Essential Rolex Secrets From a Lifelong Collector

Rolex Prince Ref. 1862, made in 1935. Photo courtesy of Black Bough watch shop

By: Alex Barter

The men’s watch market has utterly transformed in the last 20 years. Collecting has expanded from the niche aficionado to the mainstream buyer. Wrist watch values have also soared as competition for the most rare pieces has intensified, and in the vintage market, demand has often outstripped supply.

As one of the most well-known and respected watch brands, Rolex continues to attract new buyers and collectors paying high price points for quality timepieces that are likely to appreciate in value. At the same time, Rolex has been extremely innovative throughout its history, resulting in an extraordinary array of models with an almost limitless variation of designs and styles.

If you’re a new collector seeking a vintage model, Rolex is an appealing place to start.

Where to Start

When buying any vintage watch at auction, do your research. If you’re looking to start a collection, then it’s a good idea to arm yourself with some useful reference books – a well-researched history of Rolex can be found in James Dowling’s book, “Rolex, The Best of Time,” while Guido Mondani Editore offers a three volume Rolex “Encyclopedia” featuring an incredible array of different models with technical details and history.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller. Photo courtesy of Black Bough

Obtaining the reference, serial, and calibre number of a Rolex watch you are interested in will help you do some preliminary verification of its authenticity.


1) The reference number identifies the model. When comparing to other pieces online, you can quickly see if the case design is as expected.

2) The serial number allows relatively accurate dating of a Rolex watch. By dating your watch you can check that the watch is of the correct style (design-wise) for the period of its production.

3) Check the watch’s calibre number. This will help you determine if the movement is the correct type for the model you are interested in.

Condition is Key

Values of vintage Rolex watches are primarily determined by rarity and condition. The value of a rare model in exceptional condition can be much higher than that of the same model in average condition. Original numbered paperwork can also significantly add to the price of a model.

It is critical to pay attention to the dial (face) of a watch. If the dial has been restored or reprinted, its value will be significantly less than an original example of the same model that is in good condition. Heavily re-polished cases can negatively impact the look of a watch, softening angles and edges; this, too, can decrease value.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust Ref. 16030, circa 1978. Photo courtesy of Black Bough

Keep in mind that mechanical watches are machinery and do require periodic servicing to maintain their performance, so factor in the likely costs of this when making your purchase.

Pro tip: Don’t assume that if you’re buying a model such as a Submariner or Sea-Dweller, it will still be waterproof. If you intend to go swimming while wearing a watch, make sure it is resealed and pressure tested before you jump in.

Popular Styles

If you’re looking to buy your first vintage Rolex watch at auction and want a classic model, good entry level references include the automatic Oyster Air-King Ref. 5500, and Datejust 1603 or the manually wound Ref. 6426. These models can start under $2,000 for standard examples in average condition and can be found with a variety of different dial designs.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Milgauss, Ref. 1019, made in 1970. Photo courtesy of Black Bough

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King Ref. 5500, made in 1964. Photo courtesy of Black Bough

At the upper end of the market, the competition is fierce for models such as the Daytona and Submariner. However, a discerning buyer looking for an unusual yet iconic piece may consider the Milgauss, Ref. 1019. One of the most beautiful and distinctive vintage Rolex watches, it is technical with a unique case construction and a stunning dial design, a true collector’s watch in every sense. Although these appear relatively infrequently at auction, they usually carry estimates in the region of $20,000-30,000.

About the Author

Alex Barter is co-owner of Black Bough watch shop in Ludlow, England. Alex joined Sotheby’s auctioneers in the mid 1990s and, after a brief period moving around departments, he took up a position in the Watch department at Sotheby’s in London. By 2002 he was head of the London watch department before being posted to Geneva to run the Sotheby’s watch auctions in Switzerland. Spending most of his time travelling around the world, viewing, valuing and selling vintage watches, Alex returned to London in 2005, becoming Deputy Worldwide Head of Sotheby’s watch department. Alex remains a consultant to Sotheby’s and provides watch expertise to a number of art companies.