There’s no question that Rolex is at the top of the list of brands that hold their value in the vintage market. But how do you know what a specific Rolex is worth? Whether you’re buying or selling, you need to find out if the price you expect is within the ballpark.
As with any vintage or pre-owned watch transaction, there are a lot of factors that can affect the price, and there’s no ‘bluebook’ to look to. A new watch in pristine condition has its list price. But many would-be watch sellers who are new to the market get their dreams of making a killing crushed. They may either be focused on the full retail price they paid, or the sentimental value they’ve attached to the piece. Here, some tips on what to pay attention to when valuing a Rolex watch.
What Condition is your Rolex in?
With any watch, condition is one of the the biggest indicators of value, along with rarity, but that doesn’t mean you should immediately run to get a Rolex you want to sell polished or serviced. The trend among collectors at the moment is to cherish the ‘dings’ that reflect active wear and for a sporty watch like Rolex, that adds to the story. Over-buffing is a common practice when watches are sent back to the manufacturer for repair, so think twice. On the flip side of the coin, if you’re a buyer, be wary of a seller pushing a watch as “unpolished.” It’s known that this is desirable, but Rolex routinely polishes watches sent in for repair, so the amount of truly unpolished Rolexes is not large.
If the dial is faded or cracked, don’t despair and don’t fix it! An evenly faded brown from an originally black dial is known as ‘tropical’ and is highly desired by many collectors; cracks may be considered “spider”, which some collectors covet. Check the luminosity - a replacement hand will glow differently than its vintage counterparts.
One caveat about Rolex in particular. Some models came with an acrylic crystal and it has been the practice of some owners to replace it with actual crystal. Check this on any Rolex you’re looking at.
Cosmetics aside, missing crowns or replaced crystals may have allowed water, dust or other particles into the watch. Have it professionally checked for signs of corrosion and functionality.
We have a watchmaker in our store who can help you assess the condition of your watch and with decades of experience in the business, we can help you get the best value for your Rolex.
What is your Rolex made of?
Valuation is also greatly affected by the material of the watch. Rolex materials are very precise and distinct - they control a customized process of metallurgy. Rolex uses 950 platinum, with 950 indicating that it is 95% platinum and 5% other alloy metal, usually ruthenium. Their gold is 18 karat (75% gold) gold in yellow, white, and a pink-gold alloy they call “Everose.” The stainless steel is a 904L corrosion-resistant alloy usually reserved for airplanes.They patented the name “Rolesor” for a watch design that utilizes two metals: 18k yellow or Everose gold with 904L stainless steel. The bracelet features center links in yellow or Everose gold with outer links of stainless steel; the bezel and winding crown are yellow or Everose gold, and the middle case is stainless steel.
Rolex bezels are made in a range of materials from platinum to gold to titanium and even a proprietary ceramic that Rolex developed and patented, called Cerachrom.
What are some marks of Rolex authenticity?
This is an almost endless topic and you need to research the hallmarks of your specific model with professional help, if needed, to be absolutely certain. The caseback should be completely blank, with no logos or Rolex inscriptions. A few styles, the Rolex Milgauss, DeepSea, and SeaDweller, are engraved on the edge of the caseback but, again on these, the caseback itself is plain.
The reference number is found on the side of the case between the two lugs at 12 o’clock, the top lugs above the 12. This number will help you compare your watch with other like models. Between the lower lugs below the 6, on the side of the case, you’ll find the serial number for your watch, which can be cross-referenced to determine the date of production up to 2010. After that, Rolex randomized the serial numbers to befuddle counterfeiters. Check against online databases for your serial number: there’s no single source, unfortunately. If your serial number starts with a “44” that’s likely a service case which replaced the original, lowering the value of the piece.
A watchmaker can open the case and find the reference number and production year on the inside of the caseback. If the numbers don’t match the outside, you may still have the original watch, as long as the parts were made within a year or so of each other. Do not attempt to open your watch at home as this may cause serious damage to the movement.
The condition of the crown is essential for water resistance and is also an indication of authenticity. There are three types of Rolex crowns, each with its distinctive design. Rolex engraves: 1) the word “brevet” (French for “patented”) beneath a crown symbol, 2) a Twinlock symbol of a crown with a line under it or 3) on stainless steel watches, the Triplock symbol, a crown with three dots underneath. The Triplock crown is larger than the Twinlock. If you are looking at a Rolex that was originally made with a Twinlock but now has a Triplock, it may have been replaced by Rolex in a service or repair. If you’re shelling out for a valuable vintage Submariner, you should insist on the original crown. Otherwise, as long as the water resistance is not compromised, it’s not the end of the world.
Dial “v” for value
Rolex designs its dials with thought and precision, paying attention to the balance of dozens of tiny details. The authenticity and condition of the dial, and whether it is the original dial of the watch, are all crucial to the value of your timepiece.
Because Rolex is so popular, it’s also widely counterfeited, and ‘franken’-watched, meaning that some parts come from different Rolex watches or are not authentic Rolex parts at all. So check whether the dial is original to the model. A replacement will lower the value of the watch. Genuine Rolex dials range in materials and embellishments like diamonds and other precious stones. The mother-of-pearl (MOP) dial is a signature of Rolex craftsmanship. Some owners replace the original dial with MOP or send their watch for repair only to find the old dial with its patina from natural aging replaced by a new, less valuable, one. Recently, a very rare Rolex Submariner with the original Explorer Dial, was listed for auction with an expected sale price of close to $200,000. If the owner had replaced the dial, it would have lost 95% of its value.
Whatever the model, every Rolex dial is meticulously designed so that all of the elements harmonize. If an element seems out of proportion in some way, it should raise a red flag. The numerals and numbers are more difficult to replicate than you might imagine, so look for irregularities or poor application. Compare your watch with as many third-party references as you can find in print or online.
Any words or images (e.g., the Rolex crown, the model, “Certified Chronometer”) will be thick with very crisp edges. The characters will stick up from the dial, visible through a loupe.
For other aspects of the dial, consult a Rolex catalog. Rolex creates specific dials for specific watch models. DateJust dials can only be installed on DateJusts, Submariner dials are only fitted in Submariners, etc. Authentic “service parts” may have been used to repair the dial. Those parts may be authentic to Rolex but inappropriate for the period of the model. The material used to make the luminous dial has changed over the decades. The luminosity material can be determined by the writing under the ‘6’ on the dial: “SWISS” on an early 60s model means radium. “T Swiss T” stands for tritium, used until the late 90s. SWISS and SWISS MADE on a 2000-era model means the patented material, Luminova, “Super Luminova” and then Chromalight (in ‘08) were used. If you find an older watch with a newer dial, it means a service dial replaced the original, lowering the value.
The wrist of the story
Rolex bracelets have a lot to tell as well. The reference number for the bracelet is found on the first link between the top lugs. It will indicate whether it’s the Jubilee, Oyster or President style, and the last digit indicates the material or materials used: 0 for Stainless Steel, 1 for Yellow Gold Filled, 2 for White Gold Filled or Stainless Steel & Platinum, 3 for Stainless Steel & Yellow Gold, 4 for Stainless Steel & White Gold, 5 for Gold Shell or 18k Pink Gold or Rose Gold, 6 for Platinum, 7 for 14k Yellow Gold, 8 for 18k Yellow Gold and 9 for 18k White Gold.
The Oyster bracelet, durable and popular, is comprised of three flat links across the width; the Jubilee is a five-piece link featuring three small links between two larger outer links; the President is made of three rolled links, and is reserved for the Day-Date model and certain models of the Datejust ladies pieces.
What is the model & serial number of your Rolex and how do you find it?
The model number will be on the side of the case 12 o’clock, where the case meets the bracelet. This is your guide to the year, material, and movement of the watch. The serial number will be engraved on the opposite side of the case, at 6 o’clock. Check this against online lists.
Look for special features, too, such as double branding (when a watch is produced for a specific retailer, such as Tiffany & Co.), or any special marks that make it more collectible.
Do you have the box & papers for your Rolex?
New Rolexes come with the box and authentication papers. If you’re buying a new Rolex, hang on to them, as they will help the resale value if you ever decide to sell or trade up. Original authentication papers shortcut the process of determining the watch’s origin and value. If you’re buying a Rolex and the box and papers are presented, make sure they match the watch as described. Sadly, there’s fraud here too, so be wary of a box that’s in better condition than the vintage watch it contains or a mismatch of serial numbers.
By the way, if you wonder how much value having the original box and papers can add, watch this segment from Antiques Roadshow:
What’s the market value for your Rolex?
Rolex watches tend to stay in style and thus hold their market value better than more exotic brands that have fewer potential buyers. That said, some models are more popular than others and the materials will affect value. The hardest principle for sellers to grasp is that there is an ‘off the lot’ drop in valuation. Just like your new car, once you drive it ‘off the lot’ it will not recapture the original purchase price. The good news is that if you’re open to purchasing a vintage or pre-owned Rolex, you benefit from that drop. Pre-owned watches tend to find a market value and center on it over the years.
Final advice for finding the perfect Rolex
You’re making an investment. Take your time, research as much as you can, and be sure that the buyer or seller you work with is trustworthy. At Palisade Jewelers, we are at the heart of the of the vintage watch market and have handled thousands of Rolex sales and purchases over the years. Come into our Englewood, NJ store, bring a Rolex you want to sell or look over our large inventory of Rolex models and other fine watch brands, and talk with us about the watch you have in mind. We share your passion and are always happy to help our customers find their perfect Rolex.
“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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