The first Milgauss was released in the mid 1950s. This was a new and interesting time for Rolex as they were experimenting with a range of new-era sports and professional watches. These tool watches featured robust steel Oyster cases with rotating bezels and were the forefathers of the current sports watches. Rolex experimented with the Mono Meter and Turn-O-Graph names, keeping the latter. The Sub Aqua moniker was ultimately changed to Submariner and then there was another black, rotating bezel watch called the Milgauss. Where the GMT-Master was referred to as the ‘Aviator’s Watch,’ the Milgauss was referred to as the ‘Scientist’s Watch.’ Aimed at those working in conditions of high electromagnetic fields, the watch was impervious to magnetic forces of up to 1,000 gauss.
Partners in Time
Rolex always has, even up until current times, worked with the highest caliber partners in their research and development. The Tektite project for the early Sea-Dwellers, Pan-Am with the GMT-Master and Comex on the Deep Sea Sea-Dweller; all these relationships were key to the development and testing of professional model watches. The Geneva-based Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or CERN is the world’s pre-eminent particle physics research facility. In the mid to late 1950s, the Milgauss was put through its paces by scientists at CERN who confirmed that the watch could be exposed to magnetic fields of up to 1,000 gauss without any impediment to timekeeping.
Not Just a Pretty Face
The first Milgauss reference was the 6543 with a steel case measuring 38mm across and an unusual lug width of approximately 19.5mm. The rotating bezel was marked with either unique font Submariner-esque divisions of tens (10, 20, 30, etc.) or single units of one to five. The 6543 was equipped with a unique caliber reference 1080, which was modified from the base caliber 1030.
The dials had a beautiful honeycomb finish, that actually looks like a weave construction. You may be aware that Faraday cages are often of a mesh construction, therein, it is widely believed that the dials on the early Milgauss watches were made in such a way as to make the dials a key component of the Faraday cage—truly, not just a pretty face. These dials had applied arrow markers at 3, 6 and 9 and painted luminous dots between the quarter markers. The word MILGAUSS was printed in red and it is quite common now to see this lettering faded to a pleasing pink hue. The main anti-magnetic properties of the watch came from the use of a soft-iron shield around the movement—a small Faraday cage. The steel case had an iron ring inserted around the movement alongside a thick caseback. The 6543 is something of a mystery to collectors and the examples known are very inconsistent, so stating cast-iron (pardon the pun!) facts is at best difficult and more likely impossible.
Due to the fact that this was a time of experimentation and prototyping, the references of the very first sports watches change quickly and in some cases co-exist. The second reference for the Milgauss was the 6541. Visually very similar to the 6543, the biggest addition cosmetically to the 6543 was the so-called lightning-bolt seconds hand. The 6541 debuted in 1957 and was again produced in very small quantities, estimated to be around 200 pieces in total. Rolex utilized the 1080 caliber still and the honeycomb dials remained. The case size was again 38mm, but the lug width increased to the sports watch standard of 20mm. Internally, there was a small change. The iron ring around the movement remained, but instead of a thick caseback as seen on some examples of its predecessor, the 6541 had an additional inner caseback as well as a standard steel outer caseback. The Faraday cage was therefore constructed by the inner ring and inner caseback.
In my time of researching and being immersed in the vintage Rolex world, I have never actually met anybody who truly understands the reason for the rotating bezel and its six sub-divisions of single units one to five. Maybe due to this seemingly odd rotating bezel, 6541s produced for the American market had solid polished steel bezels installed. It was this styling that led to the next chapter in the story…
The Second Generation Milgauss
In approximately 1960 Rolex unveiled the reference 1019. The 1019 had an incredible uninterrupted lifespan of nearly three decades, until it was finally discontinued in 1989. Again, like its forefathers it was a large watch for the era measuring 38mm, compared with the Explorer or Datejust. The case size was to accommodate the Faraday cage that encircled the Calibre 1580 movement. Like the 6541, the 1019 had an additional amagnetic inner shield that completed the Faraday cage construction.
Gone was the lightning bolt seconds hand and instead there was a red-tipped sweep seconds hand. The hour and minute hands were of a unique baton shape. For the first 10 years of production the hands were polished with a central ridge running along their length. In around 1970 the hands changed to a flat version, without ridges, that were matte brushed steel. The dials were available in either black or silver. The black dials had white text and the word MILGAUSS in red. The silver dials featured a delightful vertical brushed finish with the text in black and the word MILGAUSS in red.
It would be possible to write an entire article on the dial variations and chronology of the different iterations, but that isn’t the purpose of this piece. Suffice to say, that there are at least six different dial versions with changes to font, dial finish, hour markers and the outer seconds tracks. The silver dials were available without any lume application on the dial and a black non-luminous in-fill in the hands. This was the configuration requested by CERN, as it was vital that the watches contained no radioactive materials that could interfere with the very precise work that went on at the research center.
The 1019 was not a popular watch at the time and sold very slowly. Interestingly, it is still a very ‘soft’ watch on the vintage market compared with its contemporaries in the ever financially ascending world of vintage Rolex. It is not unusual to see cull set collector examples where the warranty is dated much later than the manufacture date, due to the fact that it sat for many, many years in the window at the authorized dealer. The CERN dial examples are highly sought after and a good condition regular 1019 is perhaps a good and accessible entry into the vintage Rolex professional watch world.
A Triumphant Return
18 years following its withdrawal, Rolex resurrected the line at Baselworld in 2007 with the new Milgauss reference 116400. A hybrid of both the first and second generation Milgauss, it was a reimagined watch for a new era of horology. In keeping with the then state-of-play, the case got a 2mm boost to make it up to the 40mm mark and was waterproof to a depth of 100m. The watches housed the Caliber 3131 which features the Parachrom hairspring and anchor escapement, which in themselves hugely improve the anti-magnetic properties of the watch; another good example of Rolex over-engineering its watches. The modern Milgauss could withstand significantly more than 1,000 gauss! The 3131 movements are housed in a two-piece shield—one half of which screws to the dial side of the movement and the other into the Oyster case beneath the outer caseback. This ‘inner case back’ has the letter ‘B’ beneath and arrow engraved on it; the symbol for magnetic flux density.
Rolex tipped its hat to the first Milgauss watches by reinstating the lightning bolt sweep seconds hand. The watch featured the fixed solid steel bezel that first appeared on the US-market 6541s and that was retained by the 1019. The watches were available with either black or white dials and the constant across all versions was a newly introduced liberal use of orange. The lightning bolt seconds hand was bright orange, as was the text MILGAUSS on the dial. The hour markers were large applied oblongs with luminous in-fill. On the white dials all of the lume was orange and on the black just the 3, 6 and 9 markers. The minute markers are also orange on the white version.
Gauss Glass Verte
To celebrate 50 years of the ‘official’ launch of the Milgauss (we can assume that Rolex viewed the 6543 as a test model) in 1957, Rolex unveiled the 116400GV in 2007. The same watch as the regular black dial version, the GV had a special green sapphire crystal fitted – the ‘glace vert.’ Green was the colour that Rolex had used with the 50th Anniversary Submariner, the so-called ‘Kermit,’ and here it was again for the Milgauss. Rolex have stated that they decided not to patent the green glass and its manufacturing process as it was far too complicated for any other brand to ever consider copying!
The final installment of the Milgauss story, so far, came in 2014 when unexpectedly Rolex revealed a new 116400GV with electric blue colour dial. Referred to by Rolex as the Z-Blue dial, it was as keenly received as it was unexpected and continues to be a very in-demand steel sports Rolex. The watchmaker is quite rightly very proud of the heritage of this watch and continue to celebrate it as the choice for those in the scientific world.