The current Oystersteel Rolex Daytona, in either black or white dial variants, has 4 distinct features: A black Cerachrom bezel, screw-down chronograph pushers, crown guards and an Oyster case. But which references do these elements stem from in the Daytona’s nearly 60-year history?
Prior to 1963, chronograph watches by Rolex were dressy and small with the outer part of the dial occupied by the tachymeter or telemeter scale. As hard as Rolex would like to admit, Omega's Speedmaster released in 1957 was a game changer for sports chronographs. The innovation from Omega was incorporating the tachymeter scale to the external bezel rather than on the dial.
6239 is the first reference of the Rolex Cosmograph released in 1963. Key features were the pump-style pushers and external bezel in stainless steel. In the mid-60s, Rolex followed this with the reference 6240, which included a contrasting black acrylic tachymeter bezel that aided legibility. Omega came to the same conclusion earlier in the 50s when the reference CK2998, which utilised an anodized aluminium bezel insert following feedback from various professionals that the steel bezel of the first Speedmaster reference, CK2915, was not as legible under bright sunlight. Apart from a few limited editions with steel bezels, the Omega Speedmaster has remained with the contrasting bezel, whereas Rolex have alternated between steel, aluminium, acrylic and most recently Cerachrom. In modern Oystersteel Daytonas, the Cerachrom bezel has certainly offered more wrist presence than the outgoing steel bezel that was discontinued in 2016.
The 6240 was a short-lived reference, making it highly sought after, but included another iconic feature of the Daytona; screw-down chronograph pushers. These pushers prevented the chronograph being activated when screwed down and increased waterproofness. But the reference 6241 promptly returned the pump-style chronograph pushers. It wasn’t until the reference 6263 from the early 70s that screw-down pushers became the norm for the Rolex Daytona.
Breitling, Heuer and even Seiko predated the Rolex by introducing the first mechanical chronograph movements with automatic winding, coincidentally, all in 1969. The Daytona still utilised the manually wound Valjoux 72 movement, which Rolex dubbed the Calibre 722 and later the Calibre 727 with the release of the reference 6263. The 6263 also introduced the Oyster case as Rolex consolidated their professional collection with increased waterproofness. It would be nearly two decades in 1988 that Rolex would release a Daytona with an automatic movement. Without an in-house calibre to hand, Rolex sourced the El Primero movement from Zenith, who were also one of the first brands to design an automatic chronograph calibre in 1969 and are still producing the same calibre today. Rolex reduced the high frequency of 5hz to 4hz in an effort to extend service intervals. With the automatic winding came a beefed up case from 37mm to 40mm aligning to the de facto gentleman's case size for Rolex. Rolex also machined crown guards for added protection of the pushers and crown.
These features of reference 16520 now very closely start to resemble the modern Daytona that we all recognise and patiently wait for if the current demand is anything to go by. In 2016 the steel bezel of the Rolex Daytona was replaced with the more scratch-resistant Cerachrom bezel in black, which harks back to the contrasting bezel of reference 6240 50 years earlier.
The evolution of the Daytona, like many Rolexes, is a slow yet deliberate exercise in restraint and gentle improvements, without deviating from the core function. These subtle variations in the references discussed above lead us to the modern Rolex Cosmograph Daytona reference 116500, an icon of luxury sports watches.
As an attempt to appeal to NASA and to land on the wrist space of astronauts, Rolex christened the 6239 the “Cosmograph”. Of course, we all know Omega won this race so Rolex put their sights on the ground level. Specifically, the race tracks of the world. Initially known as the “Le Mans”, after the 24-hour endurance race in France, Rolex later settled on the “Daytona” moniker, after the beach track in Florida famed for NASCAR racing. Yet kept the Cosmograph name alongside.
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