The words, “vintage Rolex” are most frequently associated with rare and unattainable grail pieces, and it’s hardly a secret that the majority of the world’s most expensive Rolex watches are all highly-collectible vintage models. With that in mind, record-setting auction results represent only one extreme side of the current vintage Rolex market, and in addition to being some of the absolute most expensive Rolex watches available, vintage models also represent some of the most affordable.
It’s easy to get excited when we hear that some vintage Rolex model sold for more than the price of a vacation home in the tropics. However, there is also a ton of enjoyment to be had at the total opposite end of the price spectrum, where you can get your hands on a true classic from Rolex’s archives for less than the retail price of the brand’s least expensive current-production watch. For everyone who wants a vintage Rolex but doesn’t want to spend a fortune on one, here are a few of the least expensive options currently available.
Rolex Datejust 1601
The Datejust is often considered to be the quintessential Rolex watch, and even though it is one of the brand’s most famous and recognizable models, it consistently ranks among the most affordable Rolex watches currently available - especially when it comes to the vintage market. Produced from the end of the 1950s until the late 1970s, the reference 1601 is an unmistakably vintage timepiece that features all of the hallmark traits of the Datejust collection, and it is often the first watch that comes to mind whenever anyone thinks of a Rolex Datejust built during the pre-quartz era.
The reference 1601 is a 36mm non-quickset Datejust that is fitted with a fluted bezel, but you will find examples in solid 18k gold, Yellow Rolesor (two-tone), and White Rolesor (stainless steel with a white gold bezel). Inherently vintage design elements such as a “pie-pan” dial and acrylic crystal lend themselves to a decidedly vintage overall appearance, yet the ref. 1601 remains instantly recognizable as one of Rolex’s signature calendar wristwatches. The best part about the Rolex Datejust 1601 is that you can often find examples for anywhere between $4,000 and $6,000 on the secondary market (as of April 2022) - and that is significantly less than what Rolex charges for a brand-new Datejust 36 with a fluted bezel when purchased brand-new at retail.
Rolex Air-King 5500
Whenever someone asks for a recommendation on a budget-friendly vintage Rolex, generally the first words out of my mouth are “how about the reference 5500 Air-King?” Launched in 1958 and remaining in production until the end of the 1980s, the reference 5500 holds the distinction of being the very first Air-King that was released once Rolex decided to make the model its own collection of self-winding watches. With a 34mm case, a smooth bezel, and a clean time-only dial, the Air-King 5500 offers a truly classic appearance, yet at any given time, it is also one of the absolute most affordable full-size Rolex models available - either modern or vintage.
On the secondary market, most reference 5500 Air-King watches are priced anywhere between $3,800 and $5,500 (as of April 2022), and examples can be found with a variety of different dials, hands, and bracelets. Additionally, while the Air-King 5500 is immediately identifiable as a Rolex watch and features the brand’s two signature innovations - a durable Oyster case and a self-winding Perpetual movement - it also includes a number of design elements that you will not find on any current-production models, such as an acrylic crystal, drilled lug holes, tritium lume, and a non-chronometer certified movement. Years ago, the Rolex Air-King 5500 was actually the watch that I purchased as my first vintage Rolex, and although prices for them keep going up each year, it still remains one of the best possible options for an affordable Rolex watch under the $5k price point.
Rolex Oysterdate 6694
Many times, collectors seek out vintage Rolex references because they offer features and design elements that cannot be found among the brand’s contemporary models. In the case of the Rolex Oysterdate, not only does it offer inherently vintage design details such as an acrylic crystal and tritium lume, but it also features a manual-wind movement. Produced from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, the reference 6694 represents the final evolution of the full-size Oysterdate and it holds the distinction of being Rolex’s very last manually-wound watch with an Oyster case.
Just like the Rolex Air-King 5500 that was produced during the same era, the Rolex Oysterdate 6694 features a 34mm stainless steel case fitted with a smooth bezel, acrylic crystal, and non-chronometer movement. However, unlike the Air-King, the Oysterdate also includes a date display at the 3 o’clock location, and due to its thinner manual-wind movement, the ref. 6694 also features a slimmer case with a flatter caseback. Prices for the reference 6694 Oysterdate are very similar to Air-King watches from the same era, with most available examples priced somewhere in the range of $3,500 to $5,000 (as of April 2022). While it may lack the convenience of an automatic movement, the Rolex Oysterdate 6694 offers an authentic vintage ownership experience due to its manual-wind caliber, and it also happens to be one of the most affordable vintage Rolex watches currently available.
BONUS: Any Vintage Rolex Cellini
All Rolex Cellini watches are made from either solid gold or platinum, so they will likely never be the flat-out least expensive options available. However, due to the fact that the entire Cellini collection is often considered to be the forgotten corner of Rolex’s catalog, you can often find older examples of the brand’s dedicated line of dress watches for shockingly affordable prices.
A budget of $6,000 opens up the doors to a variety of different models from the Rolex’s archives, and despite being made from solid 18k gold, many vintage Cellini watches can be found for prices that rival those of some of the brand’s most humble stainless steel models. In this case, there isn’t just one vintage Cellini reference worth considering and nearly all older Rolex Cellini watches make excellent value propositions, with some ranking among the most affordable vintage Rolex watches out there.
*All images courtesy of Bob’s Watches.