Seeking out the “cheapest” Rolex watch is, like many other quests associated with the world’s most famous Swiss watch brand, a fairly challenging pursuit. Rolex does not really make “cheap” watches, though one’s definition of the term may vary according to tastes, preferences, and disposable income. Most of the time, what we’re really talking about when we talk about the cheapest Rolex watches are Rolex watches that are a.) accessible at traditional retail; b.) not subject to massive markups or painfully long wait lists; c.) a good choice for one’s first Rolex watch, i.e., entry-level in both its price point as well as its positioning within the larger Rolex collection.
Many of the most desirable Rolex models, of course, are not only relatively pricey at retail; the insanely high demand for many of them makes them nearly impossible to even find at retail. In these cases, the only options available to the prospective owner of a highly coveted Submariner, Daytona, or GMT-Master are to secure a place on a wait list that could stretch for months or even years, or to bite the bullet and acquire one on the secondary market — vintage and/or pre-owned. In the latter case, it’s likely you’ll be paying substantially more than the MSRP due to the demand-driven scarcity. (The discontinued Submariner "Smurf" edition pictured above can run you around $40,000, for example.) The good news is that Rolex does offer a variety of watches, all at a very consistent level of quality, with an MSRP that is relatively reasonable for this neighborhood of Swiss-made luxury (albeit certainly still daunting for many) and with availability, at least most of the time, from traditional authorized retailers with a minimum of fuss.
If we take the MSRP range of Rolex’s most popular and in-demand models as our base for “expensive” — starting, as per Rolex’s website, at $9,100 for a no-date Submariner in steel, $11,250 for a GMT-Master II in steel (as above), and $14,800 for a Daytona in steel (and remember, in reality you would most likely be paying a lot more for each of these, if you can even find one) — and establish that the “cheapest” Rolex watch at MSRP is a ladies’ model, the Oyster Perpetual Ref. 276200 at $5,550, that helps to define our range for “inexpensive,” starting at the baseline $5,550 and topping out at around $7,500. As you will see, there are still a handful of very intriguing watches at this echelon. Let’s dive in. But first…
A Bit of Rolex History
The most famous Swiss watch brand, it turns out, actually has its roots outside of Switzerland. U.K.-based German businessman Hans Wilsdorf (1861-1960) founded the company that would become Rolex with his partner Alfred Davis in 1905. In 1914, Wilsdorf & Davis, whose mission statement was to make reliably precise watches at affordable prices, changed its name to Rolex — a brand name that was easy to spell and to pronounce in many languages while also being short enough to fit elegantly on a watch dial. Wilsdorf moved the company to Geneva in 1920 and set about tackling the two technical challenges that would set his watches apart: making a waterproof watch case and outfitting it with a self-winding movement.
He achieved both within roughly the next decade. In 1926, Rolex launched the first Oyster case, whose innovative “two-shell” design combined a threaded, hermetically sealed caseback and a crown that screwed securely into the side of the case for a water resistance never before achieved in watches. The first Oyster watches, released that year (example above), took their name from the groundbreaking invention. The first Rolex “perpetual” movement followed in 1931. This patented, self-winding movement was distinguished by a weighted mass that wound the mainspring via the motion of the wearer’s arm, keeping the watch constantly running as long as it was being worn.
The combination of Oyster case and Perpetual movement, however, didn’t occur until 1945, which saw the debut of the first Rolex Datejust, which we'll explore in a bit more detail below. Since then, nearly all of Rolex’s most popular models have “Oyster Perpetual” inscribed among the notoriously lengthy verbiage on their dials, meaning that they offer both a high degree of waterproofness as well as automatic winding as standard features. The baseline version of the Oyster Perpetual is where we turn our attention first in this short list of Rolex watches that fall into that “most attainable” category — which is probably more accurate and more honest a descriptor than focusing on their "cheapness."
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 34 ($5,800); Oyster Perpetual 36 ($6,100); Oyster Perpetual 41 ($6,400)
The most affordable men’s Rolex watch on the market these days, and the one perhaps most geared toward everyday wear, is the basic three-hand version of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual. It’s not equipped with a rotating divers’ bezel (like the Submariner or the even more robust Sea-Dweller and Deepsea); it’s not a chronograph (like the Daytona); it doesn’t have a second time zone function with an independent hour hand and 24-hour bezel (like the GMT-Master); it doesn’t even offer the relatively simple complication of a day-of-the-week indication like the Day-Date. The Rolex Oyster Perpetual is the essence of Rolex’s sport-luxury simplicity: the clean, elegant dials are either sunray-finished or lacquered, in an impressive array of colors. Hours are marked by simple applied bar indexes, doubled at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock and treated with Rolex’s proprietary luminous material, called Chromalight, which glows bright blue in the dark. Rolex’s crown emblem indicates 12 o’clock, and the hands are similarly luminous-treated; the dial’s symmetry is uninterrupted even by a date window. The case is made of a 904L stainless steel, a highly corrosion-resistant alloy that Rolex calls “Oystersteel” (you’ll see that term used for all the models on this list) and waterproof to 100 meters thanks to its threaded screw-down caseback and the patented Twinlock screw-down crown.
The smallest version of the Oyster Perpetual, with an Oystersteel case at 34mm in diameter, is, as one would expect, the most affordable option, though it’s likely a bit too small for many men’s wrists. The 36mm model is a good size for both men and women, generally wearing a bit more understated on the former than the latter; it’s priced just a bit higher, at $6,100. For those looking for a bolder, larger-wearing watch, Rolex offers the 41mm Oyster Perpetual in steel for a premium of just $300 more. Inside the smallest model is the recently launched Caliber 2232, an in-house automatic movement with the patented Syloxi hairspring, made of silicon and boasting a high degree of resistance to magnetic fields as well as temperature variations. Both the 36mm and 41mm versions of the Oyster Perpetual are powered by another in-house Rolex movement, Caliber 3230, which is self-winding, holds a power reserve of 70 hours and is chock full of patented technologies, many of which we detail below.
Rolex Air-King ($7,450)
The Rolex Air-King, like the Datejust, traces its history all the way back to 1945 and represents a relatively high value-for-money proposition among Rolex’s Professional series of Oyster Perpetual watches. It was launched as part of a trio of timepieces called the “Air Series” that celebrated the accomplishments of Britain’s Royal Air Force in World War II, alongside the discontinued Air-Giant and Air-Tiger. The Air-King (below), the last survivor of that collection designed “to honor the pioneers of aviation,” went through a number of evolutions throughout the years. The original model’s 34mm case (considered large at the time, believe it or not), cream-colored dial and manual wind movement would eventually be replaced by the now-familiar design most recently updated in 2016: a black dial with a 60-minute scale and inverted triangle at the 12 o’clock/60-minute position (a feature of historical pilots’ watches); large 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals at their respective positions; and a retro-font “Air-King” logo slightly below center.of the “Mercedes”-style handset.
Despite being one of the oldest models in the lineup, the Air-King has long been in the shadow of other “Professional” models like the Submariner and GMT-Master, having never achieved the pop-culture cred and hence the desirability of those pieces. What the Air-King does offer, aside from its somewhat under-the-radar style of charm, is value, especially after Rolex’s revamp in 2022 that brought the Air-King more in line with its siblings in terms of outward aesthetics and interior technicity. The new case design features crown guards that increase sturdiness and echo the style of Rolex’s other Professional models. The bracelet (below) has been reimagined with new proportions, an added center link, and for the first time in an Air King model, a patented Oysterlock clasp. Rolex has balanced out the dial by adding an “05” to the minutes scale (replacing the singe-digit “5”), ensuring that each five-minute interval is now consistently marked by a two-digit numeral. The big numerals and triangle markers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock are now treated with Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight luminous substance for a long-lasting, intense glow in the dark.
Perhaps most significantly, the latest generation of the Air-King is outfitted with the in-house “Superlative Chronometer” Caliber 3230, the automatic movement also found in the Submariner. It incorporates Rolex’s patented Chronergy escapement (antimagnetic thanks to its use of nickel phosphorus in its construction) as well as the also-patented blue Parachrom hairspring (Parachrom being another antimagnetic alloy), which makes the movement’s oscillations 10 times more precise and is extraordinarily resistant to shocks. Yet another patented device, the Paraflex shock absorber, helps increase the overall shock resistance. All told, these elements add up to a superior level of power reserve (70 hours) as well as precision (-2/+2 seconds per day, beating the standards established by COSC and earning the movement the in-house chronometer certification to which Rolex has subjected all of its movements since 2015).
Rolex Explorer ($7,250 in Oystersteel)
The Rolex Explorer is known chiefly as the watch that was worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, the same year the watch debuted. The watch that Rolex actually provided for Hilary and Norgay’s mission was the “pre-Explorer” Ref. 6098, the so-called “pre-Explorer,” which contained the automatic Caliber A296 and was never produced commercially. The preceding Ref. 6150, despite not having “Explorer” printed on its dial, established the emblematic Explorer dial layout that proved to have decades worth of staying power: inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, Mercedes-style hour hand and pencil-shaped minute hand, and bar indexes at the other hour positions. Its steel case measured 36mm, like those of the watches carried on the Everest expedition.
The Explorer Ref. 1016, launched in 1963 and continuously produced until 1989, is what most Rolexophiles envision today as the classic Explorer I. That iconic model won over many enthusiasts in its many years of uninterrupted production, and is even considered by many purists to be the “real” James Bond watch — rather than the Rolex Submariner worn by Sean Connery in the early Bond movies, which usually bears that distinction. As I explore in some detail here, 007’s creator Ian Fleming wore an Explorer I and somewhat obliquely referred to some of its attributes when describing Bond’s watches in his novels.
Rolex is legendary not only for its longstanding capacity to set watch industry trends but also, perhaps even moreso, for its steadfast refusal to follow them. For the most part, Rolex watches — the Explorer being a prime example — still look essentially the same in the second decade of the 21st Century as they did in the middle of the 20th. The Explorer Ref. 124270, released in 2020, not only returned the Explorer to its classic 1953 case proportions after growing them to 39mm and 41mm during the “bigger is better” era of watches in the 2000s; similarly to the Air-King spotlighted previously, it was also the first Explorer to be outfitted with the in-house, automatic Caliber 3230, Rolex’s most optimized movement to date in terms of precision, magnetic resistance and power reserve. The dial’s now-familiar “Superlative Chronometer” claim is backed up by the movement, which has been tested to an industry-leading rate tolerance of +2/-2 seconds per day. The Oystersteel version of the Explorer carries an MSRP of $7,250, while a steel-and-yellow-gold “Rolesor” version pushes the price over the $10K barrier, to $11,750.
Rolex Lady Datejust ($6,900 in Oystersteel)
The Rolex Datejust, unveiled in 1945, was a cavalcade of firsts: it was the first Rolex watch with the now-familiar phrase “Oyster Perpetual” spelled out on the dial; the first to feature the now-ubiquitous date display at 3 o’clock; the first automatic watch with a quick-change function for that date display; and the first to be mounted on Rolex’s now-famous five-row Jubilee bracelet. In 1948, it was a Datejust that featured the first “Cyclops” lens, a bubble-shaped magnifier directly over the date aperture that enabled greater legibility of the date numeral at a glance. (Legend has it that Wilsdorf came up with the feature after his second wife lamented to him how difficult it was for her to read the date on her watch, and that the idea came to him after a droplet of water fell onto his watch’s crystal over the date window while he was washing his hands in the bathroom.) Perhaps this origin story explains how the Datejust came to be such a popular Rolex model for women as well as men. The first Lady-Datejust (below) appeared in 1957, establishing the understated and elegant case size that is still associated with the model today: originally 26mm, now (as of 2015) slightly upsized to 28mm. Like the modern versions, it featured a chronometer-rated mechanical movement.
This modestly sized timepiece, at an MSRP of $6,900 in Oystersteel and unadorned with gemstones, precious metal, or exotic minerals for the dial, is the most affordable Datejust model; the more unisex-targeted 36mm version creeps up just over our self-imposed $7,500 ceiling at an MSRP of $7,700. The entry-level Lady Datejust features more or less every desirable element found on the men’s models: an Oyster case water-resistant to 100 meters courtesy of the double-sealed Twinlock crown; an array of colorful sunray-finished dials, the Cyclops-magnified date window at 3 o’clock; and a three-link Oyster bracelet. The movement inside, accessible only via a special Rolex-developed tool that unscrews the caseback, is the in-house Caliber 2236, enhanced with the aforementioned Syloxi balance spring for optimized timekeeping efficiency and amassing a power reserve of 55 hours. The smooth bezel on this watch hearkens back to the simpler Oyster Perpetual models (which, of course, have no date window, the main factor differentiating them from the Datejust collection); the fluted bezel that most aficionados associate with Datejust watches is actually only found on the precious metal versions of the watch, which make up the majority of options within the collection, Rolex’s most diverse in terms of colors, sizes, and enhancements.
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