Rolex has worked persistently to establish itself as a manufacturer of high-end timepieces intended to serve professionals, athletes and explorers the world over. Accordingly, when the Milgauss debuted in 1956, its mission was to accompany the world’s boldest scientists in their quest for knowledge.
These men and women were constantly surrounded by powerful electromagnetic fields and though they may not have felt them, their wristwatches certainly did. This is due to the fact that, essentially, magnetism can wreak havoc on a movement’s accuracy.
Rolex solved this with the first Milgauss, a watch model that will undoubtedly go down in history for this feat. And yet, the Milgauss has seemingly taken a back seat in the modern watch industry.
On this page we’ll recap its history in an effort to shine a light on this often overlooked yet unique Rolex timepiece.
Rolex Milgauss ref 6543. Image: Rolex.com
History Of The Rolex Milgauss
- The Milgauss’ Predecessor
- The First Rolex Milgauss 6541
- The Milgauss Ref. 1019
- The Modern Milgauss 116400
As you can gather from the above subsections, the life of the Milgauss is nowhere near as complicated as that of other Rolex model families. Maybe it’s because the watch was never a huge seller or because, as we’ll cover, it took a 29-year hiatus ending in 2007.
Whatever the case, the Milgauss is the Rolex your friends likely don’t know about… And maybe that’s exactly why you should.
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The Milgauss’ Predecessor
The earliest Milgauss watches have been traced back as early as 1954, a rather interesting fact considering that Rolex advertises the model as having been born in 1956. This had led to some controversy, though it is mostly believed that these early models, designated the reference 6543, were mere prototypes.
The Milgauss ref. 6543s possessed a 37.5mm steel case accompanied by a bidirectional bezel with insert, a black honeycomb dial, both painted and applied hour indices, and luminous center hands. Powering the watch was a self-winding Calibre 1080, a standard movement for the brand at the time.
What wasn’t standard was surrounding the movement itself: a soft iron case. The additional layer of this specific metal created a Faraday cage around the movement, essentially sealing it off from outside electromagnetic fields. Indeed, what the Oyster case achieved against water and dust, the inner soft iron cage could do for magnetic fields.
This same ref. 6543 is the one which was purportedly tested by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and certified as being resistant to magnetic fields up to 1000 gauss. This, too, is a feat that is widely-marketed by the brand.
What is clear is that the watch’s magnetic resistance rating led to the name itself, Milgauss, with “mil” signifying the number 1000 and “gauss” the units. And so, the Rolex watch for scientists was born.
The First Rolex Milgauss 6541
In the modern day, Rolex references are structured with each number acting as a code that speaks to the case metal, bezel type, model, etc… The same was not true in the 1950s.
So yes, the ‘first’ Milgauss, the one that was released in 1956 as Rolex claims, has a ‘lower’ reference number than its predecessor, the 6543 prototype. If you’re into the world of vintage Rolex, you may already be familiar with this type of discrepancy.
In any case, 1956 saw the debut of the reference 6541, a Milgauss that was quite similar to the 6543 while also being different in some significant ways.
The case remained largely the same, as did the internals. The dial was still black and possessed the luminous plot and ‘dart’ hour indices. The bezel was offered with various scale inserts though all were intended for timing.
Most peculiar were the hand designs seen on even fewer of these models; they had lightning-bolt shaped seconds hands.
Of course, the present day Milgauss is remembered by many solely for its bright lightning bolt seconds hand. In fact this playful hallmark of the model family is borne of one of the first models.
Evidently the Milgauss was not a huge success, or at least not as significant as its Sub and GMT-Master siblings, so Rolex scrapped much of the design in 1960, just 4 years after introduction.
The Milgauss 1019
The Milgauss reference 1019 was released in 1960 with substantial design changes which, in one way or another, demonstrate a dissatisfaction on behalf of the brand with their first Milgauss iteration.
The new reference still possessed the soft iron inner cage that imparted the magnetic resistance in the 6541 (and 6543), but its external design was changed. Likewise, the movement powering the 1019 was now a Rolex Calibre 1580, the latest generation of Rolex technology at the time.
The 38mm steel Oyster case now featured a smooth bezel. Its dial no longer possessed the signature honeycomb texture and the previous style of hour indices were completely replaced by applied batons. The hands transitioned into more of a ‘stick’ shape as opposed to the previous dauphine and alpha hands seen on earlier Milgauss reference. Additionally, the exclusive lightning-bolt seconds hand at center was gone, replace by a more traditional style.
The Milgauss 1019 was offered in just three dial options: black, silver, and silver with no luminous. The last of these is often called the CERN dial, as no radioactive luminous is used. It is believed that CERN scientists requested this dial be made specifically for them as any small amount of radioactive material could skew test results in the lab.
The 1019 remained a staple of the Rolex catalog for almost 30 years until it was completely retired in 1988. It’s not strange to see the Swiss manufacturer sunset a reference number, but generally this occurs when a newer-and-better version is ready to take its place. With the Milgauss 1019, this substitution never happened.
The Modern Milgauss 116400
As occurs every year, when Baselworld 2007 rolled around numerous rumors were circulating with regards to what Rolex may be releasing in that year’s show, yet very few could have predicted what was to come.
It was a brand new, once more heavily redesigned Rolex Milgauss which employed characteristics from all of its predecessors in one modern watch.
This Milgauss “re-edition” boasted a larger 40mm Oystersteel Oyster case that was completely polished; its bracelet, likewise, had polished elements in its center links. The bezel was smooth and flat, much like that seen decades earlier on the ref. 1019.
The two dials options of the first Milgauss ref 116400 were black and white. Both possessed applied luminous indices, a contrasting minutes scale, and luminous center hands. Most remarkably, the lightning-bolt center hands made a comeback with a gloriously bright orange tone that has, in the present day, come to represent the model family as a whole.
As could be expected, powering the new 116400 Milgauss watches was Rolex’s latest Calibre 3131, a COSC-chronometer certified movement which possessed the same soft iron shroud but also implemented para-magnetic components for its balance hairspring.
A State-Of-The-Art Crystal
Another aspect of the 116400 that would come to define it is one which had never been seen, not only on the Milgauss but on any watch in the world. Aside from the two dial options, customers were also faced with another novel feature: the green-tinted sapphire crystal.
Seemingly in their spare time and completely separated from the public eye, Rolex devised a method for creating their standard scratch-resistant sapphire crystal with a subtle green tint. It’s hard to see this horological innovation finding a home in any other Rolex watch model, but it fits the Milgauss surprisingly well.
Some years later, Rolex also released a “Z-Blue” dial option for the Milgauss which can only be described as electric. The bright blue dial features a beautiful sunray texture and, when paired with the “glave verte” (GV) green crystal, offers a colorful and almost playful aesthetic found nowhere else in the brand’s model lines.
Overall, the updates to the Rolex Milgauss model seem to have worked, and its resurrection can definitely be seen as a success. Of course, the Milgauss will likely never sell as much as its more famous siblings but, in its most recent versions, is an exceptional timepiece with a style that is truly unmatched by other watches on the market.
It’s impossible to predict exactly which way Rolex is going to go with the Milgauss, but in its most modern reference, the model seems to have found its place in the brand’s catalog.
All in all, the watch remains a secondary choice to the other steel sports options due to its unique look and relatively short history. And maybe this isn’t a bad thing, or at least it’s exactly as intended by the brand.
Not all of Rolex’s watches need to achieve celebrity status. In fact, they are likely serving a wider customer base by positioning the Milgauss as a timepiece for “rebels”, those who want exactly what everyone else isn’t wearing.
As it sits, the Milgauss is now the exotic Rolex offering for those who want the quality and reputation of the brand while also hoping to stand out amongst friends sporting GMTs and Submariners. In this regard, the 116400 performs exceptionally. And though new dial options may come and go, we can confidently say that the new Milgauss is here to stay.
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"At times, I find Rolex's designs to be a bit boring or dull as there's little to no color with them. The only exception is the Milgauss, given the brand seemingly allowed themselves to have some fun while creating it. If I was to purchase another Rolex now, this would definitely be the one I'd go for!"Rating: 5.0★★★★★