The key to obtaining that dream Rolex without breaking the bank is to buy used and to know which vintage references offer the most reliability. People often (incorrectly) assume that a used vintage Rolex will always be a compromise compared to one of their modern references bought new from a shop, when often the movement used within the watch is identical, or in some cases, preferable in the older reference.
To be clear, We are not talking about the most desirable vintage Rolexes from a collector’s or investor’s point of view. The rarest early references often cost more than their modern counterparts while utilising inferior movements, hollow bracelets and plexiglass crystals that will scratch if you look at them askance. While these watches may have investment potential, they wouldn’t hold up to everyday wear as expected from a modern Rolex.
For many of us who want to wear our watches, the best Rolexes to buy are the references released between 1988 and 2010 that utilise the calibre 3135 examined the differences between Rolex’s long-serving 3135 and the new-for-2015 calibre 3235 from a watchmaker’s perspective and found that the older movement is preferable in terms of longevity and serviceability. The late 80s also marked a departure from plexiglass in favour of the far more durable sapphire crystals we expect from modern luxury watches.
The Air-King has long been the entry-level Rolex reference and offers a clean, time-only aesthetic. The modern reference 116900 of this watch has morphed into some comic-sans lime-green abomination and is priced far above what any of us would consider “entry-level” at £6,450 RRP. You could have the reference 14000M instead for half the price or less, which debuted in 2000 and comes equipped with the calibre 3130. The only functional benefit of the current Air-King over the earlier model is the inclusion of a Faraday cage to protect the movement from magnetism, a “perk” that might not be useful to everybody and has the drawback of making the watch head much heavier.
The Rolex Air-King (14000M) is a watch model from the Rolex brand and Air-King collection. On the private sales market, the average price of a Rolex 14000M as of March 7, 2023, is £3,708, while you can expect to pay £4,021 from a secondary market dealer.
A modern datejust 36 reference 126233 with the obligatory fluted bezel and jubilee bracelet in two-tone steel and gold will set you back a cool £11,700 RRP. For less than half that eye-watering sum, you could have almost any Datejust produced from 1988 onwards when Rolex upgraded the series to use sapphire crystals and the calibre 3135. The Datejust and Day-Date have always been flagship models for Rolex, and as such, they have tended to receive upgrades before any of the Crown’s other collections. The long production runs on this reference make it easy to obtain on the used market and a bit of a no-brainer, in my opinion, if you’re shopping for a classic, dressy Rolex.
The Rolex Datejust (16233) is a watch model from the Rolex brand and Datejust collection. On the private sales market, the average price of a Rolex 16233 as of March 7, 2023, is £5,188, while you can expect to pay £5,911 from a secondary market dealer.
This reference entered the Rolex catalogue in 1989 and debuted with the calibre 3185, a GMT movement with an independently adjustable hour hand. Early versions of this watch had a few issues, though, with the GMT hand known to wobble a bit when the time is adjusted and featuring an outsourced Nivarox hairspring. To avoid these issues, look for models produced between 2006 and 2010. Rolex quietly upgraded the movement in these watches to the cal—3186 eliminating the wobble and replacing the Nivarox spring with Rolex’s anti-magnetic Parachrom spring.
The Rolex Explorer II (16570) is a watch model from the Rolex brand and Explorer 11 collection. On the private sales market, the average price of a Rolex 16570 as of March 7, 2023, is £6,991, while you can expect to pay £7,567 from a secondary market dealer.
Compared to the modern reference 216570 with an RRP of £8,350. You save a few thousand pounds by going with the earlier reference and getting more elegant aesthetics. The thick “Maxi” hands, hour markers and that bright orange GMT hand on the current reference all look cartoonish compared to the well-proportioned design of the 16570.
The “Rolesium” Yacht-Master (that’s Rolex-speak for Steel and Platinum) is an often-overlooked alternative to the Submariner. An all-steel Submariner date retails for £8,950, but good luck getting one at retail. Due to the Sub’s popularity and long wait lists at retailers, they often sell between £9,370 to £11,214 on the used market. The modern Yacht master reference 126622 asks for even more than that with an RRP of £12,000, hardly qualifying it as a value proposition.
The Rolex Yacht-Master (16622) is a watch model from the Rolex brand and yacht-master collection. On the private sales market, the average price of a Rolex 16622 as of March 7, 2023, is £8,072, while you can expect to pay £ 8,789 from a secondary market dealer.
The trick here is to look for the older Yacht-Master reference 16622, which is identical to the modern version in most respects. It lacks an easy-link extension mechanism in the bracelet and has a green lume rather than Rolex’s proprietary blue Chromalight, but that’s it. If you’re willing to make those compromises, you get a Rolex dive watch with a luxurious platinum bi-directional bezel, date function and the more desirable calibre 3135 for almost half the price of a plain-Jane steel Submariner.