What’s The Deal With ‘Albino’ Rolex Dials?
A first-of-its-kind white Explorer 1016 is set to be auctioned this week – here’s the fact and the fiction behind these ridiculously rare vintage Rolex dials.
Close your eyes and picture a Rolex sport watch. Chances are, the watch you’re thinking of has a black dial. But that wasn’t always the case. When Rolex first introduced a trio of sport models we know and love today – the Explorer, the GMT-Master, and the Submariner, all launched between 1953 and 1955 – it quickly standardized around black dials. In the early years of these models though, there was a rare breed of dial: the white “albino” dial.
These are curious and ridiculously rare dials – we’re probably talking less than 20 or 25 known watches across Submariners, GMT-Masters, and Explorers from the ’50s and early ’60s. As much as the rarity, they’re just damn cool-looking watches. And lately, I can’t get these albino dials out of my mind.
While Rolex might not comment directly on its historical models, in very Rolex fashion, its sister brand Tudor did fan the flames of curiosity this year by introducing a white dial (technically, “opaline”) to its Black Bay GMT. With that, let’s take a closer look at the elusive albino dial.
So what is an albino GMT-Master, Explorer, or Submariner? It’s an early example of one of these models with a white dial – simple as that. At first blush, it doesn’t sound like much.
Before Rolex introduced the Explorer, Submariner, and GMT-Master, it wasn’t even that uncommon to see white or silver dials on its early ’50s sport watches: Edmond Hillary’s Everest Rolex that served as inspiration for the Explorer had a white dial; so did early examples of the Turn-O-Graph, the Submariner precursor; even Deep Sea Special No. 3, the one that actually went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and now sits in the Smithsonian, had a white dial. There was simply more variety in the Rolex sport lineup: more references, more dial variations, more everything – it was a weird time when the exact same reference could have elegant stars on the dial or look like enough of a tool to be taken to Everest.
With the introduction of the Explorer, Submariner, and GMT-Master in the mid-’50s, Rolex started to standardize its collection, and one of the decisions it made was to mostly use black dials in its steel sport watches. But not before a few curious white dials slipped their way into watches. (There’s also the legendary “albino” Daytona, only four of which are known, including one that belonged to Eric Clapton for a while. But those are a different thing and aren’t really like the albino dials I’m talking about here, so we’ll leave them for another day.)
People have long wondered if these albino dials were tests, prototypes, display models, or maybe even gifts to very important people. Today there’s no way to know the story, but none of these convoluted explanations are likely true – if you’re a believer in Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation might be the best. For that, dealer and Loupe This co-founder Eric Ku offered his.
“I always think of Rolex as very Swiss-German in a way,” Ku said. “If they made something, they’re going to use it.” Watchmakers will tell you that the easiest way to check whether a dial stamping and printing pad is working properly is to test black ink on a blank white dial. Ku and others like Rolex Passion Report have speculated that Rolex would do short production runs to make sure its printing pad was running properly. After these white dials were printed, they figured they might as well use them, and they were put into circulation.
“We’ve seen true prototype dials, especially for Daytonas,” Eric Wind of Wind Vintage said. “But it doesn’t make sense that these would be test dials.” If they were true tests or prototypes, there wouldn’t have been much of a reason to finish the dials, complete with that Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified text at 6 o’clock. Ku and Wind both agree these albino dials were true “production” watches.
While Rolex used a time-intensive gilt process at this time to make beautiful, black dials with the text printed in relief, these white albino dials are simple and pad-printed with black ink. Compared to those black dials, they’re downright flat. But they look cool, they’re rare as hell, and they’re some of the most mythical watches in all of vintage Rolex.
White albino dials have been found in early references of these sport models: 6610 and 1016 Explorers, 6542 and 1675 GMT-Masters, and 6204/6205 Submariners. Most come in cases dating to the ’50s, though some have come from the early ’60s.
Of these albino Rolex watches, the albino GMT-Master has the most lore around it. You can probably count the number that have surfaced on one hand. For years, it was unclear if the albino GMT-Master was even authentic. Then in 2010, Rolex expert Stefano Mazzariol published a blog post (fire up Google Translator for this link if you don’t speak Italian) forensically dissecting an albino dial and claiming it as legit. He pointed to a number of details – asymmetries in the crown logo, serifs on certain letters – that matched across the black and white dials that seemed to indicate they were made using the same equipment.
A few years later, Ben had one in the Hodinkee office and a few experts agreed that one was legit too. In his book 100 Superlative Rolex Watches, Goldberger features a couple more albino GMT-Masters, one a gold ref. 6542 and one a steel example. These few examples have formed a body of knowledge leading to the general belief that the albino GMT-Master is real and incredibly rare.
Back in 2015 an albino GMT-Master 6542 made its way into the Hodinkee office. It was a moment for us to go hands-on with one of the most mysterious and mythical Rolex watches around.
But the story behind it is still a mystery. There’s this myth that, when Rolex originally developed the GMT-Master for Pan-Am pilots as commercial aviation took hold in the 1950s, it produced a small number of albino GMT-Masters for Pan-Am execs (the legend usually puts it at 50 or 100) who may have been jealous of the high-flying pilots who were getting cool new Rolex watches.
“That’s all nonsense,” Ku told me.
There’s probably a kernel of truth somewhere in this story – there is a presumed legit albino 6542 that’s been floating around and lives in a private collection right now with provenance from a former Pan-Am employee. But over time, this little fact grew into urban legend, with new harder-to-believe details added every step of the way.
However, this myth did catch the ear of fraudsters: a commonly-faked version of the albino GMT-Master is engraved with the Pan-Am logo on the back, a nod to their supposed origin (the real example that sits in a private collection has no caseback engraving). Many of these fakes are from the same place that would produce so-called Rinaldi dials in Italy – head to the right antique fair and you might come across one. They’re pretty easy to spot to a knowing eye; for example, the caseback engraving is done with a laser, which, shall we say, isn’t period correct.
More recently, I’ve been following this thread on Vintage Rolex Forum like a slow-moving thriller, where a collector discovered an early ref. 1675 with a silver, albino-like dial. There seems to be a general consensus on VRF that the dial is real, and the collector sent it to Rolex’s heritage department about a year ago for inspection – we’re awaiting a response like the final season of Game of Thrones. Even in an established segment of collecting like vintage Rolex, it illustrates how there’s still information to learn and discover.
While the albino Explorer isn’t quite as mythical as the GMT-Master, it’s no less rare. It also happens to be my favorite of the bunch. Most of the albino Explorers you’ll see (which is to say: no more than a few) will be ref. 6610, produced in the ’50s before it gave way to the 1016. Only a few have appeared publicly, so here are a few notable examples:
- In 2013, we featured an albino 6610 dating to 1958 that later sold at Christie’s for CHF 171,750, not bad for an estimate of CHF 10,000 to 15,000.
- In 2022, Menta Watches sold an albino 6610 with a never-before-seen red depth rating, dated to 1956.
- As of this article publishing, The Vintage Concept in Hong Kong has an albino 6610 for sale that dates to 1956 – they’re asking more than $200,000.
- Finally, the only albino 1016 that has appeared at auction sold at Christie’s in 2007 for CHF 45,600. Like the example at Phillips, this 1016 dated to 1961-62.
There are a couple others we know of that have changed hands privately or sit in private collections – my colleagues in Hodinkee’s private sales team recently placed another albino 6610, and an example from 1957 is featured in our Explorer Reference Points – but the number of known albino Explorers is still probably literally seven or fewer. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for where these watches pop up: that Menta Watches example came from South America; Ku sourced another from a vintner in France. This has led most to believe they weren’t intended for specific markets or retailers.
This brings us to the albino 1016 at Phillips. It dates to 1962, a little later than some of the previous albino dials we’ve seen, but not concerningly so. It’s an exclamation point dial (named after the lume dot below six o’clock), though it doesn’t have the tall crown logo you’d typically expect on such dials (so-called Type 3 dials, per our Explorer Reference Points). That said, the crown logo does match that seen on previous albino 6610s and 1016s, which might be a more useful comparison than contrasting to a typical black dial Explorer.
At the end of the day, it’s basically impossible to truly tell if a Rolex dial was born with a particular case. While this albino 1016 is a bit later than others we’ve seen, that silver-albino 1675 I referenced above also has an exclamation point dial and a serial dating it to 1962, similar to this Explorer. This could indicate that some of these dials were laying around longer than some had previously assumed and slapped into cases. Those I talked to seemed to agree this albino dial looked legit, but there’s really no way to know whether it was born in this case or put in at some later time (and whether that time was 1962 or 2022). How much that actually matters is up to each potential bidder.
It reminds me of, way back in 2008, when Sotheby’s sold a handful of loose Space-Dweller dials. Like these albino dials, the 1016 Space-Dweller is another one of those vintage Rolex myths – no one really knows the story around them, except that they’re super rare. Some of these loose Space-Dweller dials have been found cased up since – sure, it makes these watches a little less interesting knowing that they were put together for rarity’s sake and weren’t born that way, but their rarity and desirability is already due to the dial anyway.
There’s probably some uncertainty already baked into how bidders are thinking about this albino 1016. If Phillips’ estimate of CHF 40,000 to 80,000 is to be believed, they’ve baked a fair amount of uncertainty into their expectations, though the auction house is also notorious for low estimates, so grain of salt.
Either way, rarity is the overriding factor driving its value, so these unanswerable questions might not matter much by the time the hammer comes down on Lot 19. Let’s be honest: With a watch as rare is this, it’s also a true “buy the seller” situation. Some people trust auction houses; many others don’t.
As far as I can tell, the Rolex in what I’ll call the “Explorer family” that has the highest auction result is Jürg Marmet’s 6298, which sold for CHF 289,800 last November. Despite Phillips’ estimates, if you look at the prices I’ve thrown out in this section, there’s no reason this albino 1016 can’t top Marmet’s watch if the mood is right.
Finally, just a few albino Submariners in reference 6204/6205 cases have appeared. Years ago, Ku showed us a ref. 6204 that he sold. A couple years after that, another 6204 came up at Christie’s, where it passed at auction – presumably there were just too many questions about it at the time, which is always the risk with something so rare. Like with most albino GMT-Masters and Explorers, these are early Subs dating to the mid-’50s.
I wish there were more to say about the albino Submariner, but there really isn’t. We haven’t seen an example pop up publicly in about a decade.
For a while, Rolex didn’t really make white dial sport watches. That changed with the Explorer II 16550 and 16570 in the ’80s, which is probably one of the reasons the “Polar” has such a cult following. Still, there were no white-dial Explorers, GMT-Masters, or Subs, much as those annual Rolex predictions articles tried to manifest them.
That changed, kind of, just a few years ago when Rolex released the meteorite GMT-Master II. Sure, it’s white gold, not steel, and it’s a meteorite dial instead of pure white, but it’s an awesome take on the GMT-Master. And, with more information surfacing about the albino 6542 only in the past 15 years or so, it almost felt like Rolex’s way of saying “We’re paying attention” for those of us prone to reading tea leaves. Not a full-on endorsement, of course – Rolex would never – but a wink to those albino dials of the past.
Then in 2023, that wink turned into a full-on head nod with the release of an opaline Tudor Black Bay GMT. With other releases like the new Perpetual 1908 collection and the updated Daytona, Rolex has made overt references to its historical models, and since Tudor is where it plays with its heritage, it felt like this new white-dial GMT could’ve been a hint.
While Rolex might never tell us what it thinks of these albino dials, here’s to hoping the albino Explorer 1016 at Phillips has piqued the crown’s interest as much as it has mine, and perhaps there’ll be a white dial Explorer in the future after all.