In a fateful three-decade span, a succession of popular Rolex watches for men (mostly) were developed that massively influenced the luxury watch world as we know it today. Although the original manual-wind Oysters from 1926 were available in women’s sizes, the famous “Bubblebacks” were almost all men’s models. The Datejust, GMT-Master, Submariner and Day-Date were all on the market by 1955 and remain some of the most popular men’s Rolex watches today.
Most Popular Rolex Watches for Men
The Rolex Submariner, GMT-Master II, and Daytona generally get the most love from collectors, but all of Rolex’s sports models are popular. However, the watch with the strongest mainstream demand right now is probably the entry-level Rolex, the Oyster Perpetual–largely because there is simply far more demand for $6,000 watches than $15,000 watches.
Historically, the Rolex watch men actually buy the most is probably the Datejust. Both the Datejust 36 and Datejust 41 are popular Rolex watches for men, and Rolex makes them in high volumes. You can certainly expect a shorter time on the Rolex waitlist for a Datejust 36 than for a GMT-Master II, for instance.
Rolex Men’s Watches: A Timeline
1908 – Rolex is founded, when wristwatches were still unpopular with men. Before 1920, Rolex mostly made dainty ladies’ dress watches, and also some officer’s watches. Early Rolex watches were assembled almost entirely from parts made by third-party suppliers. Rolex’s founder Hans Wilsdorf was an importer-exporter, not a watchmaker, by trade.
1926 – Rolex’s most important watch, the Oyster, debuts. Although Rolex had attempted to make a waterproof watch in 1922 with the Submarine (a.k.a. “Aqua”), the Oyster was the first waterproof watch without leather gaskets (but not the first waterproof watch overall).
1933 – The Oyster Perpetual hits the market with an automatic rotor. These early automatic Rolex Oyster models are known as “Bubblebacks” because the casebacks are curved outward to accommodate the rotor. Manual-wind men’s Rolex Oysters, sometimes called “Flatbacks,” remain common in this era.
1935 – While wearing a Rolex, Sir Malcolm Campbell breaks the 300mph land barrier, and also becomes the first man to officially endorse Rolex. Rolex would release three models to commemorate this feat: Campbell, Speed, and Speedking. Only Speedking stuck around, and remained (along with the Oyster Royal) Rolex’s entry-level manual-wind men’s model for decades. Keep in mind that until the 1950’s, men’s Rolex watch diameters were typically about 30-32mm, as was the norm at the time.
1945 – The Rolex Datejust debuts. The now-iconic cyclops date magnifier would become standard by 1953. The Datejust, often configured with a fluted bezel and Jubilee bracelet, is arguably the most iconic Rolex ever made, and almost certainly the best-selling.
Mid-1950’s – The Rolex Submariner, GMT-Master, and Day-Date all make their first appearances, completely reshaping the catalog and trajectory of Rolex. The Day-Date was an immediate success but “Professional” models like the Submariner and GMT-Master didn’t become mainstream for many years. In the 1950’s Rolex still lagged behind Omega in sales and probably assumed various types of Oyster Perpetuals and Datejusts would remain their bread and butter. 34mm became the typical men’s Rolex watch size in this era. Day-Dates and Datejusts were fairly large for their day at 36mm.
1963 – The Cosmograph Daytona debuts with a manual-wind Valjoux movement and a 37.5mm diameter. This was a response to Omega’s popular Speedmaster. Rolex had made many chronograph references before, but this was their first with a tachymeter bezel.
1964 – The Gérald Genta-designed King Midas, crafted from a “single gold ingot,” becomes the first Rolex with a sapphire crystal, and also the first modern watch with an “integrated bracelet” as we know it today. This watch is arguably the spiritual predecessor to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
1968 – Rolex’s dress watch lineup, Cellini, launches. Rolex would make various thin gold manual-wind dress watches under the “Cellini” moniker for decades, and while some are quite attractive, they get far less attention from collectors than Rolex Oyster models.
1980’s – Everything starts to get sapphire crystals in the Rolex lineup. Lots of exotic gold models are released as part of the “Crown Collection” in this era. In 1988, an automatic 40mm Daytona with a Zenith movement replaces the original generation.
1992 – The first Yacht-Master enters the lineup in solid gold only at first, with a prominent rotating large-typeface bezel. Steel versions, with platinum bezels and dials, would appear a few years later.
1998-1999 – Non-radioactive Luminova lume replaces tritium. Aside from that, Rolex didn’t shake their catalog up much in the 1990’s.
2007-2009 – The “bigger Rolex” era begins with the Yacht-Master II, a 44mm underappreciated beast with a bezel-controlled ten-minute countdown timer–arguably Rolex’s most impressive complication yet at the time. The Deepsea Sea-Dweller, also 44mm, debuts with a water resistance of 3,900 meters. Meanwhile, for the first time Rolex upsizes their classic Day-Date and Datejust lineups with the 41mm Datejust II and Day-Date II.
2012 – The Sky-Dweller is Rolex’s innovative take on an annual calendar watch. The month is indicated simply by a colored window next to the appropriate hour marker, and the patented Ring Command Bezel makes it easy to set the time, date and month. Straddling the line of dressy and sporty, the Sky-Dweller has a 42mm case that wears large.
2014-2022 – Rolex’s 39mm automatic Cellini models are a fairly short-lived attempt to reinvigorate Rolex’s oft-overlooked dress watch brand. The moonphase model, ref. 50535, uses a piece of meteorite to represent the moon.
2016-2020 – Demand for Rolex grows and grows with popular releases like the first ceramic-bezel steel Daytona in 2016. The first steel ceramic Pepsi GMT (ref. 126710 BLRO) came two years later, and Rolex’s colorful Oyster Perpetual lineup that debuted in 2020 has been an absolute smash hit. New Datejust dial options like mint green and fluted motifs have been strong sellers as well.
Present – Refining the lineup and updating movements has been Rolex’s focus in recent years. The Cellini lineup is gone in favor of a singular dress watch called the 1908. Every watch in the Rolex lineup (aside from the Yacht-Master II) has had its movement updated to a “new generation” fairly recently.
How Much is a Men’s Rolex Watch?
The cheapest current Rolex men’s watch is the Oyster Perpetual 36, with an MSRP of $6,100. Even if you’re looking at used models, it’s hard to find a good men’s Rolex under $5,000, but not impossible. Datejust prices are often lower than other men’s Rolexes because of the volume produced.
Most pre-owned stainless steel men’s Rolex sports watches trade in the $8,000-$12,000 range (like the Explorer II ref. 16570, Submariner Date ref. 16610 or 116610, GMT-Master II ref. 116710LN etc.). The newest popular sports models like the Starbucks Submariner. Sprite GMT and Root Beer GMT sell for about $15,000-$20,000. Prices for Day-Dates and other modern solid gold Rolex watches for men are typically in the $40,000 ballpark, with some extravagant men’s diamond watches reaching well into six figures.