Specialist Patrick Hofstetter on the allure of a watch with an illustrious and glamorous sporting past — featuring notable examples sold at Christie’s
Rolex and Daytona are two evocative names that came together decades before the first Daytona Reference 6239 began production in 1963. In the early 1930s most watches were tested on the wrists of athletes and adventurers, and not exclusively in high-tech laboratories as they are today. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, however, recognised the advertising potential of motorsport, and signed a contract with the racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell.
On 7 March 1935, Campbell set one of his final records on the sandtrack at Daytona Beach, increasing the world land speed record to 445.472 kmh. He would later improve this record one more time, but not at Daytona. Years later, in 1991, Rolex became the main sponsor of the 24 Hours of Daytona race at Daytona International Speedway.
A product gains credibility if it is worn by a figure celebrated for being authentic — particularly when there is no payment involved. When the actress Joanne Woodward gave her husband, Paul Newman, a Daytona as a lucky charm in 1968, it marked the beginning of the actor’s enduring affection for the brand. At that time, Newman was not under contract to Rolex as an ambassador, yet he and the Rolex Daytona formed an unbeatable promotional duo.
One thing has been and remains consistent for all the movements used by Rolex for its chronographs: outstanding reliability. Technically, however, the movements used for the first Daytona watches lagged behind other chronograph movements of the time. It was not until 1988 — more than 20 years after the launch of the Daytona — that Rolex decided to improve the highly successful Zenith automatic calibre, El Primero, making it one of the best automatic chronographs of its time.
Twelve years later, in 2000, Rolex launched the first chronograph movement built in-house in the company’s history.
The Rolex Daytona’s simple yet perfectly balanced design is virtually unmatched in any other chronograph model. Strong contrasting colours, from the main to the subsidiary dials, in a superbly composed gold or steel case make this watch irresistible.
Daytonas such as the jewelled Reference 6269 or 6270 show that it is possible to combine a sports watch with gemstones — today Daytonas are available in almost every material and design, while still clearly reflecting their origins.
It is repeatedly claimed that Daytona watches were initially slow to sell, which is true to a certain extent. Certainly, the watches did not sell as well as today’s Daytonas, but it should be noted that far fewer watches with manual calibers were produced.
Now, of course, it is highly desirable to own such a watch — especially one that continues to rise in price due to its scarce supply.