The Rolex Chronograph You Haven't Heard Of

The Rolex Chronograph You Haven't Heard Of

If Rolex made a manually-wound flyback monopusher chronograph today, watch nerds worldwide would implode out of pure confusion. What if I told you this watch already exists? The Rolex Zerograph, sometimes designated as the Centregraph, first appeared in 1937 and was produced in remarkably small quantities: thought to be in the neighborhood of 12. In fact, the watch was never available for public sale, making it ultra collectible in today’s landscape. So, what do we know about this rare monopusher Rolex? How much is one worth? And what do we think of it?

What We Know About the Rolex Zerograph (Centregraph)

Rolex Zerograph Centregraph

The Zerograph has two known reference numbers: 3346 and 3426. Contrary to popular belief, these reference numbers don’t differentiate the Zerograph from the Centregraph; those names were used interchangeably across both reference numbers. The difference lies in the watches’ bezels.

The Rolex Zerograph (or Centregraph) reference 3346 (above, left) features a rotating 60-minute bezel with black enamel hash marks and red enamel batons. This is actually the first rotating-bezel watch that Rolex ever made. The Turn-o-Graph, Rolex’s first rotating-bezel watch available at retail, would arrive in 1953.

The Rolex Zerograph (or Centregraph) reference 3426 features a fixed bezel (above, right). I've seen examples with smooth/polished bezels, and others milled in a style very similar to the engine-turned bezels we would end up seeing on Oyster Perpetuals, Datejusts, and Air-Kings in the following decades (and similar to existing Bubble Backs).

Rolex Zerograph Movement

Image Source: Bob's Watches

Both references of the Zerograph (or Centregraph) feature a 17-jewel, manually-wound movement based on the Rolex caliber 700 (10 1/2 ligne). These movements feature flyback chronograph modules installed atop the existing caliber. Because the Zerograph was never sold to the public, and therefore never mass-produced, this movement does not have a caliber distinction (to my knowledge). To use the chronograph function, you depress the 2 o’clock pusher, at which point you’ll notice the constantly-running seconds hand fly back to zero and stay there. Upon releasing the pusher, the seconds hand will start sweeping like a traditional chronograph seconds hand, allowing you to time whatever you’d like. This style of chronograph is perfect for repeatedly timing short intervals, most often with racing.

How Much is the Rolex Zerograph/Centregraph Worth?

Because there are so few examples of these watches, the conditions of each vary greatly, leading to a wide array of outcomes at auction. Most recently at Monaco Legend Auctions on April 21st, 2024, a Rolex Centregraph ref. 3346 sold for €266,500, or about $288,600. In 2016 at Phillips, a beautiful California dial Zerograph ref. 3346 sold for CHF 389,000, or about $430,500. In 2002, a quieter and less-hyped time for watch auctions, a Rolex Zerograph ref. 3346 with an even patina and elegant, undersized Roman numerals sold for CHF 86,040, or about $95,200. Bob’s Watches purports that “[Zerographs] can fetch over a million dollars at auction”, but I can’t seem to find this outcome anywhere. 

Rolex Zerograph

What appears to be a very honest example of a white California dial Rolex Zerograph is to be auctioned on June 5th via Sotheby’s. I’m excited to see what this example brings as its dial seems to be untouched. Because these watches used radium lume, many examples saw radium burn and subsequent repainting/refinishing. Although the case has clearly been polished, this example should be a bellwether of what future discovered examples might go for. 

What Do I Think of The Rolex Zerograph?

The Rolex Zerograph (or Centregraph) is an extremely rare, very quirky watch. It’s a watch I can confidently say that I will never own, but one that I will continue to enjoy from afar. As a means to learn about the wacky world of watch auctions, I think the Zerograph is a perfect model. There are so few examples that each outcome is a lesson in watch valuation, be it condition, time period, consumer taste, etc. Therefore, I’m excited to see what this example at Sotheby’s commands this Wednesday; I’ll have my popcorn ready.

Header Image Source: Sotheby's

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