. Mount Everest: who cares? Diving adventures: I hate swimming. Aviation heroics: I get air sick. But talk about tires, tracks, and timing sheets, and you’ve got my attention. I’m all about cars, and to my mind, cars are all about motorsports.
The Rolex Daytona first appeared on my radar in 2000 as I was watching the ORECA-run factory Chrysler Vipers — Dodges stateside – win a dominant third successive 24 Hours of Le Mans GTS title. Audi’s Dallara-penned R8 roadster was writing the first chapter in an epic that would span three decades. But in between Red Bull promos and motor oil pitches on the old Speedvision network, I caught my first glimpse of the Rolex Daytona.
Advertising works, and it works best when you’re a sixteen-year-old watching his fifteenth consecutive hour of endurance sports car racing. The Daytona was burned into my brain alongside images of Audi’s legendary five-minute gearbox change, the thunder of a six-liter Panoz LMP 900 leaving the pits, and flaming carbon ceramic brake rotors amid the choreographed scramble of a tire swap.
Rolex should be proud of itself; it won a forever fan that night in mid-June.
But I never latched on to the manliest of Cosmographs – the ones most likely to appear on the wrist of a race winner at Daytona in January. I should also disclose that I’m not interested in the manual wind era of Rolex’s signature chronograph; those watches aren’t my thing, and I’m fatigued by endless discussion of their market value.
Nope, I like the anomalies. My favorite Daytonas are the chrysoprase Daytona “Beach,” the yellow gold-Oysterflex Daytona, and any of the several sodalite dialed white gold models.
If Daytona International Speedway is the crucible of racing, then Daytona Beach is where exhausted drivers and crew unwind after the Rolex 24. The Rolex Daytona “Beach” collection was designed with beach sand – not track tarmac – in mind.
This series of four watches remains as curious today as it was in Y2K; Cosmographs with pink, yellow, blue, and green dials strapped with matching-color factory lizard skins are uncommon across the road from Geneva’s Pont Hans Wilsdorf.
2000 marked a new era for the Rolex Daytona; the long-gestating manufacture chronograph movement became a reality in the form of caliber 4130. While Rolex tries to maintain catalog stability from year to year, it does like to mark special occasions, and the 4130 was a big one. Each of the “Beach” series chronographs starts with a lizard strap in one of the four electric gloss colors; imagine a hybrid of 80s new wave and Gulf coast Florida pastels, and you’ve got the right idea. The dials were color-matched to the strap; three incorporated tinted mother of pearl, and the green dial employed chrysoprase. All cases were crafted from white gold and matched to white gold Roman numerals on the dials.
Allegedly, these watches were sold with short straps under the impression that women were most likely to respond to the use of bright colors. But from the vantage point of 2021, blue and green dials look like a downright prophetic vision of future male tastes, and I’d be thrilled to hit the beach this summer with any of the Technicolor 116519s strapped to my wrist.
Sodalite is a mineral whose mélange of white and blue hues invites artistic disposal. Its use in watch dials is a rare modern phenomenon, but of all the brands to try their hands with this tectosilicate, Rolex is the master.
The modern sodalite dial Rolex Daytona was born during the late 1990s and stuck around into the late 2000s. In the process, the marbled wonder straddled two eras of Daytona production and several dial variants.
To my knowledge, all Zenith-era sodalite dial Daytonas were white gold and incorporated diamond-set hour indices. Since the white gold five-digit Daytona only was offered from 1997 to 1999, and the sodalite dial was a rare option for that rare variant, I must take this dreamboat as I can get it.
While I’m not conventionally enamored of diamond dial watches, the sodalite 16519 compels me to make an exception. It’s just glorious. If I need to cut plea deal with the style-police and the style-prosecutor to wear gems on a man’s watch, I’m going to do it for the sake of an El Primero-powered Rolex Daytona with a sodalite mug shot.
Six-digit Rolex Daytonas also offer sodalite dials, and selection among this this cohort is greater than in the Zenith era.
While still reserved for white gold cases, the sodalite dial appeared as a full-bracelet option in reference 116509. The leather strap remained an option, and diamond-set dials remained on offer. Extroverts with more money could specify a sapphire-set bezel to maximize the blue hue of the sodalite time machine. But for the purist watch collector, the greatest sodalite innovation of the six-digit era was an Arabic numeral dial devoid of gems in a case unmarred by set stones.
Even so, if I had to pull the trigger on a sodalite Cosmograph, and the El Primero were in play, I’d swallow my purist’s pride and rock the diamond dial. The Zenith/sodalite axis is that awesome.
2017 was a great year for Rolex Daytona fans. That was the year Rolex gave us the Oysterflex. First launched on the Yacht-Master in 2015, the Oysterflex is a titanium-nickel band sheathed in black rubber – for all intents and purposes, a strap. It infused innovation into what was even then an aging model.
Rolex didn’t cave entirely to popular demand; stainless steel Daytonas remained exclusively as bracelet models. The 2017 rubber clad Daytonas were available only in rose, white, and yellow gold. The last of those caught my eye and never let go.
In general, I prefer my watches in white metals. If pushed, I might tolerate a dress watch in rose gold. But yellow gold? Do I look like your grandpa? Perhaps I do, because the Rolex 116518LN is a watch that I would wear without a care. The explosive gleam of yellow gold, its sharp contrast with matte black rubber and gloss black ceramic, and the very novelty of traditional gold in a modern watch capture my imagination.
Like Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Söhne, Rolex never abandoned yellow gold in its lineup, but a yellow gold Daytona on a rubber strap somehow feels fresh even in 2021. Perhaps it’s due to the yellow jacket color tandem; perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of rubber and gold; perhaps the Daytona itself just casts a halo glow on any material.
Yellow gold Daytonas are strange creatures of disparate dispositions. A standard or jaune Daytona with metal bezel and matching Oyster bracelet feels like a poolside trophy watch for an over-bronzed South Beach retiree. But swap in a ceramic bezel and a rubber strap, and you have a proper luxury sports watch ready to hit the track 260 miles north up I95.
Of the few Daytona models that occupy my daydreams, the 116518LN is the sportiest and the only one that would look at home pit-side at Daytona International Speedway.