I t’s said that you can judge a man by his shoes, but it’s often his watch that makes a bigger impression. More than just a reflection of style or taste, what’s on one’s wrist is a telling sign of character. Think of the person sporting a Richard Mille tourbillon versus someone in a Vacheron Constantin dress watch—one is athletic, high-tech, modern; the other is understated, traditional, formal. Every watch has nuances that speak to the person wearing them, but, for over half a century, one model has been synonymous with success: Rolex’s Day-Date. The timepiece of choice for dignitaries, champions and various captains of industry, the Day-Date is arguably the ultimate horological status symbol.
Status can be a somewhat dirty word, but the Day-Date doesn’t confer wealth or social hierarchy so much as best-in-class accomplishment. The fact that it is nicknamed “the President” underscores how the Day-Date is inextricably linked to a certain air of prestige. There are plenty of fine timepieces that say “I’ve made it,” but the Day-Date is to watches what Château Lafite is to wine: an internationally recognized mark of excellence. Grand as that may sound, it has been a defining feature of the Day-Date from day one. Distinction was baked into the design.
Introduced in 1956, twelve years after Rolex pioneered the first self-winding wristwatch with a date display (the Datejust, another, humbler G.O.A.T.), the Day-Date upped the ante by—as the name implies—becoming the world’s first watch to display both the calendar date and the day of the week. While that may seem rather simple today, when grand complications are a fixture of many watchmakers’ collections, this was a significant luxury for an everyday watch. In the 1950s, the serially-produced options were either time-only or the relatively new (and relatively uncommon) date models or utilitarian tool watches. The Day-Date was took the best of all of three and combined them into one, refined design that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
From a functional standpoint, the complication was ideally suited to people with jam-packed schedules—essentially, anyone at the top of their field. This C-suite association was emphasized by the choice to exclusively produce the Day-Date in precious metal, originally either 18 karat yellow gold or platinum. Stylistically, the Day-Date spoke the same design language as the Datejust: a cyclops crystal magnifying the date display, a quintessentially mid-century “pie pan” dial, a smooth or fluted bezel.
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The one significant detail introduced by the Day-Date was what is now known as the “President” bracelet: comprised of three-part, semicircle links with alternating brushed and polished finishes. The new bracelet design essentially split the difference between the “Jubilee” and “Oyster” styles that existed in Rolex’s collection, achieving a balance of eye-catching shine and clean-lined decorum. But, for all the visual similarities between the Day-Date and previous models, the new watch was unmistakably in a league of its own. The Datejust, more widely available in steel, was an elevated workhorse watch for the everyman whereas the Day-Date was an unabashedly luxurious timepiece for an elite few.
Rolex had already begun establishing itself as a purveyor to the world’s most powerful players, having gifted Datejusts to Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower for their pivotal roles in winning World War II. At the time, Eisenhower was still a 5-star general in the U.S. military but he would continue to don his Datejust after ascending to the Presidency—one unfounded theory as to where the Day-Date got its moniker. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, actually was bestowed a Day-Date, though it never graced his wrist.
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That’s because it was a gift from Marilyn Monroe, the very same night she infamously cooed “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”. As rumors were already stirring about an affair between the President and the actress, the watch’s engraving (“JACK, with love as always, from MARILYN, May 29th 1962”) could have proved incriminating. Kennedy reportedly told an aide to “get rid of it” and the watch was never seen again—until it came up at auction in 2005, along with the original box and hand-written love note, and sold for $120,000.
It was the next American president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who brought the Day-Date to the Oval Office and cemented the watch’s nickname. The name would prove fitting: Day-Dates have been worn by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. But the watch doesn’t only appeal to political heavyweights, it’s the timepiece of choice for leaders across the spectrum from Michael Jordan and Jack Nicklaus to Jay-Z and Victoria Beckham—even the Dalai Lama. Since he first purchased one decades ago, Warren Buffett is rarely seen without his yellow gold Day-Date.
The earliest references 6510, 6511 and 6611 were only produced for a year or two (depending on the model), which makes them especially rare finds today. Still, it is the following generation of Day-Dates—the 1800 series, and specifically the ref. 1803—that are most coveted among savvy Rolex collectors. In addition to having an improved movement, this series sees the Day-Date finetuned to its most iconic design. Produced from 1960 until 1978, the 1800 series were the last Day-Dates to feature the retro pie-pan dial (named for its angled perimeter, a detail most famously seen in Omega’s Constellation).
These pieces were produced in platinum, yellow, white or rose gold—still the only materials used for the Presidential model to this day. The watch did not change much, for a mechanical point of view, except for having the movement continually upgraded to be more powerful and more reliable. Most of the Day-Date’s innovations happened on the surface. Two particularly collectible models are the ref. 18239, or Tridor, which features graphic tri-color gold stripes running down the bracelet’s central links, and the ref. 1807 with “bark” textured gold around the bezel and throughout the bracelet’s central links. Other colorful iterations feature a variety of hardstone and enamel dials, ranging from the rich green of malachite to lemon yellow and even natural woodgrain.
Such eclectic flourishes are rare in Rolex’s collection today, but the Day-Date retains its stately, thoroughly luxurious essence in contemporary models (occasionally punctuated with diamonds or colored gemstones, as this high-rolling model naturally lends itself to bling). For many Rolex aficionados, though, the quintessentially Presidential watch is yellow gold with a brushed champagne dial. After all, the Day Date’s strength has always been its purity and uncompromising embodiment of the very best — a solid gold style, through and through.