Vintage Rolex is so different from the big machinery we see today. During the 1930s to the 1950s in particular Rolex created wonderful chronograph pieces with an ooze of old-world charme, nothing close to the sporty specimen of today. Way before the brand's flagships became uber-successfull there has been quite a lot of variety and experimentation with the design of so many facets. And these Daytona ancestors need to get more attention!
November 08, 2022
A Beginner's Guide to Vintage Rolex Chronographs (1935-52)
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
The Rolex Chronograph And before you say something it's not the Daytona I'm speaking about. That's a modern design and not as variable as what has been going on 70 or 80 years ago. Vintage Rolex is so different from the big machinery we see today. Before the brand's flagship became uber-successfull there has been quite a lot of variety and experimentation in the design. During the 1930s to 1950s in particular Rolex created wonderful pieces with an ooze of old-world charme, nothing close to the sporty specimen of today. And these Daytona ancestors need to get more attention!
The middle of the last Century has always been a favorite epoch of mine - a golden age particularly when it comes to elegant chronograph watches. Several brands played a major role in this evolution of this watch genre but one if not The major player of the modern watch world - Rolex - is typically only mentioned as a side note before the 1963.
Even though Rolex might not have been the classic chronograph powerhouse of the last Century Rolex they still brought forward several important and interesting timepieces. Before the brand perfected the secret sauce for their Daytona they experimented a lot with case designs, material combinations, dial configurations and serious old-world charme. So let's find out how Rolex engineered its way to the top.
A sample of 8 classic Rolex Chronograph watches from before 1950. Top row shows 2-register and the bottom row 3-register chronographs. All panels include the reference number and the approximate production period. Photos Courtesy of Phillips & Monaco Legend Group Auctions.
In this article, as well as in the ones to follow, I'm going deep into the history of the Rolex chronograph. It's supposed to be as much a reference guide and overview as a report on the design and functional evolution of these pieces, starting with the Pre-6000 references. I try include as much data as I could gather on these timepieces - production period, volume, etc. - but if I missed key information or references please point it out as I want to make this list as complete and accurate as possible. If it is not today it hopefully will be tomorrow.
1) The Beginnings - Non-Oyster Chronographs (1935-47)
The Basics - Rolex began their "project chronograph" in the mid 1930s with their reference 2508. The 2508 was the brands first two-register chronograph wristwatch with a two-button operating system and a 14''' or later Valjoux 22 manual movement.
A 1946 Rolex 2508 with black dial. See the slim profile? And the straight lugs? It's a second series 2508 which was 2mm smaller than the first series (37.2mm to 35.2mm) - a difference in case diameter within the same reference. Photo Phillips Geneva Nov. 2016
The Case - The Oyster case has indeed been conceived by that time (introduced in 1926) but was not yet featured in chronograph pieces. The cases were still produced by several case makers as for example "Favre & Perret" or "Gunther & Co" (hallmarks hammerhead 115 & 117). Generally, the construction reminds of classic "Calatrava" style cases with a flat and prominent bezel as well as round, slightly hinged lugs.
Further Examples - Other examples falling into the similar category are the references 3330 (3-register; 1939-47), reference 3335 (3-register; 1938-44), as well as the split-second chronograph reference 4113 (2-register; Cal. 55 VBR; 1942).
Gracing everybody's wrist - a Rolex 2508 retailed by Astrua. With its design this piece appears more Calatrava-esque as what you would associate with a Rolex chronograph these days. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva 2022.
1*) "Oddball" Non-Oyster References (1939-52)
The Oddballs - There are other references that fit into the category of "non-Oyster chronographs" but are a bit more out of the ordinary to what we're used to see from Rolex. The one being reference 4062 (2-register; Valjoux 23; 1942-63), which came in a classic round case and predominantly with teardrop lugs but was in production until 1963 - until the introduction of the Daytona.
The other "odd" references come from shaped Rolex chronographs. Indeed, back in the 1940s and early 50s the Rolex catalogue also sported square pieces. Examples being the "smallest" 3529 (2-register; Valjoux 69; 26mm width; 1939-42); the 3830 (2-register; early 1940s; stepped case), and the latest reference 8206 "Gabus" (2-register; Valjoux 69; 1949-52), nicknamed after the case maker.
2) Transitional Oyster Cases (1939-46)
The Basics - During the late 1930s we can see already the first updates to the design and function in form of the Oyster case. In the beginnings Rolex defined the term Oyster as having a screw-down case-back and crown. Yet the shape was still quite different from the classic Oyster we know of today.
Rolex 3525 in steel with golden a bezel and the original box. Photo Courtesy of Phillips.
The Examples - The very first Oyster chronograph reference most likely has been the 3525 (as well as 3668 - bezel variant), two-register pieces with manual calibers 13''' introduced in 1939. And in 1942 Rolex upgraded the movement to a VZH13 enabling the 3-register reference 4048.
The Case - As you can see the case is still classic and round, and the lugs are still rather tapered. It's still considered an "Oyster" - as also often marked on the dial - due to it's water-resistance from screw-down crown and case-back.
As you can see this Rolex 3525 visibly sports the "Oyster" signature on the dial, indicating it is a water-resistant chronograph with screw-down crown and case-back. But as you can also see from the profile this case shape is not yet the classic Oyster style. Photo Courtesy Phillips Geneva 2015.
3) Early Oyster Cases - Pre-6000 References (1946-50)
The Basics - Right after World War II Rolex started to launch the third wave of their chronograph watches with the two-register 4500 (Valjoux 22, 1946-48) and the three-register 4537 (Valjoux 72, 1946-47). Both references were only produced in very short production runs and shortly after replaced by the reference 5034 (3-register; Valjoux 72, 1949-50), again for only a brief production period.
Wristshot of a 1946 Rolex 4537 chronograph. Even though this is a golden example with a mesmerizing patina you can already feel the sportier vibe. Photo Courtesy Phillips Geneva 2020.
The Case - As mentioned before reference 4537 was probably by modern standards the first Oyster-style chronograph in a fashion already hinting towards what was to come with the Daytona some 17 years later. The case design is very streamlined showing the slight cushion/C-shape of the modern Oyster cases and a domed bezel. The crown is still slightly extended at 3o'clock to enable the screw down. Furthermore, the lugs do now show the downward directed pointy tip that would soon become emblematic for so many other Rolex models.
The first chronograph in a classic Oyster-style case. The downward angled and tipped lugs in combination with the domed bezel already bring out an ancestral Daytona feeling. Photo Courtesy Phillips Geneva 2020.
4) Production Numbers
Now that we got familiar with the designs let's have a closer look at the number - the production numbers in this case and see how rare these examples really are. These numbers are based on publicly available estimates from the literature and also cited below.
Figure 1. Production Numbers for Rolex Chronograph Watches between 1939-1950. Asteriks indicate low estimates based on known/publicly auctioned pieces.
We do see that none of references - for which the production volume is known - exceeds 250 produced pieces. In fact for none other than the 3335 there appear to be more than 100 specimen documented. So rare, really means rare.
That makes for the known production a total volume below 700 chronograph pieces. However, a note of caution needs to be addressed here. For the most prevalent references - 2508, 3525 & 4062 - I could not find any documented numbers yet. Thus, the total amount needs to be seen as a very low floor estimate.
Figure 2. Timeline of early Rolex Chronograph References from 1935 - 1955. Asteriks indicate broad estimates. Generally, numbers might deviate by one year depending on the source (see below). Photos Courtesy of Phillips, Christie's, Monaco Legend Group, Bonham's, Le Monde Edmond & John Goldberger.
5) The Conclusion
Even if you're not a fan of Rolex or the Daytona in particular seeing all these elegant and varsatile Mid-Century timepieces must still warm your heart a little. There's a rich history that often gets forgotten because there's all this fuzz about the hyped part of Rolex. These pieces are a lot calmer and not yet as sporty as their descendants will become a couple years later.
But seeing the transition within the brand is eye-opening. Before 1945 the design was still quite flexible and cases design varied a lot. So what changed that Rolex decided to standardize their watch cases more and more?
The elusive Rolex 5034, in production for only about 2 years in the late 1940s. Photo Courtesy Phillips Geneva 2020.
One possible explanation might be deduced from internal infrastructure. Rolex did setup the company "Genex" as their own case manufacturer and at least since 1940 was capable of producing "in-house" watch cases[16-17]. It might have taken the company a few years and experiments to ramp up the production in their own factory - until after the war was over - to supply enough Oyster cases for all purposes. But enough speculation for now.
Whatever the reason might have been, this early period simply is a cornucopia of the most romantic designs, poetry in the metal. The company back then was still very different to the vertically integrated large global player it is today. You can still observe small differences in execution from one piece to the next. It's so much more intimate.
But stay tuned, as we'll be heading into the Pre-Daytona and early Daytona era when it becomes all about the details.
Find all parts of the series here
- Early Rolex Chronographs (1935-52)
- Rolex Pre-Daytona Chronographs (1950-69)
- Rolex Daytona 4-Digit (1963-88)
- Rolex 2811: 1937-41 (500 examples), 2-register (Valjoux 23), non-Oyster, flat bezel (PP530-ish). Antiquorum Geneva April 2002.
- Rolex 3055: 1935-55 (200 examples), 2-register (Valjoux 69), Oyster, only 30mm "Piccolino". Antiquorum Geneva April 2021.
- Rolex 3695: 1940-41 (96 examples, 48 YG & RG each), 2-register, non-Oyster, square pusher. Antiquorum HK June 1994.
- Rolex 4099: 1938-47 (100 examples), 2-register (Valjoux 23), non-Oyster, flared/spider-leg lugs. ChrGen Nov. 2013.
- Rolex 4500: 1946-48 (348, 200 steel, 100 steel/RG, 36 RG, 12 9k YG), 2-register (Valjoux 23), Oyster, (see also above). MLG Apr. 2023.
- Rolex 5034: 1949-50 (24 examples, 12 YG, 12 RG), 3-register (Valjoux 72), Oyster, (see also above). The Watch Boutique.
 Oyster Case - Rolex Watchmaking; Rolex;
 Rolex 3330; Phillips Geneva Nov. 2022
 Rolex 3335; Monaco Legend Group Oct. 2022
 Rolex 4062; Phillips Geneva Nov. 2019
 Rolex 4113; Phillips Geneva Nov. 2019
 Rolex 3525; Phillips Geneva May 2018
 Rolex 3668; Phillips Geneva May 2022
 Rolex 4048; Phillips Geneva Nov. 2018
 Rolex 4500; Monaco Legend Group Jan. 2019
 Rolex 4537; Phillips Geneva May 2017
 Rolex 5034; Phillips Geneva Nov. 2020
 Rolex 3529; Monaco Legend Group Dec. 2019
 Rolex 3830; Christie's Geneva Nov. 2004 & Past Auction Killer - A 1940 Rolex 3830; Edmond Saran, Le Monde Edmond;
 10 vintage Rolex watches/references in 'pink gold' to die for; Edmond Saran, Le Monde Edmond;
 Swiss Poinçons de Maitre; David Boettcher, Vintage Watchstraps;
 Vintage Watch Hallmarks Explained; Felix Goldammer, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
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