A Week On The Wrist: The Rolex Daytona Ref. 116500LN
Is there a great watch under all the hype, or is the Daytona all sizzle and no steak?
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona represents many different things to many different people, but one of the most common reactions to the watch is frustration, at least if you’re talking about the steel-on-steel reference 116500LN. How this came to be is a story that goes back decades, all the way to the year 1963, when the first Cosmograph chronograph was introduced. The first Cosmograph, the ref. 6239, wasn’t a hit straight out of the gate for Rolex – in fact, it sold sluggishly at first. Despite the fact that chronographs were, during the 1960s, becoming an increasingly important category of watches for a company to have in its portfolio, the Cosmograph was, if not an ugly duckling among swans, certainly not the belle of the ball that it is today.
Over the decades, the watch has changed, both very much and in some respects not at all. There is a clear design continuity between the ref. 6239 and the latest models. One of the most reliable traits of Rolex as a company is the degree to which that continuity exists between much of their current catalog and many watches from the company’s past. However, in the 57 years between the launch of the 6239 and the writing of this story, the watch has undergone a tremendous technical evolution as well, making the new version of the Daytona the most advanced chronograph Rolex has ever produced – by a considerable margin.
The Daytona today is surrounded by an almost impenetrably dense mystique. It’s so in demand that buying one from an authorized retail requires either a very long-standing relationship or an enormous amount of patience (or both, depending on who you are) and buying a pre-owned model is prohibitively expensive for many for whom this would be, at normal retail prices, a tolerable expenditure. That it is notoriously difficult to obtain one would just by itself be enough to make enthusiasts feel a fascination not experienced for watches more easily obtained – it is after all a truism that nothing excites desire like being told you can’t have something. But there is also the collectibility of vintage Rolex Daytona watches. Anyone just getting interested in vintage watches nowadays soon finds out that, unless you have extremely deep pockets, collecting vintage Cosmograph Daytonas is out of the question at this point.
What this means is that for anyone putting on a Daytona for the first time, it is very difficult to see the watch for all the hype. You don’t so much see a stainless steel chronograph from Switzerland, as you see a watch whose notoriety and desirability, both as a collectible and as a piece of virtually unobtainable luxury watchmaking, have become so widely known that it has transcended its category to become a bona-fide global cultural phenomenon – something you can say about few other watches, if any.
How, therefore, did the Daytona come to be what it is today, and how can the evolution of the watch help explain its popularity? And, most importantly, is it possible to experience the Daytona not as a hype-magnet, but as a watch? That’s what I was hoping to figure out when I wore one for A Week On The Wrist. While we have done A Week On The Wrist with a steel-on-steel Daytona in the past – the article from Paul Boutros, from 2012, remains a reference-grade read that will set the gold standard for AWOTW coverage for the foreseeable future – it has now been eight years since HODINKEE published that story. And with a lot of water under the bridge horologically speaking, we decided to look at the latest version of the purist’s Daytona: the steel-on-steel ref. 116500LN.
The Long Road To Fame
William Shakespeare wrote that some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The former was certainly not the case for the Daytona. Its predecessor, the 6238, was produced in fairly small numbers (for Rolex) and there is little about it to indicate that it would eventually find itself at the beginning of a lineage that would include some of the most desired, expensive, and hard-to-find watches of all time.
Aside from the Rolex coronet there is little to immediately distinguish the 6238 from many of its contemporaries. The watch used the Valjoux 72, a very widely used hand-wound chronograph movement, which found its way into chronos from a lot of different brands during the same general period. The three-register layout with running seconds at 9:00 and a tachymeter scale on the outer dial are likewise features which, if not exactly ubiquitous, can certainly be found on a number of other contemporary chronographs (including, of course, the caliber 321 Speedmasters).
There were two major changes made to the design when the 6239 was introduced.
The first is the use of contrasting colors for the sub-dials – so-called “inverse” dials. The 6238 had sub-dials that were the same color as the rest of the dial, which made for a fairly diffident, low-contrast visual experience.
The second major change was to the location of the tachymeter scale, which was shifted from the dial to the bezel.
These, certainly, were merely cosmetic changes; technically the 6239 is virtually unchanged from the 6238 and that includes the continued use of the Valjoux 72 movement. But these two alterations dramatically changed the character of the watch. The higher contrast dial and ornamented bezel, taken together, started the Cosmograph down the path to becoming as much a design statement and high-visibility status symbol as a technical chronograph.
The “Daytona” signature was introduced in 1964, and in 1965, in the reference 6240, Rolex introduced screw-down chronograph pushers and a screw-down crown. While these were certainly improvements to water resistance, the fact is that a screw-down crown is not naturally at home in a manually-wound watch, and in 1988, Rolex introduced the first self-winding Daytona. This was the 16520, and the movement was the Rolex caliber 4030, which in turn was based on the Zenith El Primero caliber.
The fact that Rolex ordered, and began to use, the El Primero movement in large numbers was famously responsible for saving the movement from becoming another Quartz Crisis-era casualty (of the three self-winding chronograph movements introduced in 1969 – the first year such movements were made available to the public – only the El Primero is still being made). It is well known among watch enthusiasts that Rolex used the El Primero, but it’s perhaps less well understood that the movement was significantly modified for Rolex as well. The beat-rate was reduced from 36,000 vph to 28,800 vph; the date function was eliminated, and the regulating system was significantly altered as well, including the addition of a larger balance and a Breguet overcoil balance spring. The caliber 4030 ended up swapping out about half of the original EP parts for new components.
Finally, the 16520 introduced a number of other design changes. The case went up in size from 37mm to 40mm, a sapphire crystal was added, and the sub-dials had added to them a thin outer metal ring, with a contrasting color for the running seconds, chronograph minutes, and chronograph hours tracks.
A New Millennium, A New Daytona
The year 2000 disappointed in some respects – I mean, I really thought we’d have moonbases and jetpacks by then – but it was for Rolex and the Daytona, and for fans of both, a banner year. This was the year that Rolex introduced its first in-house chronograph movement as the new engine for the Daytona: the caliber 4130. The movement launched in the reference 116520, and it was also the debut of the Rolex Parachrom anti-magnetic balance spring. The 4130 is a very modern, up-to-date design, with a column wheel and vertical clutch, and it improved on the 4030 in a number of respects. Power reserve went to 72 hours (from 54) and other design features included a full balance bridge for better shock resistance, a free-sprung adjustable mass balance with Microstella timing weights (this was also a feature of the 4030), and significant improvements in manufacturing ease and serviceability as well (to pick one of many points, the 4130 uses just 12 different types of screws; the 4030 used more than 40).
I mention all this because over the 57 years since the Cosmograph launched, it’s become in certain significant respects a very different watch. A watchmaker interviewed for Ben Clymer’s 2015 story on visiting the Rolex manufacturing facilities commented, “They (Rolex) have been quietly improving on the design since the turn of the millennium … a notable upgrade that they introduced is a hairspring protection block, which eliminates any possible risk of the lower coils of the hairspring tangling in the hairspring’s overcoil when the watch endures a hard blow. To the best of my knowledge, this was a horological first. I have never seen anything like it from any other watch company. It is stunningly brilliant in its simplicity and it does its job flawlessly. While the wearer of a Daytona may never notice it’s there, they would quickly notice if it were not should the watch take a hard knock.”
“The biggest incognito upgrade are playless gears in the chronograph system. As I’m sure you already know, the vertical clutch system of the 4130 eliminates the jarring start of the second that can be noticed on chronographs that feature a lateral clutch when the chronograph is started. Playless gears take this to the next level, by eliminating backlash between gear teeth. In simple terms, backlash is a small amount of space, or ‘play,’ between the teeth of two gears that are interacting with one another, so that one tooth can disengage as another tooth moves in to continue to the transfer of energy.”
The fact that Rolex continues to improve the engineering of the 4130, and moreover that they do it largely behind the scenes, makes an interesting point (maybe more than one) about the company’s philosophy. That knowledge also underlies the fact that hype aside, there are a number of very horologically legitimate reasons to respect the Daytona.
Welcome To Bezelworld
The last major update to the Daytona came in 2013 – kind of. That year was the 50th anniversary of the Daytona, and there was, as you can imagine, quite a lot of speculation about what Rolex might roll out. What the faithful got was certainly not what they were expecting.
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Reference 116506 had a 40mm diameter in common with earlier models, but unlike the vintage-adjacent model many were thinking might mark five decades of Cosmograph, it was an unashamedly ultra-luxurious platinum watch, on a platinum bracelet, with a chestnut brown Cerachrom bezel and an “ice blue” dial.
This was actually not the first Cerachrom bezel Daytona – that honor goes to the 2011 Everose Daytona, which had a black Cerachrom bezel – but it was certainly more talked about than its predecessor. The reaction from Rolex and Daytona fans was not so much a referendum on the success of the 50th Anniversary Cosmograph per se, but it certainly helps to underscore just how badly a steel-on-steel model was wanted.
Finally, four years ago, in 2016, the 116500LN appeared. Paul Boutros’ A Week On The Wrist looked at its immediate predecessor, the 116520. This brings us up to the present day, and to a moment that both continues to connect to five-plus decades of Daytona history, but also to an enormous surge in the interest in, and prices paid for, vintage Daytonas.
Now, it’s certainly true that the $17.75 million paid for Paul Newman’s personal Paul Newman Daytona is an attention-getting result, but it is also true that that result would not have been possible without an extremely rabid following not just for Paul Newman Daytonas, but also for vintage Daytonas as a whole. You might be inclined to dismiss that result as a fluke, and the result of never-to-be-duplicated circumstances. But despite speculations that we’ve reached peak Daytona and that the vintage bubble must surely burst, good examples continue to command prices high enough to make you drop to ground in shock when you first encounter them (just ask this guy – and his story isn’t a one-off either).
The Daytona Ref. 116500LN
The Cosmograph Daytona is currently available in the usual plethora of metals, including Everose, yellow gold, and platinum (and Rolesor, which is the model given as a prize to winning teams at the Rolex 24 endurance race), but the demand for all of these models put together seems outstripped by the hunger for the 116500LN. It is, as they say, one unit of pure Daytona: 904L Oystersteel case, 40mm x 12.2mm, with screw-down crowns, Cerachrom bezel, matching 904L Oystersteel bracelet, and a list price of $13,150.
First impressions may be of interest, especially as the opportunity to have a first impression of the 116500LN is a rarity. It immediately looks and feels like a very solid piece of kit, with the immaculate machining, finishing, and precision in assembly that is characteristic of pretty much all modern Rolex production across the board. The bezel is a very prominent part of the design, and its highly reflective surface puts even the highly polished steel bezel of its predecessor in the shade. However, it’s also a big improvement over steel technically, as it’s essentially scratchproof. The failure mode for ceramic is generally either cracking or fracturing outright, and Cerachrom is, I’m sure, something you could get to do one or the other given enough of a hit. But ceramic bezels have been around long enough at this point that, if they really were unacceptably prone to breaking, we’d probably know it by now (and brands like Rolex and Omega would certainly not still be using it).
In terms of the tachymeter markings on the bezel, a number of different variations have been used by Rolex since 1963 – for the 116500LN (and other modern Daytona models) we have a units-per-hour engraving at 1:00, with a measurement range from 400 to 60. The tick marks on the bezel basically duplicate those on the bezel of the 16520 – individual dots from 400 to 200, with intermittent marks appearing from 200 to 100, and then tick marks for individual single units from 100 to 60. On the Cerachrom bezel, the tick marks from 100 to 60 are also connected with an underline and this element, plus the triangular markers and crisp depth of the numerals and markings, gives the 116500LN a very modern and slightly high-tech feel.
The dial and hands have gotten considerably more complex (and more high-tech) in 57 years as well. Rolex is notorious for the precision of its dial furniture and printing (one of the most basic tells that you might be looking at a fake Rolex is that the company puts an enormous amount of effort into keeping this as exact as possible, and fakes have a tendency to look, especially by comparison, slightly sloppy, for lack of a better word). There are a lot of dial elements – the raised white-gold surrounds on the hour indexes; the chronograph sub-dials have, on the black outer tracks, an extremely subtle series of concentric stampings; the faceted hands use both white lume inserts and black inserts; there is of course, quite a bit of copy. The latter is I suppose, something of a liability from a pure design standpoint, but dial “statement” text is so ubiquitous a part of Rolex watch design that one hardly notices it.
Interestingly, despite the number of different design elements, the watch is quite legible – compared to non-Cerachrom models, the 116500LN certainly feels a bit more of a statement watch, but it does so without giving up much in basic utility and readability.
Bracelet quality continues the theme of overbuilt high-quality engineering and construction found in other aspects of the watch; I think Rolex continues to make some of the best bracelets in the business irrespective of price. It feels, despite its heft, very comfortable – the articulations between the links move very smoothly, almost as if there’s some sort of internal damping mechanism designed to make the bracelet feel more supple. The clasp is secure as a bank vault (probably more secure than some bank vaults, these days) and there is an easy-to-use and very handy quick-adjustment feature, which lets you add or subtract up to 5mm in length.
Performance from the caliber 4130 over a one-week period was stellar. As we’ve already mentioned, this is a high-quality, chronometer-grade movement with a number of technical properties intended to guarantee accuracy and rate stability – Rolex’s internal Superlative Chronometer standard is ±2 seconds per day, whereas the COSC standard is -4/+6. The movement is actually certified first by the COSC and then regulated to the Superlative Chronometer standard once the movement is cased. I wore the watch during daily activities including walking 45 minutes a day to and from the office, and it sat crown up overnight. Over the course of a week, it wandered back and forth a bit between gaining and losing a second or so per day, and there was a total weekly gain of one second. There is always a certain amount of luck (or lack thereof) in individual samples, but that was I think notable, and remarkable performance nonetheless.
The general average spec for quartz watches runs to around 15 seconds per month, so that is better-than-quartz performance, at least if you are comparing entry-level quartz watches to the Rolex. Higher-end, high-accuracy quartz watches might still beat it over the course of several months or a year, but it is a comfort and a blessing to know that at least where Rolex is concerned, “a cheap quartz watch is more accurate than any mechanical watch,” is not as sure a thing as you might think.
On The Wrist
It’s a pleasure to wear the 116500LN. Every interaction with the watch feels as if someone (probably several someones) thought through what the experience should be like, and engineered that aspect of the watch to produce exactly the desired outcome. The screw down crown and pushers engage extremely precisely, and chronograph pusher feel is crisp and workmanlike. The feel is not quite as unabashedly sensual as the experience you get from a really high end hand-finished and adjusted chronograph, like the Lange Datograph, but it fits the no-nonsense vibe of the rest of the watch quite well.
The weight of the watch is not insignificant but it’s pretty evenly distributed around the wrist – you can wear it all day and not really notice that it is there unless you want to check the time or time something. Low-light and nighttime visibility was good as well, especially considering the relatively small amount of luminous material on the dial and hands. A three-register chronograph is never going to have the blazing nocturnal legibility of a good dive watch, but I had no trouble telling the time after dark or in dim or nonexistent lighting.
It’s impossible to wear a modern steel Daytona and not feel the weight (figuratively speaking) of its history and of the enormous social statement you’re making. It seems to be one of those pieces that is instantly recognizable even outside watch enthusiast circles. Perhaps no other Rolex has a better chance of making an impression on someone who is not a watch enthusiast per se, with the possible exception of a 36mm yellow-gold Day-Date.
All this really informs what it’s like to wear the watch, at first. It’s associated with the expenditure of huge sums at auction and of course, there is also the undeniable pleasure, when you do wear one, of knowing that what you have on is, at least evaluated in terms of supply and demand, much more exclusive than many far more expensive watches. I would be lying if I didn’t say that gloating just a little (even deep inside, where no one could see the gloating) was part of the fun (tempered by the fact that I had to return the watch, of course).
When you first put on the Daytona, you’re also, therefore, putting on a lot of cultural baggage, which includes knowledge of its cult-watch status as a current production model, and also of its genuinely iconic status as a 50-year-plus part of watchmaking history. But none of that would matter if it weren’t a watch that actually delivers on the undeniably more mundane, but ultimately much more important qualities of durability, accuracy, reliability, and high level horological engineering.
In the current lineup of cult-status steel chronographs on a matching steel bracelet, the Daytona does not have a whole lot of competition – this is with the caveat, of course, that pretty much anything you might look at as competition is apt to be much easier to find. However, assuming you can realistically entertain the idea of buying an 116500LN at list, you might also be looking at a watch that is in some respects brand new, but which in other respects was born in the same era as the original Cosmograph: the Speedmaster. The Speedmaster Professional standard model, in steel, on steel, with the caliber 1861 is about half the price of a modern Daytona, but if you jump up a large step to the newly introduced steel-on-steel “Ed White” Speedmaster, equipped with the caliber 321, you have a watch in the same approximate price range – $14,100 – and moreover with some of the same cult-watch appeal as the Daytona.
After a moment’s consideration, however, you start to realize that these are actually rather different watches in a number of key respects. First of all, one is automatic and the other, manual, but the more profound difference is in the kind of watch each is trying to be. In the Rolex, you have a thoroughly modern mechanism and moreover, you have a design which represents, not an homage to the past, but rather an evolution over 50-plus years of a design which has been steadily updated to incorporate new and better materials and construction. The “Ed White” Speedmaster, on the other hand, is deliberately and thoroughly anachronistic in its use of the reborn caliber 321, and it is perfectly possible that a well-heeled and thoughtful enthusiast might want both (god knows I do). You might be lucky enough to find yourself in the position of having to choose one or the other – 14 grand in round figures ain’t chump change – but the decision would I think be made somewhat easier by the disparity in value proposition between the two watches.
From a technical standpoint, the 116500LN is probably competing more closely with the modern, Master Chronometer-certified Omegas, like the Dark Side Of The Moon, which, with its ceramic bezel and co-axial automatic caliber 9300, does a much better job of closing the gap with the Daytona, purely from an engineering perspective, than the steel caliber 321 Speedmaster. Where the DSOTM gives up a bit is in wearability, as it is a 44.25mm watch; however, it is a close competitor to the Rolex in other respects.
There are a few other possibilities, but in-house, automatic chronographs under $15,000 are actually fairly uncommon as there are not that many in-house automatic chronograph movements, with many relying on various versions of the venerable ETA 7750 or its Sellita clones. Breitling has quite a few, however – many of them considerably less expensive than the Daytona and using the B01 caliber. The Premiere B01 Chronograph 42, for instance, is $8,200 on a strap but can be had on a bracelet as well. Breitling’s chronographs tend to be noticeably larger than the Daytona; Navitimers, for instance, are generally in the 46mm range.
And on a related note, there is the Tudor Black Bay Chronograph. That watch, on a bracelet, comes in at $5,225. The movement, the caliber MT5813, is actually based on the Breitling B01 but with some modifications, including a silicon balance spring and free-sprung adjustable mass balance, certified as a chronometer by the COSC. At less than half the cost of the Daytona, you get, if not a full-on manufacture caliber, certainly one that offers great value. The design’s not for everyone – dive watch chronographs tend to have larger hands which can in some positions partially block your view of the sub-dials, but in practice, during A Week On The Wrist in 2017, I didn’t find that to be a major issue in daily use. All of these watches give up something to the Daytona – offerings from Breitling and Omega tend to be notably larger (with the exception of the non-automatic steel 321 Moonwatch), and the Black Bay Chrono has a somewhat divisive design and its movement is not, strictly speaking, a completely in-house caliber. However they do all offer one basic advantage over the Daytona, which is that they are generally readily available (although the 321 Speedmaster is being made in quite small numbers, at least for a series-produced watch from Omega).
The Rolex Daytona is a very difficult watch to evaluate, and I think there is no way around it – it takes time, and it needs to be seen and experienced in person over time. That this is far more difficult than at any other time in the history of the watch doesn’t take away from the reality. There are so many layers of fact, fantasy and history that have accreted over the watch, over the years, that as a watch, it’s almost impossible to see it as a watch, certainly at first and for me, for some time after first putting it on. Perhaps it helped, in the end, and for the purposes of this article, that it was not actually my watch – I had no particular stake emotionally in seeing it, in particular, in one light or another.
Certainly, it comes with lots of bragging rights – more than most watches, it seems likely to at least hold its value over the years; you can take a lot of pleasure in aspects of the Daytona that in the end do not have all that much to do with its qualities as a watch. We buy watches for all sorts of reasons, none of them wrong (well, except maybe for, “I really need to launder tens of thousands of dollars worth of ill-gotten loot, and a watch with high resale value seems like a great way to move money across international borders”). There is nothing wrong with buying a watch because you like the way it looks; there is nothing wrong with buying a watch because you are a movement nerd or nostalgist and the mechanism speaks to you; there is nothing wrong with buying a watch because you feel damned good about having worked hard and smart enough to be able to afford it, and you want something that both reminds you you done good, and tells the world too.
Whatever your initial reasons for buying a watch, however, you are going to find out more and more about it the longer you own it, and one of the best things a watch can offer is that as the months and years go by, and you build a history together, the watch becomes a source of greater pride in ownership and not a source of regret. The opportunities for buyer’s remorse when picking a watch are legion, but I think one of the best things about modern Rolex, and about the Daytona, is that the more you do find out about it, the more likely it is that you will be happy you bought it, and happy you own it, and not the other way around.
For more on the Rolex Daytona ref. 116500LN, visit Rolex online.