The Increasing Appeal of 5-Digit Rolex Sports Watches

5-Digit Rolex Sports Watches

Although Rolex has more-or-less been producing the same models for multiple decades, the watches themselves have continuously been evolving over the years. While the reference numbers themselves define each individual variation of a model, the generations of each watch are often classified by the number of digits in their reference number. Over the years, Rolex has added digits to its reference number system, and while the earliest models featured 4-digit numbers, the current catalog of models all have 6-digit reference numbers, with some even having an additional series of letters added to the end as a way to help distinguish things like bezel style and gem-setting.

We have firmly been within the era of 6-digit Rolex sports watches for well over a decade now, and we are even in our second or third series of most of them. While there is always going to be a certain degree of appeal in having the latest and greatest sports watch from Rolex, the novelty of the updates first introduced by the 6-digit generation has largely run its course. Features such as super cases, maxi dials, and Cerachrom ceramic bezels, are now the standard for Rolex’s various sports models, and as collectors seek to find something a bit different than what is most frequently spotted on people’s wrists these days, there seems to be a growing interest in the older 5-digit Rolex sports watches.

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16710 Pepsi

When Old Becomes Classic

One of the things I learned from owning my first car back in high school is that there is a huge difference between old and classic. When people heard I had an “older” Ford Mustang, they automatically assumed I had one of the classic models from the 1960s or 1970s. In reality, I had a 1998 model that I had found on Craigslist and purchased for $2,500 from a Ukrainian man who needed to sell it in a hurry before returning to his home country. When an item is just a little bit older than the current generation, it is often regarded as being “last year’s model” but once it reaches a certain age, it becomes different enough from its contemporary counterparts that it can end up being categorized as a classic.

The Rolex Daytona has had a 6-digit reference number for over twenty years, both the Submariner and GMT-Master II are now in their second series with ceramic bezels, and even the Explorer II has had a case diameter of 42mm for over a decade. The novelty of the 6-digit generation of Rolex sports watches is largely over, and most of the current-production range will be familiar to anyone who has been following the brand over the course of the last decade. With that in mind, the last aluminum bezels left Rolex’s catalog over ten years ago, and for the person who wants a Rolex sports watch with a different aesthetic from what is available today, models from the older 5-digit generation offer a highly compelling alternative.

Rolex Explorer II ref. 16570 watches

Vintage Details with Modern Durability  

Another alternative to the current-production lineup of Rolex sports watches is to opt for a true vintage model. While vintage Rolex watches will certainly offer an overall look and feel that is different from what is available within the modern range, vintage watches can also require a little more care when it comes to maintenance and ownership. In addition to the fact that certain discontinued components on vintage watches can be incredibly difficult to find or expensive to replace, the amount of wear and tear on some watches will mean that certain things like timekeeping or water resistance may not be up to their original standards. Additionally, the materials themselves will be less advanced than their modern siblings, and certain things like acrylic crystals and aluminum bezel inserts are far more easy to scratch than their contemporary sapphire or ceramic counterparts.

With that in mind, the 5-digit Rolex sports watches represent a happy medium, where they offer a lot of the same modern conveniences as their contemporary successors, while still offering a distinctly older overall appearance. Although the 5-digit models all have scratch-resistant sapphire crystals and water resistance ratings that are in-line with their modern siblings, they also offer a number of inherently retro features such as aluminum bezel inserts and cases with drilled lug holes. Plus, you can even find older examples that still have their original tritium dials and handsets. 

On top of that, the older 5-digit Rolex watches will also offer a number of other discontinued features such as Zenith movements in the Daytona, 40mm cases for the Explorer II, and red and black “Coke” bezel inserts for the stainless steel GMT-Master II watches. With the exception of worrying about accidentally scratching your aluminum bezel insert, 5-digit Rolex sports watches offer much of the same care-free ownership experience provided by modern Rolex watches, yet they also offer an aesthetic that arguably has more in common with their vintage siblings than the versions that Rolex produces today.  

Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16760 Coke

The Most Affordable Rolex Sports Watches

Arguably the best thing about 5-digit Rolex sports watches is that they are only just now starting to make the transition from being considered “old” to encroaching upon the “classic” side of things. Vintage Rolex sports watches are universally considered classics, and the vast majority of them are significantly more expensive than their current-production siblings. However, since many of the 5-digit models are only just now starting to cross that line into what could arguably be considered vintage territory, they are typically some of the absolute least expensive Rolex sports models that are currently available.

It’s a known fact that Rolex’s sports watches aren’t available at a retail level without spending at least some amount of time on a waiting list, and when you look at what’s available on the secondary market, it is consistently the 5-digit sports models that are the least expensive from their respective collections. Within the Rolex Submariner lineup, the 5-digit models are a minimum of $2,000 to $3,000 less than the entry-price of their ceramic bezel successors, and a similar savings can be found when looking at both the GMT-Master II and Explorer II collections. From a strictly value-based standpoint, these 5-digit Rolex sports watches are incredibly appealing to price-conscious buyers, but as Rolex’s design language continues to evolve and move forward, these older 5-digit models now represent a classic style that has not been offered by Rolex for more than a decade.

Just like cars, it is often the Rolex sports models from the 1990s and early 2000s that are the least expensive to purchase today. However, unlike cars that have their designs updated each year to suit an ever-evolving landscape of consumer preferences, Rolex watches are known for their timeless designs that endure throughout the generations, without ever looking truly outdated. When the first of the 6-digit series Rolex sports watches appeared with their high-tech ceramic bezels, the older 5-digit models looked slightly behind the times for a brief moment. However, now that we are well into our second decade of ceramic bezel sports watches, it is actually the older 5-digit Rolex sports models that now offer a certain novel degree of retro styling, and that also happen to be some of the most affordable options currently available.

Looking for a new strap for your Rolex watch? Shop our full collection right here.

*All images courtesy of Bob’s Watches

Rolex Submariner ref. 14060

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