In the first instalment of a deep-dive into the world of gem-set and stone dial Rolexs, Ross Povey — in collaboration with Pucci Papaleo — talks us through the early developments in bejeweled sports models and decodes the racier Daytonas.

For many years, the majority of taste-makers and market-shakers resolutely paraded steel dive watches, manual-wind Daytonas and the occasional platinum or yellow-gold Day-Date.

Of late, precious metal Rolex sports watches are hotting up quicker than an alpine fondue pot and the once-derogatory moniker “bling” is actually an affectionate and positive adjective for some of Wilsdorf’s wonders. Where traditionally the gems and stones were mainly applied to Daytonas and Day-Dates, even the Submariner and GMT-Master are game for dressing up in their finery. Is it a flash in the pan or are collectors looking for a new direction for their collections?

Early Gems

Rolex adding diamonds to their watches is nothing new. In the 1950s, they were setting the hour markers on some of their simple Oyster watches with small, brilliant-cut diamonds. However, the way was truly paved (pun intended!) with the Day-Date in the early-to-mid-1960s, when Rolex began offering the Day-Date with diamond bezels, often complemented by diamond-set dials.

The gem-set Day-Date fire was really lit by the mid-1970s with watches such as the white gold reference 1804 “Octopus Sapphire”. This was not a watch for the faint-hearted, due to a seriously adorned President bracelet – each link was set with a large brilliant diamond on either side of a baguette-cut sapphire. The bracelet was fitted to a watch with a bezel set with 46 brilliant-cut diamonds and a dial with brilliant and baguette-cut diamond hour markers.

A rare 1804 Day-Date “Octopus”, so named for the brilliant-cut diamonds on the bracelet
A rare 1804 Day-Date “Octopus”, so named for the brilliant-cut diamonds on the bracelet

The 1980s saw the theme continued with watches such as the reference 18188A “Lucky Wheel, a truly stunning watch that features a bezel set with baguette cut sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. The 1990s saw no slowing down for the gem-setting, by now a trademark of the brand. The yellow gold reference 18338 “Jackpot” is a perfect example of the art of gem-set cases. The shoulders of the case are set with brilliant-cut diamonds, while the dial, manufactured by Stern, has a pavé outer track and inner section, divided by blue enamel-filled hour sections.

Sparkling Sports

The Day-Date was the flagship watch for Rolex for many years, with special pieces commanding astronomical prices — it really was a watch for presidents, captains of industry and rich playboys. The sports watch line was designed for just that — sports and professional applications. But in 1979, Rolex took the extraordinary step of releasing a gem-set sports watch — the yellow gold GMT-Master reference 16758 SARU. The name SARU stuck as the watch’s nickname and was quite simply a reduction of the words sapphires and rubies, which is a clue to its aesthetics. The bezel saw the blue and red “Pepsi” insert replaced by baguette-cut rubies and sapphires, with diamonds as the hour markings on the bezel. Additionally, the dial was fully paved with sapphire hour markers. At the time, it caused quite a stir and it is now a serious collector piece.

Five years later, Rolex’s legendary sports chronograph, the Daytona, took its turn in the bling booth. It came out transformed in two references, 6269 and 6270. 6269 had a brilliant-cut diamond bezel and pavé dial with sapphire hour markers, while 6270 was fitted with a baguette-cut diamond bezel and full-pave dial with sapphire hour markers and, importantly, soleil-finish purple sub dials. These are serious watches and are seen as among the most desirable manual-wind Daytonas made. Of course there are unique steel watches such as the so-called “Neanderthal” and Newman’s own Newman — both of which performed very strongly at auction — but the 6269 and 6270 are rare production pieces and always sell strongly.

Ref. 6270 fitted with baguette-cut diamonds on the bezel and a fully paved dial with sapphire hour markers and purple counters
Ref. 6270 fitted with baguette-cut diamonds on the bezel and a fully paved dial with sapphire hour markers and purple counters
Dazzling Daytonas

In 1988, with the introduction of the automatic Daytona, Rolex took the bejewelled 6269/70 formulas and began a journey that set the standard for the fusion between sport watches and jewellery watches. The case was increased to a cool 40mm, crown guards were introduced, and also out went domed plexi crystal and in came sapphire. The birth of an automatic Daytona gave Rolex the confidence to take the sports watch to a whole new level and make it the jewel-in-the-crown.

Ref. 116576 BRIL with baguette diamonds and a paved dial
Ref. 116576 BRIL with baguette diamonds and a paved dial

Immediately upon the release of the watch, Rolex began offering the option of diamond hour markers on the dials of the two-tone (reference 16523) and yellow gold (16528) Daytonas. In 1992, reference 16518 was unveiled, a yellow gold Daytona on leather strap. To give the watch a neat, finished appearance, Rolex fitted the 16518s with short, fixed end-pieces that ensured that there was no unsightly gap between the case and the edge of the strap.

With the introduction of the leather strap came a new deployant buckle. Featuring the superb Rolex flip-lock system, the clasp was fully adjustable and would fit a range of different strap choices in alligator and lizard, which was expanded over the years as the ranges were developed. In 1997, the range was further expanded with the 16519 – a white gold Daytona on leather strap with deployant clasp. It was these watches on leather straps that Rolex concentrated their efforts on, creating exotic variations on their classic racing chronograph.

The special watches were often fitted with baguette-cut stone bezels and this attribute was signified with the number ‘8’ in the leather–strap watches: reference 16588 and 16589. The yellow-gold Daytona on bracelet was known as reference 16568 when fitted with a baguette-cut stone bezel.

Ref. 16568 EMRO with baguette-cut emeralds on the bezel
Ref. 16568 EMRO with baguette-cut emeralds on the bezel

When Rolex released the in-house caliber Daytona in 2000, they continued with these reference numbers but an additional 1 was added at the beginning. So the 16589 white gold Zenith-movement Daytona was the reference 116589 post-2000, when fitted with the caliber 4130. Each bezel type was signified by Rolex’s traditional three or four-letter code following the reference, much like the “SARU” GMT-Master. They were:

• EMRO – Baguette-cut emeralds-set bezel
• SAFU – Baguette-cut fuchsia sapphires-set bezel
• BRIL – Baguette-cut diamonds-set bezel
• SAPH – Baguette-cut blue sapphires-set bezel
• RUBI – Baguette-cut rubies-set bezel
• SACO – Baguette-cut cognac sapphires bezel
• RBR – 124 round brilliant cut diamonds in two rows
• SALV – Baguette-cut violet sapphires-set bezel
• 4RU – Four baguette-cut rubies, set at the quarters along with 36 brilliant cut diamonds
• 12SA – 12 Baguette-cut blue sapphires, set at the hour positions with 48 Baguette-cut diamonds
• TBR – 36 Baguette-cut diamonds (revived this year on the 116588 TBR “Eye of the Tiger”)
• RBOW – 36 Baguette-cut graduated “rainbow”-colored sapphires bezel

A RUBI edition Daytona with baguette-cut rubies, a fully paved dial and ruby hour markers
A RUBI edition Daytona with baguette-cut rubies, a fully paved dial and ruby hour markers

In 1998 Rolex introduced their first experiment with setting stones into the case of the watch. They replaced the short, fixed endlinks with much longer ones that protruded a little further in length than the lugs of the watch. These long endlinks were set with 24 brilliant cut diamonds and the gem-set bezels also featured 50 per cent more stones, with 36 instead of the 24 on the other models. These models used the number 9 as the penultimate digit in the reference – so, for example, the 16599 had a sapphire bezel (SAPH) and the diamond-set long endlinks (16599).

Daytona Stone

Special Daytonas were either made of stone (hard natural mineral stone) or were covered in stones (paved with brilliant-cut diamonds). Aside from mother-of-pearl, Rolex didn’t make any yellow gold or Rolesor models with hard stone dials. They were exclusively the preserve of the white-gold models on leather straps. There are, however, always exceptions to the rules — good clients and those with close relationships with authorised dealers could order dials specially and have them fitted, so interesting and unique dial and reference combinations do exist.

Making stone dials is a delicate process and wastage levels are high, as the incredibly thin piece of stone that is required is monstrously brittle, fragile and cracks very easily. I have heard it said that Rolex keeps a healthy supply of chrysoprase and turquoise dials (from the Special Beach Edition 116519) as they are often cracked during a routine service. The manufacturing process basically involves cutting a disc of the stone and then grinding it down to the super-thin slice that is then applied to the brass dial base. Sounds easy, right? It isn’t and takes serious skill and perseverance by artisan craftsmen. Natural products are always unique and that is one of the alluring aspects of stone dials, in that each one is distinctive and therefore special for the owner.

The Daytona Perpetual was available with five different stone dials: sodalite, grossular, chrysoprase, turquoise and meteorite. The turquoise and chrysoprase were only available for two or three years (2000-2002) on the Daytona Beach. The meteorite was only available for in-house movement Daytonas, but the sodalite and grossular were introduced in 1997 with the white gold Daytona on a leather strap.

Sodalite is a blue mineral that is used in jewellery as an ornamental gemstone. Grossular is a member of the garnet family and is distinguished by its calcium-aluminium composition and is classed as a gemstone. Although Rolex only used the red color, the name is actually derived from the botanical name for gooseberry (grossularia) after the green garnet version. There was also a prototype Daytona dial made in lapis lazuli. There is only one known example of this dial, which makes it one of the most desirable Daytonas in existence.

A Daytona with grossular dial and baguette-cut rubies on the bezel
A Daytona with grossular dial and baguette-cut rubies on the bezel
Leopards Chasing Rainbows

No matter what people’s view was of the “Special Edition” Beaches or the heavy gem-set pieces such as the 16599 SAPH, nothing could prepare them for the 2004 launch of the reference 116598 SACO. Or, as collectors term it, the Leopard. The watch was based on a leather strap model: yellow gold Daytona, with the long endlinks (set with 48 brilliant diamonds) and the SACO (cognac sapphires) bezel hence the reference 116589 SACO.

Nothing new — the SACO bezels were actually used in very limited numbers in earlier watches and the diamond-set long endlinks were a well-established feature. What made the Leopard so extraordinary was the dial and strap – each of which was finished with a leopard print. The dial featured champagne sub-dials and eight brilliant-cut diamonds set against an orange/yellow and black leopard print. The dial was offset against a leather strap in a complimentary leopard print. It was outrageous and it caused a stir. But now people are starting to gravitate towards it and I am beginning to see interest build. This and the Beach watches are definitely future classics.

A SACO edition featuring cognac sapphires on the bezel and middle lug link, along with brilliant cut diamonds on the end links
A SACO edition featuring cognac sapphires on the bezel and middle lug link, along with brilliant cut diamonds on the end links

In 2012, Rolex again used the versatile canvas of the Daytona to demonstrate that they really were the masters of stone-setting on watches. The references 116599 RBOW and 116598 RBOW were respectively white and yellow gold watches on bracelets. The penultimate “9” in the reference related to the stone setting on the case — previously on the long fixed endlinks, but now on the tops of the lugs and the shoulders on either side of the winding crown. The dials were black, with eight brilliant-cut diamonds as hour markers but the sub-dials had a “gold crystal” finish – what looks like small pieces of gold leaf.

What really set these watches apart were the 36 sapphires in the bezel that perfectly graduated through the hues of a rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet … all seamlessly set to graduate into the next. It was truly a work of art and now one of the most sought-after modern watches on the planet! In 2018, Rolex brought the watch out in Everose gold, with a new addition of baguette cut sapphire hour markers on the dial that perfectly match the bezel. The watch was also available with a full-pavé dial, too, in case the black dial version wasn’t bling enough. Bring it on!

Cosmograph Daytona TBR “Eye of the Tiger” released this year at Baselworld
Cosmograph Daytona TBR “Eye of the Tiger” released this year at Baselworld
All that Glitters, is Sold…

Currently, the buying public seems wide awake to these watches with the so-called gray market asking four times over list price for a Rainbow Daytona and prices of special editions like the Daytona Beach are double what they were 18 months ago. Rolex, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon with the production of these pieces.

This year at Baselworld, Rolex released two new SACO Daytonas — you didn’t hear about them? No, very few people did — they weren’t even in the gem-set sports watch catalog, which in itself is a very difficult catalog to lay your hands on. The watches are both on yellow gold and one has a new reference number: the 116578 SACO, which comes on an Oyster bracelet with a white mother-of-pearl dial with brilliant-cut diamond hour markers. The second is reference 116588 SACO and is supplied on a black Oysterflex strap. The dial is black, with diamond hour markers and yellow gold crystal sub-dials framed by rich cognac coloured sapphires. The Rainbow Daytona and new SACO watches are virtually impossible to acquire through an authorised dealer, so if you’re lucky enough to get offered one… grab it with both hands.

Mother-of-pearl dial Daytona with baguette-cut diamonds
Mother-of-pearl dial Daytona with baguette-cut diamonds