History & Overview Of The Date-Only Icon: The Rolex Datejust
History & Overview Of The Date-Only Icon: The Rolex DatejustRafael Dominguez2019-12-13T09:41:08-05:00
The Rolex Datejust has been a pillar not only of Rolex’s catalog over the past 8 decades, but of the luxury wristwatch industry itself, ever since its introduction.
First released in 1945, it marked forty years of Rolex timepieces. Today, it holds a spot in even the most exclusive collections, and remains one of the most popular timepieces among both men and women.
Loved for its sporty yet elegant design, the present-day Datejust is available in varied sizes, many case and bezel metals, and with seemingly unlimited dials.
Admittedly, today’s “classic watch of reference” (as Rolex calls it) has changed more than just a bit since it was released. Which were the hallmarks that gave way to this timeless icon? We discuss just that in this guide.
Overview Of The Rolex Datejust’s History
The Datejust is the oldest running Rolex model line to date. As you can imagine, it’s had numerous updates throughout its 70+ years of production. We’ve covered the most memorable ones in the following subsections:
The Datejust debuted in 1945 as the reference 4467, the first automatic watch with a date. It was crafted entirely of 18K yellow gold, possessed a minimally fluted bezel (closer to a coin-edge texture), and in fact did not display the word “Datejust” on its dial. It did boast a Jubilee bracelet though, the first one ever made.
The first Rolex Datejust, the ref. 4467. Image: Rolex.com
The watch also featured Rolex’s waterproof Oyster case, along with a lightly curved dial, alpha hands, and a black/red font (“roulette”) date indication. At a time in which time-only watches were the norm, Rolex broke the mold.
In the first Datejusts, the date wheel took some time to actually change over to the next day. It wouldn’t be until 10 years later, in 1955, that Rolex would mitigate this inefficiency with an instantaneous mechanism. Another significant change would be made – the inclusion of a cyclops magnifier.
The Datejust Turn-O-Graph AKA The Thunderbird
In the early ’50s, around the same time that the Datejust received a cyclops magnifier, Rolex would also release their first ever production watch with a rotating bezel… and it wasn’t a Submariner.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph ref 6202. Image: Phillips.com
The first 1953 Turn-O-Graph was the reference 6202 which nowadays resembles a Sub much more than a Datejust. At the time, the Submariner hadn’t yet been released, but the Turn-O-Graph possessed the black dial, gilt indices, and rotating black bezel that marked the future sibling.
A year later, the Sub made its debut and the Turn-O-Graph became part of the Datejust family as the reference 6309. It was at this time that it received an upgraded date movement; the bezel was also changed to an all-metal variety without an insert. These changes clearly separated the previously-similar Sub and TOG, allowing both to coexist within the catalog.
Soon after its introduction, the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph would win the wrist of a USAF Thunderbird pilot. Not one to pass on powerful marketing opportunities, Rolex provided TOGs for the entire squadron, and even placed the aerobatic team’s insignia on the dial of the gifted timepieces.
Following this, Rolex adverts would directly refer to the Turn-O-Graph as the Thunderbird, and the nickname stuck.
The Datejust Turn-O-Graph would go through various different iterations until its discontinuation in 2011, purportedly due to lack of interest. If history has taught us anything though, it’s that there’s a great possibility that the TOG will make a return at some point down the line.
By the end of the 1950s, the Datejust received another movement upgrade, this time to the caliber 1065. Most notably, the new caliber had a smaller architecture which allowed the case back to be flat as opposed to the previous “bubbleback” versions.
The bezel, likewise, evolved into the now-recognized fluted style, which remains a defining element of the present-day Datejust. Two-tone (Rolesor) varieties would also debut, along with the smaller-size Lady Datejust.
With countless dial and metal combinations offered, the Datejust enjoyed significant success from the mid-century onwards. Coupled with the prosperity came more mechanical enhancements, like the caliber 1570 in 1965, though the design itself remained intact.
The Datejust formula was working, and Rolex capitalized.
The Quick-Set Datejust
Rolex ref. 16018. Image: Phillips.com
The next considerable update to the Datejust would come in the ’70s with the introduction of Rolex’s in-house caliber, the 3035, in the 160XX references. The new movement, aside from being more technologically advanced than the previous 1570, boasted a key feature: the quick-set function.
Whereas in previous Datejusts the date had to be configured by cycling the hour hand (2 dial revolutions = 1 day), the new caliber featured a specific crown position where the date could be set forwards or backwards independent of the center hour hands.
The new functionality was not a first in the watch industry, though it was a first for Rolex. It also marked a huge improvement in convenience for Datejust (and Day-Date) owners.
The aesthetic changes in the 160XX references were minimal and mostly reserved to the dial style, which changed from the “pie-pan” to a completely flat version.
The Quartz Datejust
The Quartz Crisis that began in the ’60s took its toll on the entire luxury watch industry including Rolex.
Not ones to stand by as the massive quartz wave passed by, Rolex joined forces with many other Swiss brands in the development of their own quartz caliber. These efforts produced the Beta 21 quartz movement, which Rolex implemented in their limited ref. 5100 watches.
But sharing provenance has never been the Genevan manufacturer’s ethos, so Rolex promptly embarked on their quest for a proprietary quartz caliber. After almost half a decade of R&D, the first Rolex quartz movements would be released in 1977.
These were the 5035 movement in the ref. 17000 Oysterquartz Datejust and the 5055 (with day function) in the Oysterquartz Day-Date. Both were relatively popular, though still too expensive for most quartz watch buyers, so the production numbers remained low.
The Oysterquartz series of watches would be discontinued in 2002, about 25 years after their release.
After beefing up the 160XX series in the ’70s, it would take more than 15 years for the Datejust to see another memorable update. This finally came in 1988 with the introduction of a new reference for the Datejust, the 162XX.
The new Datejust possessed Rolex’s latest caliber, the 3135. It also boasted a new sapphire crystal that was far superior in resistance to scratches when compared to the acrylic it replaced. As we know now, that same sapphire crystal construction remains the standard even today.
The 1162XX Series & The Datejust II
The Datejust 162XX series would see small and incremental design changes for the next two decades. And while the case was redesigned in 2004 with the ref. 1162XX series (see above), no change would be as memorable as what Rolex debuted at Baselworld 2009.
Just one year earlier, the 40mm Day-Date II was released, marking the first time the Day-Date was offered in a size other than 36mm. Subsequently, Rolex introduced the Datejust II, likewise marking the first time that the Datejust line saw an increase in size to 41mm.
At the time, the watch industry was trending towards larger and even oversized watches such as those offered by Panerai. Once more, Rolex chose to participate, though in their own calculated way.
Aside from the larger case, the Datejust II (ref. 1163XX) featured new dial styles, a steel or Rolesor construction, domed or fluted bezel, and was sold exclusively on the Oyster bracelet. The watch was meant to satisfy a seemingly missing link in the catalog, though it was not as popular as hoped and was discontinued around 2016.
The Modern Datejust
Ironically enough, soon after dropping the Datejust II from their catalog for lack of interest, Rolex would once more offer a larger version of the classic with the 2016 Datejust 41. Initially only in two-tone varieties, the steel-and-white gold would be seen just one year later.
The watch possessed a new reference (1262XX), along with the new 3235 caliber, and could also be purchased with either an Oyster or Jubilee bracelet, something that was not an option on the DJII.
Modern Datejust options. L to R: DJ36, DJ41, Lady-DJ, Date, DJ31
Shortly after, in 2018, Rolex would reintroduce the 36mm Datejust as the Datejust 36. As with the DJ41, the DJ36 received the movement upgrade, along with some slight case design changes.
The Datejust 36 and Datejust 41 are now arguably the backbone of the brand’s catalog. Indeed the “hottest” models remain in the GMT-Master and Submariner families, but no other style sells as much, and is poised to continue doing so as much as this eternal icon, the Rolex Datejust.
Let us know in the comments what you thought of this recap of the Rolex Datejust’s rich history which, albeit not all-inclusive, offers plenty of landmark reference points from times (and watches) past.
If you’d like to continue learning about Rolex’s model families, jump into one of our other popular guides below:
"Never mind the over-hyped GMTs and Subs. The Datejust is the true emblematic Rolex watch, and one which I find to be way more elegant than its peers. Plus, why put your name on a year-long waitlist when you can buy a Datejust without issue straight from Rolex store?."