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The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is one of the most coveted watches in the luxury wristwatch industry today. With such high demand, you might think the watch is some sort of limited production.

The modern 116500LN has put more names on wait-lists than any other Daytona before it, and possibly any other Rolex. This popularity is directly reflected in its price. While a Daytona currently retails for $12,400, you will have more than a hard time buying one from a dealer at that number.

But you probably already knew that. In fact, it’s one of the aspects that has made the Daytona so memorable in the past years – the skyrocketing value of just about every model.

But where did this modern icon get its start? On this page, we discuss just that.

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History Of The Rolex Daytona

Although not the oldest Rolex model, the Daytona has an extensive and nuanced history.

So, for brevity’s sake, this overview is constrained to the most significant references and changes from the model’s lifetime. We’ve also gone ahead and broken it down into the following subsections:

Feel free to use these links to jump down to a specific topic. Otherwise, continue scrolling and read it all!

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Early Rolex Chronographs

While the Daytona watch model that we know today didn’t actually exist until the ’60s, Rolex had almost 20 years of experience crafting chronographs by the time it was released.

These early chronos didn’t really have a name other than Chronograph, and their designs were also quite unfamiliar.

Most notably, the initial Rolex Chronographs were marked by a tachymetric bezel on the dial itself, along with non-contrasting subdials. Some models even featured just two subdials at 3 & and 9 o’clock, unlike the well-known 3, 6, and 9 conformation.

Vintage Rolex Chronograph reference 6234

Vintage Rolex Chronograph reference 6234. Image: Philips.com

It wouldn’t be until the mid ’50s that Rolex would introduce what are known as “pre-Daytonas”, starting with the reference 6234. These marked the first Rolex chronographs with a waterproof Oyster case, and an important precursor to the Daytona which would come ten years later.

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The Daytona Is Born

Even before the introduction of the Cosmograph Daytona, elite race-car drivers were already donning and endorsing the Genevan chronographs. At the time, a dual chronograph/stopwatch strapped to your wrist, more specifically an accurate one, was quite useful if you were on the hunt for land speed records.

One of the most outspoken Rolex Chronograph aficionados of the time was Malcolm Campbell, an Englishman with a penchant for speed. So much so, in fact, that by 1935 he had already broken 5 speed records at the famed Daytona Beach track.

Daytona Beach Track

Daytona Beach track in the ’60s. Image: Rolex.com

In those years, the track was indeed part beach. Not until 1959 would the race be held completely on asphalt, and Rolex wouldn’t become the official timekeeper of the Daytona Speedway until 1962. To mark this achievement, they introduced the Rolex reference 6239.

The Reference 6239 is widely recognized as the first Rolex Daytona ever. Ironically enough, the word Daytona was nowhere on the dial, only “Cosmograph”, though it was nicknamed “Daytona” regardless. The legendary Daytona print would first appear on this reference two years later, in 1964.

This first Rolex Daytona boasted the trademark engraved tachymetric bezel, a significant change from previous chronographs. Subsequent models would also introduce the tachymetric bezel with a black acrylic insert.

Paul Newman Daytona

Image: Phillips Auctions

Also debuting were the contrasting subregisters, which were offered either in white/black or black/white varieties intended to improve legibility. Inside the case was a Valjoux 72 hand-wound caliber which, although not manufactured by Rolex, was heavily modified for their purposes.

The most expensive watch ever sold, a Rolex Paul Newman ($17 million+), was a reference 6239. The “Paul Newman Daytona” name that is so often heard refers to this specific dial style and reference.

The Zenith Daytona

After the introduction of screw-down pushers in the reference 6040, a significant update of the Cosmograph Daytona wouldn’t come until 1988, with the premier of the 16520.

Rolex Daytona 16520 Tropical Dial

Daytona 16520 with tropical dial. Image: Phillips.com

Rolex would again look outside for a movement, this time at Zenith and their historic El Primero automatic chronograph caliber. Once more, the caliber was heavily modified, labeled the caliber 4030, and fitted inside the first ever automatic Daytona.

The case saw a large bump in size, up to the modern 40mm, and also boasted a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. The bezel remained almost unchanged, though the same cannot be said of the subregisters, which now only had contrasting brims.

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The In-House Daytona

While the Zenith Daytona was a robust chronograph, the fact that it was not manufactured entirely by Rolex effectively numbered its days. Just twelve years later, in 2000, Rolex would upgrade the movement and not much else in the reference 1165XX.

Man starting Rolex Daytona Chronograph Pusher

The new caliber was the 4130, the same movement that powers present-day Daytonas. In short, a vertical-clutch chronograph with an extensive 72-hour power reserve.

The external case and bracelet would remain the same Oyster varieties. The dial, on the other hand, could be distinguished by the exchange of the 6 and 9 subregisters, with constant seconds now found at 6 o’clock.

This dial style is what remains today, even after the introduction of the 116500LN Ceramic Daytona in 2016. The newest addition here being the ceramic bezel, which had never been used on a steel Daytona before.

Rolex Steel Sports Model Craze

The 116500LN was the first steel Rolex watch to “take off,” if not the first modern watch among all to spark a craze. Upon its announcement at Baselworld 2016, hopeful buyers flocked to the authorized dealers.

Rolex Daytona Stainless Steel Ceramic Dial

Image: Rolex.com

It would make sense that after some time, the demand would decrease and you’d eventually be able to walk in and purchase one without waiting. This has yet to happen. In fact, demand has continued increasing, reflected by the secondhand prices which are currently hovering around $25,000.

This may not be sensible, but it’s also not difficult to understand; the Daytona is a timeless design by the most famous watch brand in the world. It’s also reached the status of eternal icon, a title not shared with many other watches.

The Modern Daytona

After the steel-and-ceramic 116500LN Daytona, which remains ‘sold out’ even years after its introduction, Rolex has offered innovations only on the precious metal Daytonas.

Rolex Daytona Yellow Gold Rubber Strap

Rolex Daytona 116518LN w/ Oysterflex band

The white gold, rose gold, and yellow gold options are now sold on Rolex’s proprietary Oysterflex bracelet. Rolex had long offered some gold Daytonas on a leather strap, though never on a rubber strap.

Rolex themselves refuse to call it a rubber strap, namely due to the construction of the band itself. It involves a titanium-nickel alloy shrouded in rubber. The bracelet is also equipped with the latest Oysterlock clasp in matching gold.

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More Watch Guides

If you’ve enjoyed our recap of the emblematic Daytona, make sure to let us know in the comments section below. Likewise, if you’re on the hunt for more watch knowledge, check out some of our other horological guides below:

Bespoke Unit's Historical Recap Of The Rolex Daytona
Reviewed by Joe B., on .
"I've been eyeing the Rolex Daytona for years now, and still believe it's one of the most elegant watches of all time. Unfortunately the prices skyrocketed before I could grab one, but I haven't stopped looking for the right one."
Rating: 5.0★★★★★

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