THE ROLEX COSMOGRAPH

Amongst the various complications popular in contemporary wristwatches, the chronograph offers a most practical function in a broad spectrum of situations. Unlike early pocket watch predecessors, which, in a cumbersome process, required ink to literally write an elapsed period of time onto the dial, today’s user can quickly and conveniently activate the chronograph function by the push of a button, measuring short time intervals in addition to the watch’s general purpose of permanently displaying the hours, minutes and seconds. Hence and not surprising, almost all manufacturers offer a basic chronograph or models with added complications in their catalogues. Not a chronograph pioneer, Rolex focused its energies entirely on the water-resistant ‘Oyster’ and self-winding ‘Perpetual’ models. The success of these wristwatches pushed the firm into the position of a ‘sports watch’ manufacturer and logically, Rolex presented its first chronograph in the 1930s, but rather than developing a proprietary movement in a costly process, decided on an economical, yet reliable, ‘Valjoux’ movement like most of the competitors. Offered in 3 different sizes, these watches featured uncomplicated onebutton mechanisms and let the user time one continuous event solely. For instance, the ‘Zerograph’ with reference number 3462, featured an ‘Oyster’ crown and is today an extremely sought after Rolex model. Success however, remained limited, since intermittent intervals could not be read without resetting the time, but in the late 1930s, technological advances and miniaturization permitted producing two-button chronographs. A key breakthrough and consequently, a watch could be stopped during timing and then restarted, where timing left off. During subsequent decades, a distinctive Rolex style evolved gradually and the company continued using hand-wound ‘Valjoux’ movements, first the ‘23’, then the ‘72’ and later the ‘727’ caliber. In 1949, Ref. 5034 finally became the first Rolex chronograph featuring the signature ‘Oyster’ case in combination with 3 round buttons to operate the start, stop and reset functions, made in only 12 yellow gold and 12 pink gold versions. Over time, Ref. 5034 evolved into model 6034, which became Ref. 6234, before it turned into model 6238, the so-called ‘Pre-Daytona’ chronograph with “Valjoux 72’ movement. Finally in 1960, Rolex decided on a major facelift for its chronograph line and the ‘Cosmograph’ wristwatch emerged as a model 6239, derived from the ‘Antimagnetic’ line. After ‘World War II’, optimistic America had enjoyed an economic boom and the nation’s automobile manufactures started producing powerful and extremely thirsty V6 or V8 engines. The horsepower race received a further boost, when in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ‘Highway Trust Fund Act’ marked the beginning of building a net of interstate highways across the country. As automobile designers looked to the skies, sketching cars with gigantic fins like the 1957 ‘Chevrolet Bel Air’, car racing turned into a major sports attraction. Daytona Beach in Florida was location of one of the biggest races in automotive history and the racing community embraced chronograph watches as useful tools in calculating average lap speed. In 1961, Rolex released a similar model to Ref. 6239, the 6241 and soon, both wristwatches became known as ‘Daytona’ watches, ever growing in popularity since. Initially, Rolex offered a choice of dial configurations and one particular one, the ‘exotic dial’, is known today as the ‘Paul Newman’, a term never used officially by Rolex. Such dials featured either cream (with black registers) or black (with white registers) colors and within each totalisator square markers. These manually wound chronographs had stainless steel non- ‘Oyster’ cases, non-screwed-down round pushers with internal gaskets as their sole sealing mechanism and 6 mm. large ‘Twinlock’ crowns. Quickly, they were in great demand, principally amongst Italian watch aficionados. (Interestingly, movie star Paul Newman doesn’t remember wearing a Rolex ‘Daytona’ in the famous film ‘Winning’ and his first ‘Daytona’ wristwatch, which appears being a Ref. 6263, was a gift from wife Joanne Woodward, when Newman started a professional racing career in 1972).
Major change occurred in the late 1970s, when Rolex introduced reference number 6263, the first ‘Cosmograph’ with water-resistant pushbuttons, which prevented users pressing the pushers whilst submerged in water and the locking feature prohibited inadvertent chronograph activation as well. Ref. 6263 was water-resistant to 50 meters, but during a 10 year period its depth rating increased to 100 meters. Unusual fact, caliber quality depended on the case material and movements in stainless steel chronographs were not timed to chronometer standards, a privilege reserved exclusively for the 18K gold versions. In 1988, Rolex released a new incarnation of its success model and a red ‘Daytona’ print graced the novelty’s dial. The firm abandoned the ‘Valjoux’ workhorse in favor of an automatic Zenith ‘400/El Primero’ caliber with excellent reputation, an integrated mechanical movement with column wheel governing all chronograph functions. Rolex modified this engine and named it Cal. 4030, amongst the changes a lower frequency of 28,800 hourly vibrations instead of 36,000 and of course, a free-sprung ‘Microstella’ balance. The stainlesssteel ‘Daytona’, Ref. 16520, turned into one of the most popular, yet hardest to get chronographs on the market and limited production quantities indicated that the Geneva manufacturer played expertly the marketing game and understood precisely, how to nourish this officially certified chronometer, which by now was an iconic classic. Versions in 18K yellow gold (1991) or in a steel/gold combination (1992) followed and concurrently in the collector’s market, prices for high-quality vintage ‘Cosmograph’ models began skyrocketing as American and Japanese watch aficionados caught on. Since horology’s victorious mid-1980s renaissance, collectors’ tastes have diversified and the Swiss watch industry undertook transformation: As a result, increasing numbers of manufacturers decided creating exclusive high-end movements and the use of ‘Zenith’ calibers in Rolex chronographs was met with snobbish attitudes. Thus and for strategic reasons (decreasing its dependency on suppliers), Rolex’s latest addition to the ‘Daytona’ whirl was launched at the 2000 Basel fair, denominated with reference number 116520 and powered by Cal. 4130, a brand-new and entirely different horological motorization developed by Rolex, which replaced the proven Zenith ‘El Primero’-based caliber, thus ending an over decade-old association. The replacement was definitely more exclusive, comprised lesser components than conventional chronograph calibers and according to company watchmakers also more economical to service, although the ‘Daytona’ model changed little in visual appearance. In 1995 Paul Newman, the world-famous film actor won the ‘GT1 Class’ competition in the Rolex ‘24 Hours of Daytona’ race. The champion was presented with a white-dialed ‘Cosmograph Daytona’ chronometer, Ref. 16520 in stainless steel and his reward featured a case back engraving: ‘Rolex 24 H. at Daytona – Paul Newman – Rolex Motorsport’s Man of the Year – 1995′. In his usual fashion, the generous movie star donated this commemorative wristwatch to Antiquorum’s ‘Famous Faces’ New York charity auction in 1999: After fierce bidding, when the gavel fell, this symbol of celebrity plus Rolex memorabilia far exceeded its pre-auction estimate and sold for astounding $39,000. In retrospect and over the years, the ‘Cosmograph’ developed in typical Rolex fashion with moderate short-term improvements, yet significant advances in the long run, including optimization of the steel and precious metal bracelets or an increase in the model’s water-resistance. Today, the ‘Cosmograph Daytona’ chronometer chronograph with its tachometer-engraved bezel, particularly in the stainless steel version, is a wristwatch in its own class: A rare trophy awarded to the accomplished sportsman, coveted collectible to the Rolex enthusiast and object of desire.
The reference 3055 was first released in the 1930s with olive button chronograph and it was thereafter re-launched in the 1950s with the same reference and square button chronograph. In period advertising for this reference Rolex proclaimed it as the smallest chronograph in the world. It was available in stainless steel at a cost of 1,025 Lire or in 18K yellow or pink gold for 2,000 Lire. In the same advertisement a Rolex 18K gold chronograph pocket watch was priced at 1,920 Lire

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  1. Jason says:

    Can you tell me about the watch pictured? I have one almost identical except the bezel goes to 300 and the “units per hour” is at 1 to 2 o’clock. What is the model number? Is it pre daytona?

    Thanks for any info.