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Feature: £9,000 Rolex Daytona vs £250,000 Paul Newman

If you want a chronograph from Rolex’s stable, you can part ways with about £10,000 and get yourself the latest and greatest ceramic 116500LN—or you could pay a quarter of a million for one of these instead: the ‘Paul Newman’ 6263. How can it be worth 25 times more?

For outdated technology the 116500LN is actually pretty high-tech. You’ve got scratch-resistant ceramic, lab-grown sapphire, antimagnetic alloys—and it all comes together at a facility furnished with fingerprint scanners, glossy architecture and a parts department that only robots are allowed in.

As far as new-old technology goes, the Rolex Daytona as it stands today is somewhere towards the pinnacle, offering a distilled blend of old-timey nostalgia and modern precision in a neat, 40mm package. There’s a reason it’s so desirable—it just has everything.

But if it has everything, then what can an old, kooky vintage version offer that it can’t? And more to the point, why did one of these vintage Daytonas recently sell for the better part of $20 million? It’s small, almost tiny at 37mm; has a weird dial that looks completely out of place; is fitted with a rattly old bracelet—and yet watches like this routinely sell for the price of a three-bed semi on the south east coast.

It’s not like the 6263 was particularly ground-breaking when it was new. By comparison, Omega’s 1957 Speedmaster was selling like hotcakes, a revolutionary sports watch from a multi-award–winning watchmaker that made Rolex’s efforts seem rather dated.

And that’s true more so than you might think. You see, the Speedmaster arrived at a time when chronograph watches were small and reserved, Rolex’s pre-Cosmograph 6234 included. The Speedmaster was bigger, pushed the tachymeter to the bezel for more dial space, used a high-contrast design for ultimate legibility—it pretty much defined the sports chronograph.

And not only that, but the Speedmaster was also mooted for the coveted role of NASA’s moonwatch, having seen space exploration already on Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra’s wrist. With Rolex trying to pitch itself as the professional’s watchmaker, catering for divers, scientists, explorers and the like, the moon would be the perfect cherry on the cake. But it was a young brand, and Omega was big, well-established. Enter the Cosmograph.

Rolex was going to have its work cut out trying to catch up with Omega, and it was with the 6239—an earlier version of this 6263—that it tried. It was essentially a copy of the Speedmaster, following the same design trends set down some six years before by Omega—albeit much more simply and with less flourish.

Hedging its bets, Rolex also followed in the footsteps of some other well-known watchmakers of the time, like Vulcain, Bucherer and Lipp, offering an alternative ‘exotic’ dial like this one here alongside the simpler standard item.

And while this 6263 has the word ‘Daytona’ on it, the originals did not. You can see how the placement of ‘Daytona’ above the six o’clock sub-dial is a bit of an afterthought—and that’s because it is. Rolex was going to the moon, remember—or so it believed—and the new breed of Rolex professional watches were all named after their respective professions, so this one was called ‘Cosmograph’—the space chronograph.

That, as we know, didn’t work out, and Rolex was left scrambling not only for a new name, but also sales. After a brief interlude as the ‘Le Mans’, the Cosmograph was hastily re-christened as ‘Daytona’, realigning it with another profession Rolex had a vested interest in: motorsport.

But this couldn’t do anything for the watch’s dismal sales. And if the standard Daytona did badly, the exotic dial absolutely tanked. It’s rumoured barely 2,000 were made, and even less sold—demand was so low that jewellers were forced to practically give them away.

It was the sale of one particular exotic-dialled Daytona that eventually turned the fortunes of Rolex’s ailing chronograph, to one Joanne Woodward, who purchased it as a gift for her husband. He raced cars, which she hated, and so she had the following words inscribed on the back before she gave it to him: ‘Drive carefully me’.

Her husband was of course Hollywood legend Paul Newman, and his appearance with the watch sowed the seed for its eventual dominance of the vintage watch scene, and the association of his name with the exotic dial. Limited numbers have driven prices up, and naturally, when that original ‘Paul Newman’ came up for sale, its value skyrocketed.

From a logical standpoint, it’s bizarre that the original Daytona could possibly hold more worth than a Speedmaster of the same vintage, however there’s something about Rolex’s struggle to compete with well-established brands like Omega that really hits home. It’s the classic underdog story, a tale of David and Goliath—and how the tables have turned since. Omega may have got the moon, but Rolex¬—Rolex got the world.

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