The current Rolex Milgauss is the most interesting watch Rolex offers. Despite its lack of complication, the antimagnetic Rolex exudes character, charisma, and elan often missing on the sober mainstream models of watchmaking’s most famous brand. While neither complicated nor terribly difficult to obtain, the current Milgauss is the most interesting watch in the world… of Rolex.
Despite launching in the same mid-1950s timeframe that birthed the core-collection Submariner, GMT, and Day-Date, the Milgauss stands apart as an oddity. With the exception of the quirky and rare reference 6556 Tru Beat, no Rolex watch of this era compares to the novelty of the first two Milgauss references, the 6543 and 6541. Both were created with scientists, engineers, and technicians in mind, so anti-magnetic qualities were the focus. Whether or not Rolex actually developed the Milgauss for European particle physics gurus at CERN, the very controversy surrounding the story only adds to the oddball appeal of the watch.
First generation Milgauss models were – at least – as idiosyncratic as the 2021 collection. The first reference, the 6543 of 1956, somehow pre-dates the reference 6541 (1958) in production. And unlike later Milgauss models, both were available with rotating bezels and “honeycomb” dial patterns. The rare (hundreds, not thousands) 6543 also included a weird 19.5mm lug spacing. A wacky “lightning bolt” seconds hand distinguished the later 6541, and its case back was so thin that fingers alone could depress its center like a bottle cap. And the 6541 also was offered without a rotating bezel, which further complicates any account of early Milgauss models.
1960 brought a new Milgauss, the 1019, and a new look. Still 38mm, the new Milgauss sported a fixed bezel, conventional hands, and a more compelling claim to CERN acceptance. Whether by request or initiative, Rolex deployed an optional zero-lume dial known to history as the “CERN dial.” In an era when tritium and radium were employed for lume (Rolex used both in the early ‘60s), even the miniscule decay emissions of a watch dial had the potential to activate the sensors in particle physics gear. While dead in the dark, the CERN dial was ideal for use in a professional lab environment.
All three early Milgauss models used variations on the “paramagnetic” cage to shield the movement. Truth be told, it wasn’t quite the “Faraday cage” often described, because its function wasn’t strictly to block electrical current or electromagnetic radiation. Faraday cages are not effective against static magnetic fields and suffer diminished effectiveness when electromagnetic fields are stable and standing. The Rolex soft iron shell was equally effective at diminishing the impact of electro and static magnet forces that occurred in proximity to the Milgauss.
Like the manual-wind Rolex Daytona built over nearly the same period of time, the 1960-1988 Rolex Milgauss 1019 was an unpopular watch and a slow seller. Unlike the Daytona, the Milgauss was dropped from the catalog rather than redesigned in 1988. And it stayed on ice until 2007.
Baselworld that year wasn’t supposed to be about the Rolex Milgauss. Given an era in which price, size, and complexity had become king, the star of ’07 was supposed to be the 44mm programmable Yacht-Master II flyback regatta timer. But for the first time in its intermittent 51-year existence, the Milgauss became a hit.
Rolex bet on novelty with the reference 116400 Milgauss, and the wager paid handsomely. 2007’s Milgauss smoothly blended the best facets of the first three models. A fixed bezel like the 1019 and some 6541s was combined with the “lightning bolt” seconds of the 6541 and the antimagnetic iron shield launched with the 6543. A full Oyster bracelet completed the roster of heritage cues, but it was Rolex’s modern style innovations that rocketed the new Milgauss to stardom.
The new Milgauss made color its calling card. First and foremost, a green-tinted sapphire crystal electrified Rolex dealers and clients alike. That minor inflection of color was the watch-design event of 2007. Waiting lists at dealers and aftermarket premiums were the rule for the first year’s production.
Rockstar sapphire notwithstanding, the Milgauss also included copious quantities of orange lacquer on the dial printing and the ‘bolt seconds hand. Fans of the white Explorer 2 “polar” dial immediately recognized that signature whitewash as an option on the Milgauss. As with the Explorer 2, the color is true white, not silver, and its combination with the orange accents looked almost postmodern.
Another Milgauss jolt arrived in 2014. The rarely ordered whitewash was retired, and a new iridescent blue “Z-Blue” dial arrived in exclusive combination with the “glace verte” (GV) green crystal. The combination of electric blue, green, and orange created a look so jaunty and irreverent of tradition that it was hard to believe it hailed from conservative Rolex. Not since the “stella” lacquer dials of the 1970s and 80s had a mainstream Rolex watch offered such bold color.
The current Milgauss is a 40mm stainless steel sports watch with respectable credentials for its intended task. Rolex reprises internal iron shielding from the earlier generations, but a new blue-oxidized niobium-zirconium Breguet overcoil hairspring likely elevates the claimed “1,000 Gauss” far beyond that level. 1,000 Gauss is roughly equivalent to 80,000 amperes per meter, but the 1980s IWC Ingenieur reference 3508 “500,000 A/M” used the same niobium-zirconium alloy as the Parachrom spring. In all likelihood, the “mille-gauss” significantly exceeds its claimed resistance.
Otherwise, the Milgauss’ caliber 3131 is a standard Oyster caliber of its generation. The 48-hour power reserve, COSC Swiss chronometer certification, and tough overall architecture are consistent with all other 31XX-series Rolex automatic calibers. 100-meter water resistance makes the Milgauss a swimmable watch. Mechanically and dimensionally, the Milgauss 116400 is identical to its equally quirky but slightly less refined brother, the Air-King 116900.
As of 2021, the Rolex Milgauss is the most interesting watch in the brand’s catalog. It’s an exuberant watch from a company that generally sticks to black and silver. It’s an accessible watch in a catalog rife with waiting lists. And it’s a reasonably obtainable watch on a Rolex scene groaning with aftermarket premiums. With speculation rife regarding the retirement of the current generation Milgauss, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the past and present of Rolex’s most fascinating face.