The Rolex watch brand has maintained its value through technical innovation, development of unique metals and materials and a tight control over manufacturing, which is all done in-house. Rolex is also very secretive, even concealing facts such as how many models of one type were manufactured. As such, it can be daunting to attempt to authenticate a Rolex. Of course, if you’re buying a brand new Rolex from an authorized dealer you should have complete confidence. But with so many excellent models in the second-hand market, you may not want to pay full price. In that case, you’ve got some homework to do.
Start at the source
Rolex publishes e-brochures for many of its models. Download the brochure for the model you are looking for and study it’s characteristics. Is the bezel fluted or plain? What are the bezel markings? A GMT-Master bezel moves in both directions and has 24 hours marked on it – because a GMT is meant for world travelers who need to clock time in two places. It will also have an extra “GMT hand” which points to the time in the other zone. A Daytona has a Tachymeter for clocking time over distance. A Submariner or Sea-Dweller has a uni-directional bezel with 60 minutes marked – to time your oxygen during a dive.
Rolex varies the dial material, the bezel, the markers, the type, etc. from model to model, so it’s smart to focus on a single model you want and research online until you know what the watch should look like.
Does it have a plain caseback?
On current models the caseback of a Rolex is typically blank, without logos or inscriptions. Some styles are engraved on the edge, but the caseback itself is plain, and never transparent. The exceptions are The Sea Dweller, and some ladies’ vintage models, pre-1990.
Check the Rolex reference numbers
The reference number, specific to the model, is at the top of the case, at 12 o’clock. Look between the lugs – the protruding pieces where the bracelet attaches to the case. The serial number is between the lower lugs, at 6. This can indicate the date of production, unless the watch was made after 2010, when Rolex started randomizing serial numbers to stump fakers. There are websites that aggregate serial and reference numbers so start there. Learn the numbers of the watch you want and check for it. For example, if you want an GMT Master II, know that the model starts with 167. Of course, counterfeiters know this as well, so there’s no guarantee.
Know the Rolex Crown variations
There are 3 types of Rolex crowns. Under the “crown” logo you’ll see either “brevet” (French for patented), a straight line, or three dots. The line means it’s a Twinlock, the dots mean it’s a Triplock. Sometimes a watch will be repaired and the crown type will be mis-matched. This is only an issue if you intend to dive, in which the water resistance may be compromised.
Rolex dial differences
Rolex uses a variety of materials and embellishments.
Mother-of-pearl is a classic signature of the brand.
The “wave” Rolex dial is a recent design.
There’s a specific DateJust dial.
Sometimes dials have been changed when a watch is serviced, but that can dramatically affect its value.
Check font quality
Words and numbers on a Rolex are thick and crisp. Seen through a magnifying loupe, they will be raised slightly. If a word or letter looks worn or poorly painted, be wary.
Check the luminous dial changes
Look under the 6 on the dial for the indication of the material used to make the dial glow. In the early 60s, Rolex used radium. The dial will just say “Swiss.” A T after it means it was made up to the late 1990s of tritium. Then in the 2000’s Rolex switched to Luminova, and in 2008, to Chromalight. The later models will say SWISS or SWISS MADE.
Check the bracelet
The three most common styles of bracelet are Oyster, Jubilee and President. They come in a variety of materials from rose gold, called “Rolesor” to a proprietary Rolex 904L stainless steel.
The Oyster has three flat links like this:
The Jubiliee has 5 links, three smaller in the center between the outer, larger links:
And the President has three rolled links. The President is only on the Day-Date and some Datejust ladies watches.
The ladies’ Pearlmaster Masterpiece has a special bracelet with a large center link between two rows of smooth narrower links.
There are thousands of variations of genuine Rolex design, so the best assurance is working with an experienced and reputable dealer who can help you assess the quality of the piece you want. For more on the second-hand Rolex market, read this interview with watch expert, Ron Lieberman.
“My experience buying a pre-owned Rolex from Palisade Jewelers was perfect. I did the transaction by phone. The watch arrived, exactly as described; they gave me good, attentive service.”
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