Rolex Cosmograph Daytona: The birth of a legend
For Rolex, a watch does not simply tell time. For at least a decade in the mid-20th century, the brand escaped from the norm that wanted timepieces to host precise branded movements carefully embraced by fine materials. Instead, it directed its know-how into creating practical watches. Following the thirst of humanity for innovation, Rolex developed “tool watches” instead of trophy timepieces. Each model produced during this time had a superior need to serve. One would expect that these watches would become a niche knowledge among the few that used their individual functions. Under the patronage of Rolex though, a marketing pioneer, the opposite happened. Each tool watch, acquired a “cool factor”. Sportsmen, scientists and explorers transmitted their extreme levels of passion in each model, fueling the need of people for a piece of everyday adventure. This is exactly how the greatest and most coveted watch of all times was born: the Rolex Daytona. From the transmitted passion of Formula 1 drivers.
Rolex reference 6239 in steel, retailed by Tiffany & Co. Discover more at onlyvintage.com
The original inspiration for this new chronograph was the LeMans race or else the “Grand Prix of speed and endurance”, an annual racing concept that began in 1923 and finds its roots in northern France. Although early advertisements from 1963 use LeMans to target their audience, soon this idea was abandoned. At this time, Rolex was dynamically entering the US market, sponsoring the Daytona 24-hour race and consequently, a year after its introduction, the watch appeared for the first time next to the legendary “Daytona” name.
Chronographs were and still are an important chapter for Rolex. Since the 1930s, the brand had developed different chronograph models that steadily evolved through design, shapes and movements. The general stylistic identity that Rolex had conceived for their top chronograph was almost ready with the introduction of the reference 6238 in 1960. In fact, the “Pre-Daytona” as it is affectionately called, was the futuristic bridge that connected old-school style with modern designs. Nevertheless, it was not until the reference 6239, the legendary Daytona, that modernity was officially established. What made this watch so unique and successful compared to previous models was the design that was ahead of its time, further enhanced by two simple but defining characteristics. First, the tachymeter scale, the function of calculating average speed, appeared for the first time on the bezel. Second, Rolex decided to use inverse colors for the subdials, always in a black and white pattern. Both traits were the result of the effort of Rolex to make the dial more readable.
Throughout its overall production, scholars categorize the reference 6239 in 3 phases. The first phase or first series, lasted only one year and as expected, it is the rarest. Rolex was still experimenting on the details of the watch and produced some examples with the following –nowadays much coveted- characteristics, which are particularly rare to be found under one “roof”. Starting with the bezel, we find it numbered up to 300 with a 275 mark between 300 and 250. It is hashed all around, specifically with 1 space between 60 and 120, 2 spaces between 120 and 150 and finally intermediate hashes for 225, 250 and 275. There is the engraving “Unit per hour” or the upper right part of the bezel, a common characteristic also with the second phase of the reference. Moving to the dial, we find the sought-after double-Swiss imprint at the 6 o’clock position. Rolex used already-made dials that were smaller compared to the size of the bezel mounted on the watch. Inevitably, they had to print each one of them one more time in order to correctly place the country of origin. In addition to the double-Swiss, we notice that there is no “Daytona” or in fact any other model name imprinted on the dial apart from “Cosmograph”. An absence that seems quite right, given the fact the Rolex officiated the name one year later, in 1964. Another interesting trait of the first series 6239 is that it often – but not always- appears with an underline under “Cosmograph”, most probably stating the transitional dials from radium to tritium. Lastly, a first series 6239 Daytona from 1963 would have a mismatching caseback from the previous batch of production, the reference 6238. Inserting into the general characteristics, the serial numbers that one should be looking for are around 923.000. The movement of such examples is powered by the Valjoux-based 72 or in Rolex language 72b.
Rolex reference 6239 Underline Double Swiss in steel, Onlyvintage.
The second series of the Rolex Daytona 6239 started around 1964. The bezel is still numbered up to 300 but there is no intermediary 275, instead only 250. In fact, Rolex would produce bezels with 300 scale until 1967, after which it dropped to 200. Contrary to the 1963 examples this time the majority of 6239 are mirror-polished, making the few satin-finished very rare nowadays. The dial, undergoes too through some changes too. There is no double-Swiss print, instead the new T-Swiss-T appears on the bottom 6th o’clock position. Last, the white dial would now acquire a white soleil finish, compared to the white argenté mat effect from the first phase.
The third and final series of the 6239 would see the bezel marked for the first time up until 200 and the Unit per hour on the far right portion. With serial numbers starting from around 1.080.00 We still find the Rolex Cosmograph on the top and the name Daytona appears right under, at first in the American market and soon, fused to the rest of the world. It is important to mention that from its introduction, the writing of Daytona on the dial would undergo many modifications in terms of size. Its first appearance was shy and subtle, with the Daytona name being placed in a small font under the Cosmograph at the 12 o’clock position, nicknaming it the “floating Daytona”.
Rolex reference 6239 “Floating Daytona”, Onlyvintage.
Later on, it would appear in the same position but more confident, with a substantially larger font, only to find its final spot on the dial few years later: curved above the 6 o’clock subdial. We also find a variation in terms of color, since there are a few but much coveted examples featuring the “Cherry Logo”, the curved Daytona in red which Rolex did not establish up until later with the references 6263 and 6265.
Rolex reference 6239 “Cherry Logo”.
The reference 6239 was produced mainly in stainless steel. From an overall production run of 14.000 examples, only 300 were approximately cased in 14k and 18k yellow gold. During this time, apart from the variations of the classic 6239 the watchmaking world welcomed the birth of another legend, or better legend within a legend. Around 1967, Rolex was in a “marketing” search for a more appealing dial. After careful consideration, a new kind of dial was created, carrying an inverse colored chapter ring that matched the subdials of the watch. Available with either two colors, black-white or three-colored black-white with red second scales, these examples were born to write history. Being the favorite example of the actor and racecar driver Paul Newman, this type of dial was seen on his wrist multiple times when he participated in races. In the 1980s, Italian collectors honored Paul Newman and his choice of watch by affectionately nicknaming this variation the “Paul Newman” dial.
Rolex reference 6239 “Paul Newman”. Discover more at onlyvintage.com
Although these examples are some of the most coveted collection pieces nowadays, back in the time they were introduced they did not meet wide public acceptance which resulted in low production numbers or else, the dream of every watch collector today. Finally, the last and rarest variation of the 6239 is the “Doctor” or medical Daytona 6239. It is said that approximately 10 examples are known to exist. Carrying a pulsation scale in addition to the tachymeter scale, this example was targeted to the medical community and it enabled professionals to calculate the heartbeat based on the additional scale on the dial. Due to its niche nature, this variation did not meet public acceptance and collectors nowadays enjoy its rarity.
Auction results provide us with the pulse of the market for such timepiece. On Thursday 26, 2017 history was made in the auction room of Phillips: Winning Icons of the 20th Century in New York. With an opening offer of $ 10.000.000, the “Paul Newman” ref. 6239 originally owned by Paul Newman himself, was finally sold for the sensational amount of $ 17,752,500 breaking the record of the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at an auction. The previous record was held by a Patek Philippe reference 1518 in steel. The present timepiece was the first and only “exotic” dial Daytona Paul Newman wore making it the ultimate Rolex Daytona wristwatch.
Rolex reference 6239 “Paul Newman” in stainless steel circa 1968. Discover more at phillips.com
Phillips has also sold a first series 6239 with brown registers along with all correct characteristics from the year 1963, to double-Swiss, Underline 275 mark and 6238 caseback, for 310.000 CHF (approx. 272.000 euros) in Geneva, November 2016. A coveted Paul Newman 6239 from 1968 in stainless steel, triple color, bearing the Linz Brothers signature on the dial, was sold for CHF 874.000 (approx. 766.500 euros). Last but not least, an exceedingly rare 6239 fitted with a pulsometer scale was sold in Geneva, May 2016 for CHF 1.085.000 (approx. 951.600 euros).
From the left to the right:
Rolex reference 6239 “Underline Double Swiss” with tropical subsidiary dials, circa 1963. Discover more at phillips.com
Rolex reference 6239 “Paul Newman” in stainless steel, circa 1968, retailed by Linz Brothers, Dallas. Discover more at phillips.com
Rolex reference 6239 in stainless steel “The Doctor”, circa 1966. Discover more at phillips.com
The Rolex Daytona reference 6239 encapsulates all the values and reasons behind the birth of the industry of watch collecting. Each example offers distinguishing characteristics, each phase that this reference went through mirrors the thinking of Rolex officials and their pursuit to create an icon. This watch, opened a new chapter for Rolex and a new door for the watchmaking industry. It was loved and endorsed by famous personalities and we can think of no better example that could support the saying “New is good. Legendary is better”.
Author: Luca Balella