For vintage watch collectors, the sale of the American actor’s Rolex Daytona is an event that almost defies description. Leaving provenance aside for a moment, it’s worth remembering how this legendary timepiece came to be, and its place in a tradition of remarkable sport chronographs. From the very beginning of Rolex, founder Hans Wilsdorf poured all his energy into developing the wristwatch and, in 1926, revealed to the world the first waterproof version, codenamed “Oyster”. A watch this ready for action had to be capable of measuring its wearer’s exploits. Among all the sports on offer back then, motor racing was unique in its capacity to inspire watchmakers to “go the extra mile”. Of course, this included Rolex, with models such as the much-admired split-seconds chrono Ref. 4113, worn by the then fastest man in the world, Sir Malcolm Campbell. In this context of speed and performance, the launch in 1963 of the Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239 didn’t go unnoticed.
The Rolex Daytona is without doubt Hans Wilsdorf’s greatest legacy – he died three years before the watch was launched in the United States, home of the famous Daytona speedway in Florida that gave it its name. The words Rolex and Daytona together are music to collectors’ ears. Still in production today, this is the only series-manufactured watch (in its steel version) that sells for more second-hand than new. Even those for whom watch collecting is a foreign land will have heard of the Rolex Daytona. Whatever form it takes, it never fails to enchant with its different cases, smooth or screw-down pushers, and countless dial variations – the one on the Daytona Paul Newman was originally known as an “exotic dial”.
Stories to tell
Many of the numerous stories associated with the Rolex Daytona remind us how sought-after this iconic vintage watch is. The first watch auctions were relatively low-key affairs, with most of the interest focused on pocket watches. Rolex wristwatches were put up for sale in batches, at ridiculously low prices. It wasn’t long, however, before Rolex and Patek Philippe wristwatches were catching bidders’ eye for the sheer variety of styles proposed. Foremost among those who can claim to have been instrumental in making wristwatch auctions what they are today is Osvaldo Patrizzi, the founder of Antiquorum who put wristwatch auctions in the spotlight in the early 1980s, closely followed by Daryn Schnipper at Sotheby’s. They were already criss-crossing the globe in search of horological treasures of every ilk, but most of all the Daytona.
Another story involves Jean-Claude Sabrier, a distinguished horological historian and eminent specialist of Ferdinand Berthoud. He was said to have only ever owned one Rolex, which he bought not to wear but to illustrate his book on automatic watches. When Osvaldo Patrizzi learned that Sabrier would be attending a watch convention in Florida, he asked him to bring back all the Rolex Daytonas with “exotic dials” that he could find. Unaware what this meant in Rolex collecting circles, the historian took the request literally and went searching for “exotic” dials featuring palm trees and bright colours. Needless to say, he returned empty-handed and was duly instructed in the specificities of Rolex watches and their bicolour dials.
The early models from the 1960s didn't feature the famous "Paul Newman" dial. Its later launch, as Ref. 6239, gave rise to the model's first notable developments.
A jewel in the crown?
How exactly did the Rolex Daytona Paul Newman get its name? Osvaldo Patrizzi – him again – understood precisely how creating associations could be beneficial in marketing terms. When he came across that photo of Paul Newman wearing the Rolex Daytona with “exotic dial”, he immediately knew that the two together would be marketing gold. Results at auction have proved him right. Note that the early models from the 1960s didn’t feature the famous “Paul Newman” dial. Its later launch, as Ref. 6239, gave rise to the model’s first notable developments. Likely it caught the actor’s eye, and that of his wife who had the inscription “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME” engraved on the back of the case.
Knowing that the Daytona referred to as “The Legend” went for over US$3 million a couple of weeks ago in Geneva, expectations are running high for when the actual Paul Newman Daytona crosses the block in New York, this October. Not to mention the many Rolex that have sold in excess of a million these past few years. No other brand has experienced such a meteoric rise in prices. Eric Clapton’s “Oyster Albino” sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 for US$ 500,000 then at Phillips in 2015 for CHF 1.35 million. As for the famous “RCO Tropical”, which fetched close to CHF 500,000 at Sotheby’s in 2010, it came within a whisker of CHF 2 million a year later. So thank you Hans Wilsdorf: the historic sale of the “real” Paul Newman could well be a new jewel in the Rolex crown.