March 28 2021
Rolex Datejust Ref. 1601
No one is going to pretend that vintage watch collecting is the cheapest activity in the world. If you are venturing into this hobby for the first time, scouring the pre-owned market for that initial purchase can see you faced with some alarming dollar figures, especially if you have your heart set on a Rolex watch.
Yet, fear not! Rolex has been around for so long and has such a wide and diverse portfolio, that there are models out there to suit just about any budget. Generally speaking, the most affordable vintage Rolex watches are those that are plentiful in number, either because they remained in production for a very long time or because they were the models that everyone wanted, leading to vast quantities being produced. In either instance, it is their present-day availability that has ultimately helped keep their costs down.
Of course, all of this only applies to certain Rolex models. We can’t exactly list the real icons (Submariner, Daytona, GMT-Master, etc.) in the ‘Everyone Can Afford’ category anymore; those days are long gone. However, what we are left with are some truly spectacular watches, the cult heroes that can set you apart in an overcrowded space – and that won’t break the bank while doing it. Below, we have picked out a few of our favorite affordable vintage Rolex watches.
Sitting at the head of this category is the celebrated Rolex Datejust, which has been among the brand’s best-selling creations since it debuted way back in 1945. With a mind-boggling array of different metal, bezel, dial, and bracelet options, the Datejust has always been the one watch designed to suit absolutely anybody. Furthermore, it bridges that gap between an all-out dress watch and a rough-and-ready tool model, fitting in anywhere and complementing any situation.
It is obviously possible to spend huge amounts on a Datejust, but it is by no means necessary. The model has never been subjected to the Rolex policy of limiting allocation (which continues to frustrate those looking for a stainless steel sports watch today), and it has been produced in enormous numbers over the decades.
Of the vintage references, the ref. 160x family (introduced in 1959) is the most reasonably priced. It still has those two touches loved by all vintage fans – a pie pan dial (where the outer rim slopes downward with the resemblance of an inverted plate) and an acrylic crystal. The range was in production for nearly 20-years, meaning the pre-owned market is swarming with great examples in every style you can imagine. However, it is perhaps the ref.1601 that screams “Rolex” the loudest.
A stainless steel 36mm case topped with a gold bezel is a trademark visual, and prices start out at under $4,000. If you can live without the Jubilee bracelet and are happy to wear your Datejust on a leather strap, you can have one for even less. An undisputed star of horology, a vintage Rolex Datejust allows you to wear a vital slice of horology history.
Rolex Air-King Ref. 5500
The Rolex Air-King first appeared even earlier than the Datejust as one of a series of ‘Air’ watches Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf created to celebrate the heroics of British RAF pilots in their defense of the U.K during WWII. However, the Air-King did not actually become an official collection in Rolex’s catalog until its formal launch in 1958. Even with the Air-King’s remarkably long and illustrious history, it still stands as one of the most underappreciated names in the Rolex collection. Further evidence comes in the form of just how far the Air-King has lagged behind the rest of the catalog in receiving its incremental updates. Incredibly, it didn’t even receive its first chronometer-certified movement until as late as 2007.
From the outset, the watch was always the epitome of stylish, unassuming elegance. By the time the reference 5500 emerged in 1958, the “Air-King” name had already been used for several different references. However, the Air-King 5500 is the one that Rolex considers to be the official start of the collection, and it would go on to remain in production for more than three decades. A 34mm three-handed watch with not so much as a date function to muddy up the perfectly-balanced dial, the Rolex Air-King was here to tell you the time and nothing else, and it remains one of the most starkly handsome creations the brand has ever put forward.
Rolex Air-King 5500 watches always have a smooth polished bezel, a plain stick handset, and the hour markers on the vast majority of examples were simple batons.
Another dial discrepancy tells the story of what’s going on inside. The ref. 5500 had two different movements during its production: the Cal. 1520 and Cal. 1530. Neither movement was COSC-certified and so the ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’ text that we are used to seeing on Rolex watches is missing from reference 5500 watches. In its place is ‘Super Precision’ in many of the Cal. 1530-driven pieces and either just ‘Precision’ or else no designation at all (known as “Pre-Precision” dials) on many of the Cal. 1520 models. With that in mind, the lack of chronometer-certification is no reason to avoid the ref. 5500, as both movements are fine examples of Rolex engineering, keep time beautifully, and are celebrated for their rock-solid reliability.
And the price for all this fascinating vintage Rolex fineness? A late-model example in very good condition can be had for under $4,000. One of the unsung masterpieces of Rolex’s formative years, the reference 5500 Air-King is a genuine bargain and offers a timeless and minimalist aesthetic that is guaranteed to never go out of style.