Officially known as the ‘Cosmograph’, the Rolex Daytona is an iconic watch forever joined in name and function to the world of motorsport. Since its release in 1963, it’s been a watch in demand with long waiting lists and impressive performances at auction. In fact, Paul Newman’s Daytona holds the record for any expensive watch sold at auction by fetching an outlandish $17.8m (£15.7m) after 12 minutes of bidding in 2017.
The precursor of the Daytona
During World War II, when other Swiss watch companies were cut off from their best customers, Rolex released the Oyster chronograph. It was a branding masterplan which saw Rolex creator, Hans Wilsdorf, offer to replace any lost, broken or confiscated Rolex during war.
Personally in charge of the scheme, Wilsdorf asked soldiers to write to Rolex explaining their circumstances at war and their location. Provided the replacement request was genuine, a new Rolex would be issued to captive officers with payment suspended until the end of the war.
In total, it is estimated around 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered by British servicemen in the officer camp Oflag Vii-B in Bavaria alone. Perhaps beyond its aesthetic appeal, a new Rolex received by captive officers was reported to improve morale – a notion that didn’t go unnoticed with American serviceman and one which later helped to open the American market to Rolex.
In 1954, long after World War II had concluded, the Oyster Chronograph was produced with either silver of black dials. Production was limited to 2,000 units, all of which too early in development to feature the word ‘Daytona’ on the dial. Today, you’d expect to receive anything up to £20,000 for one of these models in pristine condition.
The rise of Daytona
As production moved into the ‘60s, Rolex’s reputation was firmly established across Europe and the US. So much so, that in 1962 the Swiss watch was announced official timekeeper for Daytona Speedway.
Though it took a while to build momentum, the Cosmograph released during this time would be the first to feature exotic dials, which later became known as the ‘Paul Newman’ dial. Distinctive features on the dials included:
- an outer track matching the sub-dials
- sub-dials with crosshairs meeting at centre
- seconds sub-dials marked at 15, 30, 45 and 60.
In today’s market, these earlier models can potentially be valued at the five-figure mark.
Interestingly, the Cosmograph was not immediately referred to as the Daytona. Instead, Rolex used the name Le Mans is some advertisements before finally opting for the world-renowned Daytona later in 1965.
Daytona and Paul Newman
From the beginning of his racing career through to his death in 2008, Paul Newman was often photographed wearing a Rolex Daytona.
In 1972, as a gift to mark the start of his career, Paul’s wife, Joanne Woodward, gifted him a rare version of the Cosmograph Daytona – one of the first to feature an exotic dial.
Due to his growing association with Rolex, over the years the exotic dial would soon adopt the name ‘The Paul Newman Daytona’. Today, they are among the most sought-after models among Rolex enthusiasts.
Developments with Daytona
By 1988, a breakthrough novelty was introduced to the Daytona by way of an automatic movement based on the Zenith El Primero 400 calibre.
By changing the movements, the Daytona became more reliable with vibrations per hour reducing from 36,000 to 28,800. Moreover, the date function was removed and a new escapement and balance was replaced with original ones.
These improvements – together with the limited number of models produced – meant the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona achieved strong demand and cult status. By 1991, Rolex built on this success by releasing a follow-up series in yellow gold with a galvanised blue dial. It later became known as the Chairman Daytona.
Demand for Daytona
Since its launch in 1963, the Rolex Daytona continues to be a popular luxury watch often outstripping supply. It’s for this reason, the pre-owned Rolex market has exploded in popularity over the past decade with many collectors opting for old, rare and exclusive models.
For what started as a Swiss chronograph, the Daytona and all its variations has now grown to iconic status respected by luxury watch collectors. Housing exceptional mechanical reliability and cased in timeless style and luxury, it’s a safe choice for many Rolex enthusiasts.