Book Review – The Vintage Rolex Field Manual, Chevalier Edition

The world of vintage Rolex combines the obsessive qualities of detail oriented collectors with sky high market valuations. It is a minefield where a single line of text on the dial may mean a difference in value of tens of thousands of dollars. The difficulty is compounded by the Genevan giant’s famous reticence regarding their history. Unlike other brands which may offer a museum, access to their archives, or authentication services, Rolex retains a studied silence. It falls to collectors like Colin A. White to try to piece together information for the curious and the ambitious.

This is the second book from this author. The Vintage Rolex Field Guide is a softcover book meant to be thrown in a backpack as a quick reference guide. The current Vintage Rolex Field Manual, Chevalier Edition is a hardcover book expanding on largely the same material and is meant to be used as a desk reference.

The writing style of the Field Manual is a curious combination of data-driven research and opinion. For example, you’ll find sections where advice is given as to which references are most desirable. A few pages later you will see a table with every reference in that line of watches listed along with some of their features. There is also a juxtaposition of general and very specific advice, which is sometimes jarring. One section talks about what characteristics are desirable in a watchmaker, then has a profile of a specific watchmaker who is a “best kept secret.”

An attempt is made in this book to be as comprehensive as possible. The sections are organized as a historical overview, a detailed guide to appraising vintage watches in general and Rolex in particular, a discussion of various categories ranging from professional lines to dress watches, bracelets, movements, and accessories. I admire the ambition and the scale of the book. It reflects the true collector’s bent of comprehensively studying a niche, in this case vintage Rolex. The evolution from a shorter and less comprehensive book is apparent. Certain areas such as dial variations with minute font differences are covered rather thoroughly with good illustrations. There is a tendency to describe features of the watches but not have the corresponding illustrations. A glossy, fully illustrated book with this broad of a focus would be my platonic ideal of a vintage Rolex book but would perhaps be too impractical of an exercise in terms of time and money – and would cost a lot more than $85.

When discussing the different categories, White goes into more detail around areas with more collector interest and value. For example, he touches on pocketwatches only very briefly, but gives detailed descriptions of the Double Red Seadweller dials from the MK I to MK IV. There is a good section on the lesser recognized history of the GMT-master as an astronaut watch. Having become a popular pilot’s watch, it naturally made the migration as pilots were recruited as astronauts. The more in depth coverage of popular models does not mean that the lesser known models are not covered. For example, the Rolex Bubbleback has five densely packed pages of reference charts.

The section on condition is an absolute must read for the serious vintage watch collector. In particular, the discussion of modern restoration methods for cases and dials was highly informative. In general, older watch restoration jobs tended to be done cheaply with poor quality. An overpolished watch case with rounded edges with “Rolex” looking like it was written with the 1960’s version of a tiny Sharpie is easy to spot. However, the skyrocketing value of vintage Rolex in recent years has resulted in correspondingly good dial and case restoration work. In particular, lapping is a case restoration method which I do not often see discussed online and merits more attention from the collector community. There is a good discussion of lapping in this book along with many other tips for evaluating authenticity and condition scattered throughout the text.

I admit to a faint hope that by reading this book I would magically acquire the knowledge of a seasoned Rolex expert. On the contrary, I remain more befuddled than ever. Although I am generally an advocate of learning to do your own authentication, I think that in the case of higher priced vintage Rolex models it is important to buy from an established reliable source. It is also important to develop a mentorship network of collectors or dealers willing to share knowledge when considering a big time vintage Rolex purchase. Ultimately it is the judgement of the experts that determines the value of any given watch. A book like this is an essential overview and probably enough to get by in terms of buying either a relatively recent or a less valuable reference from a trusted source. However, more than a book will be needed if you plan to buy the more coveted and thus more often altered models. Overall I enjoyed the book and applaud the author for his ambition and for making progress in demystifying vintage Rolex watches.