The Cosmograph Daytona, Rolex’s iconic chronograph, is one of today’s most desired Rolexes. If you want a new one in steel, the wait list is said to be measured in years. If you want a pre-owned one, the cost is measured in five figure increments. If you want a truly vintage example, well… just how attached are you to your first born male child?
But it wasn’t always that way. The stories go that, in the 1960s, the references we covet today sat on jewelry store shelves for years (yes, the lame standing joke is we all want a time machine).
But why did the Daytonas sit? And where did they come from (horological genealogy-wise)?
Well, I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer for why the chronos we lust after today spent up to five years on store shelves 50 years ago. Presumably the watch buyers’ tastes of the time ran in other directions. Racing didn’t enjoy the mainstream popularity it does today, and that may be another reason why a watch dedicated in name and function to fast cars didn’t sell.
But where did they come from? Rolex started making chronographs in 1937. Their first Oyster cased chrono, ref. 4500, appeared in the midst of WW II. After the war, Rolex followed up with two more references, the 6232 and the 3668. None of these three proved very popular, but Rolex persevered. Between 1949 and 1964 they produced Refs. 5034, 6034, 6234, 6238, and 6239.
Meanwhile, in 1956, the last of the moon-phase chronos Rolex produced bore the name Cosmograph (the name had been registered three years earlier). That watch was short-lived, but the name was resurrected with the ref. 6239. Sometimes “Daytona” was printed on the dials, sometimes it wasn’t. Jake’s Rolex World has a photo showing two identical ref. 6263 Cosmographs – one with ‘Daytona’ printed in red, one with no ‘Daytona’ at all.
The Paul Newman dials first appeared in 1970, and the aforementioned 6263 came along in the late 1970s. True popularity was still a decade away. In the late 1980s, Rolex briefly shot down production and returned in 1991 with the redesigned Cosmograph Daytona. All watches were now signed ‘Daytona’ in red, and carried a modified Zenith El Primero automatic movement (first installed in 1988).
In 2000, Rolex released calibre 4130, their first in-house chronograph movement.
And finally, in 2011, they released a redesigned Daytona in platinum with a ceramic bezel. Even at the nosebleed prices the platinum piece commands, it’s safe to say the Daytona is not sitting on jewelers shelves waiting for love anymore.