In-Depth: The Past, Present, And Future Of The Rolex Milgauss

In-Depth: The Past, Present, And Future Of The Rolex Milgauss

Rolex discontinuing the modern Milgauss. An auction record for a vintage version. It’s time to ask: What in the world is up with the ‘scientist’s watch’?

Last month, a record-setting vintage Rolex Milgauss 6541 sold for $2.5 million at auction. And it certainly looked like Rolex bought it. The result came just a couple of months after Rolex discontinued the modern Milgauss that had been in production since 2007. Long the oddball of Rolex’s professional watches, the modest “scientist’s watch” has found itself making headlines this year, all without really doing much.

The Milgauss has never been the sexiest Rolex. The vintage models sat in cases, sometimes for years, before they sold. It’s not a Pan-Am pilot flying a jet or a diver reaching the depths of the ocean, or Paul Newman driving a race car. But science can be sexy, too. The Milgauss is perhaps best known for its association with Geneva-based CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the birthplace of the World Wide Web, and the lab where scientists discovered the Higgs boson.

rolex milgauss 6541 record phillips

The record-setting Milgauss 6541 that sold for $2.5 million at auction. 


With the confluence of headlines, it’s time to ask: What the hell is going on with the Milgauss? Before we really answer that question, though, we have to take a look at the history of the model and all the things you should know before you even think about collecting a vintage Milgauss. Then, we’ll make some guesses as to what the future of the Milgauss might look like. Maybe Rolex bought that vintage Milgauss as a reference for the next generation of the model; maybe we’ll see it in a future museum or marketing campaign. Or, maybe the marketing campaign has already begun.

Scientific Method: Collecting The Vintage Milgauss

6543 and 6541: The First Milgauss
rolex milgauss 6543

The first Milgauss ref. 6543 – with a Submariner bezel and no lightning bolt second hand, the Milgauss hadn’t quite come into its own yet. Image: Courtesy of Christie’s

Rolex introduced the Milgauss in 1954-55 as the scientist’s watch, able to resist magnetic fields up to 1,000 gauss (mil- from the French mille, or thousand). Soon, it’d become known for being worn by scientists at Rolex’s Geneva neighbor, CERN. It was among a wave of other anti-magnetic watches introduced in the ’50s, including the Omega Railmaster, Patek ref. 3417, Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic, and IWC Ingenuier. The first Milgauss, reference 6543, followed by the 6541, are some of the rarest and most mysterious watches in all of vintage Rolex.

“To me, the Milgauss 6541 and 6543 are the most elusive models in Rolex tool watch history,” Jasper Lijfering of Amsterdam Vintage Watches said. Jasper’s long called the early Milgauss his personal grail – his shop currently holds a 6541 in its “museum,” and he owns another example personally.

rolex milgauss 6543

Two examples of the early Milgauss 6543: the first has an early Sub bezel, while the second has a later-added bezel from the ref. 6541. Both images: Corutesy of Christie’s

Rolex produced the first reference 6543 for just a couple of years in the mid-’50s. The 6543 is really more a proof of concept – most believe Rolex produced less than a couple hundred, and only a handful have appeared on the modern market. It has an odd lug width between 19mm and 20mm, which meant it didn’t fit a traditional Oyster bracelet. Inside, it used a Faraday cage made of soft iron to protect the automatic movement inside from magnetism, the same approach that Rolex would use in later vintage Milgauss models.

In 2017, a 6543 sold at Christie’s for CHF 271,500. As this example shows, the 6543 started to establish the Milgauss as a distinct reference – especially with that gorgeous black honeycomb dial webbed with metal for additional magnetic resistance – but it also has a rotating bezel that’s most associated with early Submariners. Christie’s also sold another 6543 in 2012, but this one has a bezel from the later 6541 and replacement hands from the even later 1019. If a 6543 in all-original condition ever appeared again on the market – and it’s possible it won’t, that’s how few there really are – there’s no telling what it could sell for.

vintage rolex milgauss 6541

A Milgauss ref. 6541 from the collection of Morgan King. 


After the 6543, Rolex introduced the 6541, which is where the Milgauss really came into its own: it kept the honeycomb dial, but also got a bezel design of its own, divided into six sections. According to Rolex ads, this bezel, “calibrated into sixty divisions, serves as a simple stopwatch or for timing different operations.” Maybe it wasn’t the most functional thing ever, but it’s cool and weird and gave the Milgauss a look all its own. The other instantly recognizable trait is that lightning bolt seconds hand, totally unlike anything Rolex has done on any other model.

rolex milgauss advertisement

“As far back as I can remember, the Milgauss has always been an outlier,” says Andrew Shear, a dealer who’s been specializing in vintage Rolex for 20-plus years, “an oddity that I wanted to learn more about. It’s always been very difficult to obtain, especially in great condition.” He pointed to the original 6541 as particularly difficult to obtain in good, original condition, complete with the lightning bolt hand, original rotating bezel, and honeycomb dial, all in a thick case with factory-original bevels. It measures 38mm, placing it in a sweet spot right between the Explorer or Daytona and the Submariner or GMT.

The 6541 examples that have appeared on the modern market all have case numbers starting with 412, leading collectors to believe that production was extremely limited, probably to just a batch of a couple hundred watches. Most ads for the 6541 were placed in scientific journals or periodicals, with Rolex touting its anti-magnetism and bezel for timing as perfect for professionals.

rolex milgauss 6541 smooth bezel

A Rolex Milgauss 6541 with smooth bezel, thought to be for the American market. Image: Courtesy of Monaco Legends


While you’ll commonly see the 6541 with a rotating bezel, Rolex also produced a version with a smooth bezel – most think this was produced exclusively for the American market. Shear told me most of the 6541s he’s found in the States have this smooth bezel. Apparently, the Milgauss 6541 wasn’t a huge seller, with Rolex discontinuing it by 1960. But Rolex would continue to give the Milgauss to NASCAR and Daytona winners through the mid-’60s. Rolex Magazine even unearthed an ad recently that showed 1962 Daytona 500 winner Glen Roberts wearing his Milgauss.

A niche watch historically, the first Milgauss remains largely just as niche for collectors today. First is the issue of even finding one. It’s incredibly difficult to find a 6541 in good and original condition. And when it does appear at auction, it might gin up interest from onlookers, but few are truly interested as buyers.

“It’s not for everyone,” Shear said. “Some people get it, some don’t.”

The Record Result
vintage rolex milgauss 6541 record

Because of the limited supply of good 6541s and the lacking sex appeal of the “scientist’s watch,” (regardless of how sexy I might find a lab coat), the market on the Milgauss hasn’t moved much in the past couple of decades. Before the $2.5 million result in May, the record for a Milgauss at auction was a 6541 that sold for about $350,000, way back in 2013. Prices for excellent examples had hovered around this range for years, which is why, when Phillips placed an estimate of CHF 500,000 to 1 million on its Milgauss, everyone was asking, “Could the Milgauss really be a million-dollar watch?” – regardless of how excellent the condition was.

In the end, it was a $2 million-plus watch, and it’s headed back home to a lucky buyer in Geneva. But dealers Lijfering and Shear were both quick to caution that this doesn’t really change the reality of the Milgauss market for the rest of us. A big, one-off auction result is marketing as much as it represents a real market.

“It takes time for attention to crystallize and subsequently show a new market value,” Lijfering said. “A result like this does have an impact over time, but it doesn’t change the market dramatically in an instant.”

Shear added that he got about a dozen calls in the few days after the sale, from clients looking to sell their vintage Milgauss. He says we can probably expect more Milgausses on the market over the next few months as owners see it as an opportunity to cash in.

“It doesn’t change the market for me in any way,” Shear said. “It just bolsters the concept that exceptional watches are in very high demand. And Rolex is buying exceptional watches at auction, which is nice to hear.” More on what might be next for the Milgauss in a moment.

The Milgauss 1019
rolex milgauss 1019

In 1960, Rolex retired the 6541 for the Milgauss 1019. Produced until the late 1980s, it became one of the brand’s longest-lived references, even if it wasn’t the most popular. Like the 6541, the steel case of the 1019 measures 38mm, and the caliber 1580 is housed inside an inner soft iron Faraday cage. But the 1019 is no doubt more staid than the 6541: it loses the rotating bezel, honeycomb dial, and, sadly, the lightning bolt hand. Most commonly, you’ll see it with a silver dial with vertical brushing or a matte black dial, though there was some variation over the years, as we’ll see. Rolex also made silver dials without lume, placing black enamel in its place – these were made for CERN, so they’re referred to as CERN dials, with the tritium lume removed, so there wasn’t any radioactivity.

“The earlier the better,” Shear said of the 1019’s collectibility. “Early CERN dials with black enamel markers and hands are fascinating when in nice condition. So are all-original early black dials.” But Shear emphasized again that condition should be prioritized above rarity.

rolex milgauss 1019 dials

An early 1019 dial compared to a later example: note in particular the much smaller “Rolex” wordmark on the earlier, ’60s dial. Both images: Courtesy of Tropical Watch


rolex milgauss 1019 black dial

An NOS Milgauss 1019, sold via Loupe This; originally sold in 1990, it has a later gen dial.


Generally speaking, there are two generations of 1019 dials. The first generation, produced through the late 1960s, has a smaller Rolex wordmark at 12 o’clock, while later dials or service dials have “Rolex” in much larger text. There are also other subtle changes over the 1019’s run: the early examples will have a seconds track with 1/5 second increments also marked, a detail that’s lost on later dials. You’ll also notice the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” text is shrunk on later examples. Since Rolex produced the 1019 across three decades, these changes really become emblematic of the Crown’s evolution: the brand name is printed much smaller on early examples, and there are those 1/5-second increments, theoretically (though perhaps not practically), making the Milgauss a useful tool for timing science stuff. By the 1980s, the Rolex font on the dial has become much bigger. Really, the print on the entire dial is crisper and sharper – the Milgauss had evolved into a true luxury watch, with its original anti-magnetic traits, while still there, now secondary. Later dials also lose the 1/5-second tick marks.

Another notable change over the life of the 1019 is the hands: Most examples are polished, with a ridge down the middle, while examples towards the very end of the model’s production (as well as later service hands) are flat and brushed.

As Shear says, early examples are rarer (and harder to find in good condition). Black dials are harder to find and command a premium over silver dials. Today, a silver 1019 in good condition might sell in the mid-20s, while a similar black dial might sell in the mid-30s. That said, condition matters a lot. Last year, Loupe This sold a NOS black 1019 for $75,000.

rolex milgauss 1019 gloss dial

A vintage 1019 with glossy black dial; note the “Milgauss” text printed in relief. 


rolex milgauss 1019 black gilt dial

Perhaps the rarest 1019s are the three known examples with glossy black dials – Phillips sold one in 2017 for CHF 150,000. It’s a true gilt, glossy dial: note how the red “Milgauss” text appears to be printed in relief. On the matte black versions, the red text pops off the dial instead.

Like the original 6543 and 6541, the 1019 wasn’t really a popular watch, often sitting at dealers for years. Take that NOS 1019 for example: It has a serial number dating it to 1979, but the sales receipt shows that it didn’t sell until 11 years later, in 1990.

The Modern Milgauss
rolex milgauss ref 116400

Image: Author

Rolex discontinued the Milgauss in 1988, and the model sat dormant until 2007, when Rolex introduced the reference 116400. Upsized to a modern 40mm case with a smooth bezel, the new Milgauss continued to use an internal anti-magnetic cage, but the updated caliber 3131 also featured Rolex’s Parachrom Blue hairspring, an alloy with increased anti-magnetic properties. Most notably, it featured a bright orange lightning bolt seconds hand, a callback to the original 6541.

At introduction, the 116400 came in three variations: a white dial, a black dial, and the “anniversary” 116400GV, which featured a black dial with green crystal (GV stands for glace verte in French, or green glass). The green crystal was the first of its kind from Rolex, and the brand claimed it was so difficult to make it didn’t even bother to patent the process.

In 2014, Rolex added a blue dial to the glace verte, calling the vibrant sunburst dial Z-Blue. Soon after, Rolex discontinued the black and white dial, non-GV models. No matter, the GV was the best of the bunch anyway, a colorful watch that once seemed impossible in the somber years before Rolex started putting emojis on its date wheels. The 116400GV became a mainstay of Rolex’s catalog until it was discontinued in 2022. Towards the end of its run, it became something of an in-joke, with enthusiasts clamoring for an updated Milgauss every year.

rolex milgauss 116400gv green

Image: Author


You can find all kinds of opinions on the best modern Milgauss: Danny likes the black dial GV, while others have argued for the white dial or the Z-Blue GV. I can confirm Z-Blue is the correct answer, backed up by not only by my own exquisite taste, but also by a very unscientific Instagram poll (55 percent voting Z-Blue over white or black) and my friends in the Hodinkee Shop, who seem to consistently price the Z-Blue version higher than the others.

The Future Of The Milgauss
rolex milgauss white dial

Milgauss 116400

Then, just like that, the Milgauss was gone. Fifteen years is a long time for a modern Rolex to sit unchanged in the catalog, and the 116400 did start to feel a bit dated, even if in a charming late-2000s “more is better” kind of way. The colors are bright and in your face. And while we’ve become accustomed to that from Rolex over the last few years, beginning with the colorful Oyster Perpetuals, the Crown wasn’t always so kaleidoscopic.

No doubt the Milgauss will be back sometime soon – whether it’s two years or 20 years (like the gap between the 1019 and the 116400) is impossible to know. It’s even more futile guessing what an updated Milgauss might look like. Did Rolex pay a record-setting price for that Milgauss to serve as inspiration for a future release? Or maybe it just wants to use that 6541 in a future marketing campaign, and it didn’t have a good one in its extensive collection yet? I think it’s also possible the splashy result was part of the purpose of bidding on the watch – to generate some headlines and interest in the model just after discontinuing it to get folks excited about when it might come back. After all, brands have long used auctions as marketing tools.

Over the years, Rolex has made subtle nods to its vintage watches. Take the new Daytona, for example, with its updated bezel and subdials that look like past references (even truer with the new Le Mans Daytona). The new 1908 collection draws inspiration from a 1934 Bubbleback that Rolex had on display at Watches & Wonders. It seems likely that an updated Milgauss will have some subtle nods to the 6541; Rolex doesn’t do outright fan service like Tudor, but it often does this in more subtle ways.

Meanwhile, the secondary market for the Milgauss will likely remain “steady as she goes,” as Shear put it to me. One result doesn’t make a market, and this is even more true when the buyer is the very brand that made the watch, and paid nearly 10x what anyone else had ever publicly paid for a Milgauss. As Shear said, the vintage Milgauss has always been a curiosity to many, but when it comes to actually buying one, interest thins considerably. It feels as though history is bound to repeat itself – while the modern Milgauss, in particular the GV, has a cult following, a watch with a green crystal, lightning bolt hand, and a story tied to science is always going to be the oddball compared to the diver’s Submariner or the driver’s Daytona. But for those who want something different, that’s also the appeal.

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  • In 2017 I deployed to AFG FOR A 6-month tour. I decided to buy myself a new watch as a gift to myself upon return. after RESEARCHING a number of watches i set my sights on the milgauss with the z-blue dial. living in the dc area there are several rolex dealers in the area and i went to many. while several had the watch i wanted on display i was dismayed to learn they would not sell it to me despite having cash. it was My introduction to the world of rolex bs.

    sad to see they are DISCONTINUING it; i suspect it will get even more overpriced just like the 39mm oyster perpetuals did once they were discontinues and rolex decided to release the 5-flavors life savers dials. been DISENCHANTED with rolex ever since.