The Rolex Daytona Is the Most Expensive Wristwatch Ever Sold. What Makes It So Valuable?

Reading about watches can often feel like cracking open a textbook. Browsing—and even buying—means being barraged with inscrutable words and phrases like ”tourbillons,” “perpetual calendars,” “minute repeaters,” and so on. So here, we’ll be breaking down the meaning, history, and importance of different watch terms. Welcome to GQ’s Watch Glossary.

In 1975, James Dowling, now a Rolex historian who authored a book about the brand, went to buy his very first proper watch. He had his eyes on a GMT, the aviation-inspired timepiece with a slick dual-colored dial. Before he handed his credit card over to the salesman, though, he asked if he could get a discount if he paid cash. “Rolex never offers discounts,” the salesman said, according to Dowling. That is, unless he wanted to buy the brand’s Cosmograph Daytona model, in which case they’d be willing to offer him one at twenty percent off. The savings weren’t worth settling for the Daytona, though. As Dowling tells it, Rolex watches in the early ‘60s, when the Daytona launched, could be counted on to display the date, dip underwater without breaking, and wind themselves automatically. The Daytona didn’t check any of those boxes.

Forty years later, the Rolex Daytona is one of the most-wanted models on the planet. What happened?

Watches like the Daytona are classified by Rolex as “professional” timepieces: they serve some purpose, and are made with niche communities in mind. The Submariner was made for the diver, the Explorer for great outdoorsman, and the GMT for pilots and businessmen who frequently made use of those pilots’ services. The Daytona went after racecar drivers, with a chronograph (stopwatch) feature drivers could use to time their laps. On Rolex’s website, the brand writes of its precision timing: “the Daytona is a watch for winners.” That’s true in a literal sense: the watch is literally a prize for first-place finishers in the 24 Hours of Daytona and France’s Le Mans, both 24-hour races.

Rolex introduced the Daytona in 1963, in hopes of competing with Omega’s Speedmaster and capturing racing fans. The name is borrowed directly from arguably the most famous race in the world, the Daytona 500. And throwing the watch in with the trophy was a sleek bit of marketing: a way for Rolex to smartly associate itself with victors, the same way it gives its watches to climbers who mount Everest or swimmers who cross the English channel. Even though racing and Nascar don’t have the same high-society image it once did when the Daytona (the watch) was first introduced, the association still pays dividends today.

A Singapore-based Daytona collector who goes by Ron K tells me that before watches, he fell hard for cars. “I made a lot of money from the stock market, so I bought my first Ferrari when I was 30 years old,” Ron says. “Since then I had this penchant for cars, especially the Ferraris. Why? Because the Ferrarris have this aerodynamic curvy shape.” Ron found the same elegant shape on the Daytona and has amassed seven of them over his lifetime. “It has this magical appeal and mystic feel that makes me look very special,” he says of the Daytonas.

The Daytona’s most important association isn’t with the sport of racing itself but one particularly famous actor-turned-racer named Paul Newman. The story goes that once Newman started seriously racing his wife went to Tiffany & Co and bought a Daytona with a black-and-white “Exotic” dial. The two-tone dial became so closely associated with the Hollywood legend that collectors started referring to those models as Paul Newman Daytonas. When Paul Newman’s myth-making Paul Newman went up for auction in 2017, it became the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at $17.8 million.

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