IN-DEPTH: Exploring 3 eras of the Rolex Datejust – Part 1Bruce Duguay
The clichés applied to these watches are endless: iconic, archetypal, essential … and the list goes on. What can be said about the Rolex Datejust that hasn’t already been said? Quite a bit actually when presented with the opportunity to look at a cross section of the watch’s evolution firsthand. Most Time+Tide readers will know that the Datejust model goes all the way back to 1945 and in this article we are going to look at the Datejust starting in the second half of the 20th century and continuing to present day, as the three watches we have on hand represent a combined 50 of the total 75-year Rolex Datejust history.
A Comforting Reward in 1970: The Reference 1601
By 1970, the Datejust had established itself through the post-war period as the go-to watch to celebrate middle-class success. I know from personal research that the 1601 in this particular article was gifted by the first owner’s wife to him in celebration of his retirement from a long career in the defence department of the Canadian government. Imagine if you will, a man in his mid-60s, who has served his country for decades, opening the gift-wrapped box and seeing the glint of the yellow gold fluted bezel for the first time. He most likely would not have known that the gold and stainless-steel Jubilee bracelet, despite being original, was the made-in-the-USA version which was paired with the watch head by Rolex North America to circumvent certain import tariffs on jewellery at the time.
This extra rattly USA bracelet (as they are known) is lower quality than the equivalent that came out of Switzerland at the time but now, 50 years on, it reminds us of where priorities aligned in that day and age. Watches were still an essential daily wear tool and keeping costs in check was a factor.
Upon handling the reference 1601, one notices immediately the high profile of the acrylic crystal, which abruptly rises almost comically clear above the bezel in comparison to contemporary watch crystals. By this time, the date magnifier had become de rigueur on Rolex watches and it adds even more height to this watch. This is the last Datejust that feels somewhat warm to the touch because of the relative “softness” of the acrylic crystal. I find that one of the simple joys of owning this watch comes from when I run my thumb from the side of the case, over the bezel and then up the side of the crystal, feeling the drastic stepped texture in its profile as well as the tactile differences in the materials used.
Even more warmth and subsequent texture can be found in the dial. This 1601 contains a beautiful silver-dust coloured dial with a very subtle sunburst pattern radiating from the centre hand stack. This texture is still used by Rolex today and is mesmerising with warm energy when rotated in direct lighting. Another common trait of dials from this era is the “pie-pan” configuration that has a recessed outer ring containing the lume plots and minute track. The resulting effects are a visual elevation of the applied gold hour markers and the slight magnification of the outer ring by the thickness of the crystal. All of this contributes to the interesting multi-layered visual complexity of the Datejust 1601.
Beneath all the visible layers is the relatively low-tech Rolex caliber 1570 movement, which has provided a venerable heartbeat for this watch over the last 50 years and seemingly with no end in sight. The date snaps firmly at midnight but this movement lacks the quickset date feature, so if you’ve left the watch sitting for a couple of weeks, be prepared to sit on the bedside turning the crown for several minutes to achieve the correct date.
In a world that still had the Cuban Missile Crisis relatively fresh in mind while watching the ongoing calamity of the Vietnam War, I believe it’s clear to see that the warmly reliable Datejust 1601 was a source of stability and mental escape for the original owner.
Read Part 2 right here.