The Rolex crown logo isn’t just a symbol. In the pantheon of Swiss watch brands, Rolex is truly king. Go down the list of Forbes world’s 100 most valuable brands, and you’ll find Rolex parked at #80. While that might not seem all that high of a rank, consider the fact that it’s the only dedicated watch brand that made the list. Rolex earned $8.5 billion in retail sales last year, while runner-up Omega S.A. managed to pull in $2.32 million. That’s a big difference. But this reputation certainly didn’t happen overnight. The Rolex reputation is one that has been meticulously crafted over decades and, at the same time, experienced a meteoric rise in today’s pop culture. Rolex has cemented itself as a truly premium watch brand that not only charges ever-increasing prices in the new watch market but also regularly sees stratospheric sums for vintage timepieces at auction.
Certain rare vintage Rolexes, especially those with unique features and significant provenance, take in millions on the auction block. Next to Patek Philippe, a brand whose offerings cost far more than a Rolex watch at the retail level, Rolex occupies ten of the one-hundred most expensive watches ever sold at auction. No other brand comes close. Brand recognition is a significant factor in the image that is Rolex, and it’s all about brilliant and focused marketing. More than just a watch brand, Rolex is a cultural icon and a symbol of success. The brand carries as much weight among those who know precious little about watches as it does with watch aficionados. The same cannot be said for other Swiss brands such as Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre, which tend to attract primarily horophiles. Nobody says, “When I hit it big, I’m gonna buy a Richard Mille.” So, what is Rolex’s secret sauce? Is there just one thing they do particularly well, or is it a conglomeration of all the right ingredients? How did they get where they are today?
Why Are Rolexes So Expensive?
Impeccable Quality and Focused Innovation of Rolex Watches
Rolex sets itself apart by establishing and consistently maintaining extremely high standards of quality. This is a huge accomplishment given the sheer volume of their production which amounts to somewhere close to a million watches per year. Using premium materials like 904L stainless steel (a precious metal Rolex terms “Oystersteel”) instead of the typical 316L steel means it’s harder and more resilient. Its in-house movements aren’t overly ornate or complex but rather accurate, durable, and reliable. Avoiding high-maintenance and sometimes unreliable complications equates to tremendous reliability over the long haul. Hell, Rolex’s movements haven’t changed much in over thirty years, a testament to how well they are made. Nearly every component of Rolex’s calibers is made in-house.
There’s nothing radical about Rolex watch innovation and design, and each move they make in these areas is evolutionary and is executed strategically. Changes in case size, movement upgrades, and bracelet styles are by no means drastic. The “craziest” things we’ve seen from them lately are a leaf-motif dial on the Datejust 36 and a meteorite-dialed version of the Daytona. In most cases, a current version looks like its decade-old predecessor, and that’s a testament to the brand’s history of consistency.
Rolex is a Hype Machine
So, you’re convinced you want to buy yourself a brand new Rolex Submariner, then you’ve discovered you can’t buy one online or even at an authorized dealer (AD). Depending on the model, the waitlist can be as long as your arm, all the way to your naked wrist. Some of this is due to both the sheer popularity of Rolex watches and the intentionally curbed production by Rolex. The result is that it drives an already high level of demand for their timepieces even higher. Rolexes that don’t even qualify as vintage command high prices, which furthers demand. The retail price of a new Daytona in steel is $14,550, but you can’t find them anywhere at that price. Expect to pay upwards of $50,000 for a new one if you can’t wait. Rolex has even been accused of reducing the production of its most popular models in order to drive up demand. You will definitely have better luck if you’re shopping for one of the brand’s less popular models like the Air-King or the Explorer. While Rolex doesn’t upcharge at its authorized dealers, they have little control of pricing in the aftermarket. The demand, mystique, and desirability of Rolex watches are all elevated due to all of these factors.
So with all that in mind, the only question remains, what single watch is the most expensive Rolex watch ever sold?
The Most Expensive Rolex Watch: Paul Newman Rolex Daytona
It’s not just the scarcity that drives up prices of pre-owned Rolexes. The prices commanded by vintage Rolexes at auction are downright staggering, and it’s those very auction prices that keep the pre-owned and vintage Rolex watch market so elevated.
The most expensive Rolex watch ever auctioned was none other than the 1968 Daytona chronograph owned by the late actor, race car driver, and philanthropist Paul Newman. The watch was known as the ‘Exotic’ Daytona and brought in a whopping $17.8 million. Worn by a timeless Hollywood icon who raced cars professionally and made millions for charity, the Newman Daytona epitomizes what Rolex is all about.
What Makes the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona So Valuable?
Had this Rolex Daytona not been owned by Paul Newman, would it have commanded this astronomical price? Surely not, but that’s the meat of what makes it so special, enhanced by its unique cream, red, and black dial. Moreover, Newman actually wore the damn thing all the time. He owned it for fifteen years and could be seen wearing it while racing. The fact that the Newman Rolex Daytona was used by the actor while actually driving in professional motorsports (the purpose for which the Cosmograph Daytona was created and for which it’s named) adds tremendous value. The watch was gifted to Newman by his famous wife, Joann Woodward, and the caseback was engraved with the note, “Drive Carefully, Me”, making it even more special. Finally, it was worn by a famous American actor who embodied style, manliness, and class. It is considered the holy grail of watch collecting because it captures what Rolex is all about, and then some.
4 More of the Rarest and Most Expensive Rolex Watches
The “Bao Dai” Rolex
The famed Rolex Ref. 6062 in yellow gold isn’t just unique because it was purchased by the last emperor of Vietnam but also because of its truly one-of-a-kind five-diamond dial. The Bao Dai was in Geneva in 1954 and requested the watch from the Rolex boutique. It was sold by Bao Dai’s family in 2002 for a then-record $235,000. When it hit the auction block a second time, it sold for substantially more: $5.1 million. There were, apparently, two other Ref. 6062s made in yellow gold with diamond dials, but this five-diamond version is the only one ever created.
Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona, ‘Big Red’
Newman loved his Daytonas, and this one stayed with him for 25 years until he gave it to his daughter Clea just before he passed away in 2008. Big Red was a 1962 Daytona Ref. 6263 and was so named because of its large “Daytona” lettering above the subdial at the 6 o’clock position. It was the single watch that shows up the most times on Newman’s wrist when being photographed both on and off the track. Another fine racing chronograph gifted to him by his wife, the back of the watch was engraved with the words “Drive slowly, Joanne.” His daughter sold it for her father’s charity for $5.5 million in 2020.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ‘Unicorn’
The second most expensive Rolex watch ever sold at auction is the now famous 1978 reverse panda Cosmograph Daytona known as the ‘Unicorn’. It took in $5.9 million in 2018, but its value was less about the prolific Rolex collector who owned it and more about the fact that it was the only Daytona ever crafted out of 18-karat white gold. It was so rare that many watch experts were truly shocked and confused when it was revealed to the public in 2013. It’s these kinds of obscure and fascinating vintage Rolexes that continue to perpetuate the brand, as well as the desirability for Rolex timepieces.
Rolex Submariner ‘Explorer Dial’
A little while ago, we covered the most expensive Rolex Submariner ever sold at auction. Although the $1,068,500 winning bid pales in comparison to the 1968 Newman Daytona, the price is more than just a notch in the Rolex crown. It represents why Rolexes are so valued. The unique and very rare Explorer dial, the untouched condition, and even the missing bezel are what help make the watch truly special. But it’s also the narrative behind the timepiece that provides great storytelling provenance. Having been owned by one person, an Australian merchant seaman and adventurer who wore it daily for decades, the watch is as seasoned as the man who wore it. This is what makes Rolex so special.