Let’s say you want to obtain a vintage mechanical steel 36mm Rolex Datejust, and let’s say that you’re ok with a leather strap over a bracelet, and let’s say you’re bargain hunting. If that’s you, read on.
1972-87 – In Our Humble Opinion
The best values in vintage steel mechanical 36mm Datejusts are those models from 1972 up to 1987. Going back to the 1960s brings lesser movements and higher prices. Going beyond 1988 brings the modern Datejust (including the Caliber 3235 still being used). The sweet spot for bargain vintage is from 1972 through 1987.
There is a breaking point at 1978-9, and not an insignificant one. Note that Datejusts from 1978-9 may be “transitional,” meaning that as Rolex used up their backstock of movements and dials some now-rather-confusing configurations went to dealers. However, transitional watches are relatively rare, though not in the manner that makes them more valuable.
The chart below will help you understand the differences between the various 36mm Steel Rolex Datejust models between 1972 and 1987.
Bezels are obviously a big deal on Datejusts, and they sure do play a major role in how a Datejust looks. For Rolex, the bezel is often the only thing that determines the difference between two 36mm Datejusts. Below is a quick guide to the Datejust bezels. (Note: diamond bezels and etched “bark” bezels are found almost exclusively on solid gold Datejusts).
Four-Digit Vs. Five-Digit References?
As the table above makes clear, around 1979 the Datejust went from a 4-digit reference number to 5-digit. The only legitimate reasons to buy a 4-digit Datejust over a 5-digit are:
1 – You want a birth year watch, and were born between 1972 and 1978.
2 – You absolutely must have a pie-pan dial (some folks just have to have it).
3 – There is a specific example available that really floats your boat or is a great deal.
4 – You really want a smooth bezel 1600 (though this is available again starting in 1988).
The reasons not to buy a 4-digit Datejust are:
1 – No quickset date function, so you’ll be spinning that crown forever to set it.
2 – Rolex no longer supports the Cal 1575, parts are harder to get, and service is likely going to be more expensive.
In short, a 4-digit has some potentially appealing features, whereas the 5-digit is the easier watch to own and service.
In terms of dial variations, there are many, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to list them all. Rolex never did limited editions, but they did some oddball things over the years. Given that Rolex produced (we figure) millions of 36mm Datejusts between 1972 to 1987, there’s just no way for us to catalog all of it. With that said, the more-or-less standard dial variants during the period are as follows (in order from most common to least):
Brushed – Radially brushed silver, gold or blue dials with applied steel baton markers
Solid Painted – Most often as white and black dials with applied markers.
Buckley Dials – Painted dials with roman numerals, called Buckley Dials
Linen Dials – With a fabric-like woven patter, typically in silver and gold. Very mid-century modern.
Tapestry Dials – Engraved vertical striping pattern, found in silver, gold, black, gray and sometimes blue.
While out hunting for your Rolex Datejust, you’re also going to see diamond-clad bezels, and you’re going to see some weird custom colors (usually aftermarket redials), and no doubt there are many examples with replacement dials (which leads us to our next topic).
As the name suggests, Frankenwatches are pieced together from parts. Some people don’t care about this, but the vintage market does. Frankenwatches should sell for considerably less than an all-original example. Some vintage collectors look down their nose at Frankenwatches, so, if you decide to get one, be prepared for a little snobbery at your next watch meet-up.
Determining whether a Datejust from 1972-1987 is a Frankenwatch or all-original is rarely easy. However, when the dial is simply a no-go match for the period, or the dial is a weird-ass color you’ve only seen once, then you’re right to suspect Dr. Frankenstein had his hands on it. However, many Frankenwatches use dials and other parts that match exactly an original’s configuration. That’s much harder to determine.
One technique is to see if the lume on the hands and dial match in their aging (Tritium lume usually turns a soft vanilla color). However, this technique is pretty much useless because often the hands and dials were painted with different batches of lume, or even with lume from different manufacturers, or the dial or handset was laying around the Rolex parts bins long enough for the lume to get a head start. Short version: don’t use this method.
Judging Case Condition
The best example is going to be “unpolished,” meaning that the case (even if nicked up pretty badly) hasn’t been polished by a jeweler over the years. Unpolished datejusts are highly desirable, even if they’re beat up, because – well – enough avid collectors decided that mattered. The main complaint is that the edges are “soft” after polishing, yet the level of softening varies quite a bit.
My 1972 1603 36mm Datejust has not been polished, and I must confess that I take some pride in that. It also looks as God – or Hans Wilsdorf anyways – intended. However, we strongly encourage you to make your own independent decision.
Judging Dial Condition
Being Oyster (waterproof) cases, one should expect to see a lot of clean dials out there, and there are. Any water damage is a no-go for us. No matter how spectacularly it resembles a supernova or the night sky, we say avoid it because (a) there are tons of clean examples to be had, and (b) water damage on the dial indicates that moisture got inside the watch, so the movement was also exposed. That’s unacceptable.
Some patina on the dial is to be expected, however. I don’t know how or why old metals “age,” but there’s a quality to my silver radially brushed dial on my 1972 1603 that’s just warm and inviting.
Expect lume to have yellowed and to not work very well anymore. That’s part of the fun. But also look for “relumed” hands and dot markers, which are easy to spot if done sloppily or if it just glows like a modern watch. If the relume job was done well and was long enough ago that the lume has lost some luminescence, it may be harder to spot.
Judging Movement Condition
Firstly, when dealing with 4-digit Datejusts (1972-1978) make note that Cal 1575 is the 1570 with the date, but that many 1575s have bridges marked 1570. If you see 1570 inside and there’s a date, it’s a 1575 with the “wrong” stamp. This is normal and ok.
Movement condition is downright tough for the layperson to determine, still quite difficult for the experienced collector to reconcile, and, unfortunately, easy for the savvy vintage dealer to conceal. First and foremost, at least get a photo of the movement. If the seller isn’t willing to show you that, move on. These are not rare watches.
If you do see inside the movement, don’t let clean surfaces fool you. Look for dirt and corrosion where parts come together, where jewels are mounted, and in the nooks and crannies. Polishing the bridges and other larger surfaces isn’t all that difficult, but a truly clean watch will have been thoroughly disassembled and all connections points will have been tidied up.
As far as replaced movement parts go, this is unavoidably a crapshoot. Some 3rd party companies were making replacement parts for many Rolex models, and while they seem to have worked just fine, they may devalue the watch upon an (honest) attempt to resell it.
Tolerance levels for movement condition vary from person to person. Some folks would prefer to oversee a servicing with their trusted watchmaker. Some folks just want the watch to work properly (I fall into this category), and assume that they’ll get it tidied up soon enough during a service. Other people are quite fussy about the condition of a movement at point of sale.
As always, we encourage you to think independently and come up with your own standard. We also encourage you to consult a watchmaker you trust for an assessment whenever possible.
Bracelets (And Why We Don’t Address Them Here)
Bracelets are almost a whole other collecting category when it comes to Rolex. Millions of 36mm Datejusts shipped with either Oyster (3-link) or Jubilee (5-link) bracelets and even, I’ve been told, with “President” bracelets (a domed kind of 5-link style).
While many examples you’ll find for sale will include a bracelet, the variations in bracelets and the tendency for people to change them for straps, replace them (typically when they become loose), or to use 3rd party models is prevalent enough to make this a topic worthy of its own guide. Suffice it to say, if you want a bracelet there are thousands of them out there, and matching it to your Datejust should prove relatively easy.
Happy hunting, and please feel free to reach out with any questions.