Rolex Milgauss: when science meets excellence

Rolex has a rich heritage, filled with adventurous stories about watchmaking excellence. One of the most prominent chapters of the brand’s history was between 1953 and 1967, a period strongly characterized by the development of watches that served as tools, the famous “Watches of Achievers”. One of these legendary references, is the Oyster Perpetual Milgauss, launched in 1956.

Rolex ref 6541 with tropical honeycomb dial, 1958. 

The story is said to begin with a direct request from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to Rolex, for the creation of a timepiece highly resistant to significant electromagnetic fields. Up until then, a classic watch would resist up to 70-90 Gauss – the metric for magnetic flux density. Such resistance was inadequate inside the laboratories of the most cutting-edge scientific institute. Scientists had either to deal with malfunctioning watches or simply not wear a timepiece.

The solution was based, as expected, on science. Inspired by the model of a “Faraday Cage”, attributed to the physicist Michael Faraday, the movement of the watch was placed inside a protective, soft-iron shield made of ferromagnetic alloys selected by Rolex and it consisted of two components: one screwed to the movement and the other to the Oyster case. This way, the heart of the timepiece was highly protected. After thorough tests conducted by CERN scientists, it was proven that this new reference would undertake the amount of 1000 Gauss with no effect it its timekeeping accuracy. The name of this reference was directly inspired by this unique feature, “mille” the Latin word for thousand and Gauss: the legendary “Milgauss” was born with first generation references 6541 and 6543.

Rolex ref 6541 with tropical honeycomb dial, 1958. Photos of the protected mechanism.

As it is common among legends, this reference was not an instant commercial success since its uniqueness was mostly appreciated by a strong but small community of buyers. Moreover, its size of 38mm, due to the complex protection of its movement, was quite large compared to the horological taste of the men of the era. The introduction of this technological advancement though, created a hype in the 1950s and 60s among the most important watchmaking brands and shortly after the world saw similar models carrying this new anti-magnetic feature which is highly sought-after nowadays. The Milgauss is currently one of the most sought-after references ever produced by Rolex since it represents a perfect balance of rarity, aesthetics and most importantly uniqueness.

The stylistic identity of the Milgauss ref. 6541 was purely sporty, based on the codes of the early Submariner. The reference had low production numbers, due to its relatively small commercial success and highly specialized production. While the most distinguishing characteristic of this reference is the thunderbolt sweep centre second hand, it is worth to mention the rest of the features that build up its character. This reference was produced with a beautiful honeycomb dial, carrying circular hour markers in all positions apart from 3, 6 and 9 o’clock where instead we find a steel triangular marker. The “Oyster Perpetual” is found right under “Rolex” at the 12th o’clock position and right below, the “Milgauss” marked in red. Moreover, its black revolving bezel and elegant, silvered dauphine hands enhance the beauty and the sporty mentality of this nowadays perfectly sized reference.

Rolex ref 6541 with tropical honeycomb dial, 1958. Photo of the dial.

The second generation of Milgauss was introduced in the early 1960s and went under a complete makeover, compared to its predecessors. Introduced with the reference 1019, the new Milgauss would be significantly thinner although it would still carry the same protective Faraday cage. The reference would be available only steel with two differentiations in terms of dial, silver or matte black.

Rolex ref 1019 Milgauss featuring a white dial. 

It would no longer carry a rotating bezel but instead, it would showcase a sharp, smooth steel bezel. The distinguishing feature of the 6541, the thunderbolt sweep center second hand would be also replaced with a second hand featuring a distinctive red-tipped arrowhead. In both cases, the hands used for the Milgauss would never appear in any other reference of Rolex.

Rolex ref 1019 Milgauss featuring a black dial. 

In terms of auctions, a Milgauss early reference 6541 was offered by Phillips in Geneva, May 2015 and actualized a result of CHF 245,000. A reference 1019 was sold in the Phillips auction curated with John Goldberger in Hong Kong, for HK $375,000 (approx. CHF 48,000).

The Milgauss reference, is the perfect example of the pursuit of Rolex to produce timepieces able to serve a specific purpose and entice a particular audience. This purpose-centric timepiece with the high technological advancement and specialization is an important historical component that among others, defined the mythical heritage of Rolex.

Author: Luca Balella