Review: Rolex Datejust 126200-0020 Green Palm
This year, Rolex made a big noise about turning its famed GMT-Master II upside down, and everybody clapped. Thing is, I don’t think that’s the best watch Rolex makes. Not even close. That’s because a year before, Rolex made this, the Datejust 126200-0020—and I think it’s the best watch Rolex makes.
It would be a stout observation to insist that Rolex watches are boring. They were originally supposed to be pieces of equipment, tools to do a job, no more luxurious than a tape measure or a pencil sharpener. When Rolex was finding its feet very late to the horological game, it had not a hope in the world of competing as a piece of wearable jewellery alongside the likes of Patek Philippe, so it went in the complete opposite direction instead in championing the wristwatch as a must-have device for anyone taking their job seriously.
And you know what, the gamble paid off. Didn’t matter if you were down a hole, up in a plane or at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, Rolex made sure that if you didn’t have one of its watches on, you wouldn’t be doing your job properly. The watchmaker became synonymous with engineering and exploration—but not beauty.
Funny story: denim, as in the stuff they make jeans from, came from a need to create a hard-wearing material for labourers to wear without wearing out. It was a working-class material, often worn over the top of less hardy clothing in the form of trousers or even dungarees. Like a Rolex, no-one chose to wear denim because they wanted to; they wore it because their job demanded it.
That is, until the 60s, when the stiff upper lip and equally stiff starched shirts were thrown out in place of a more casual fashion. Ties and pocket watches, the lingering edifice of a bygone era, made way for jeans and wristwatches, drawing inspiration from the more approachable working classes. And before you could say “waiting list”, a Rolex wristwatch, despite its plain exterior, despite its basic construction, became the must-have accessory.
But that wasn’t to last. The 80s saw an explosion of overt wealth the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a long time. Steel was out and gold was in. Rolex found itself very much out of its comfort zone and tried desperately to adapt. We got models like the Cellini and the King Midas, both named after and built over an obsession with gold.
The brand couldn’t just simply ditch its core model line as well, so we saw gold versions of the rest of the collection too. Someone somewhere in the product marketing department must have decided, however, that simply selling the same watches in gold wasn’t enough, and so the genius idea to replace the dials with extravagant materials was born. Onyx, Tiger’s Eye, Jasper and even mahogany found their way into Rolex Datejust dials. There were hundreds of different references.
It wasn’t to last, however, as the 80s ended and everyone realised what they’d done and tried to pretend they hadn’t. With post-decade clarity hitting hard, gold Rolexes with fancy dials were buried in the same deep, dark corners as everything else people were trying to forget, and the notion of an exotic and unusual dial in the Datejust just … disappeared. That is, until this.
Up until very recently, the interesting and exciting version of a black Rolex dial was picking the white option. Watches like the Explorer II with the white dial were considered a bit fancy, a bit extra, and the whole thing was in dire need of a bit of a shake-up. We saw some extra colours, we saw meteorite, we saw the word “Rolex” engraved in massive letters—but no one expected a motif borrowed straight from a Kia-Ora bottle.
Inspiration from nature isn’t a new thing in watchmaking. After all, those original Datejusts weren’t so much inspired by nature as an actual piece of it. Looking to Japan, we also see Grand Seiko, who design dials that borrow from snowy icescapes, lush, flowing rivers and the majesty of the cherry blossom.
Rolex, of course, took a much more Rolex approach. That’s because Rolex, originally being a manufacturer of engineering watches for engineers, has trouble with nuance. Rolex is like the uncle that makes your sister cry and says, “What? I was only agreeing with her that she has put on a bit of weight!”
To that end, the way Rolex chose to embrace nature into its dials in this new millennium is with a laser. Supposedly of the same grade used to administer cataract surgery, Rolex’s new laser technology has the very powerful capability to shape a dial into almost anything. Think of it like 3D printing but the opposite, and with lasers. Much cooler. Grand Seiko would’ve introduced shade and texture in a very organic way, evoking emotion with visual poetry. Rolex shoots a laser at a dial and says, “What? That’s nature isn’t it?”
This all sounds like the dial skims very close to knick-knack territory, like the kind of made-in-China tourist trap that men on horseback try and sell you at the pyramids. But you know what? It’s not. It’s so clinical and so Rolex that it’s actually great. It’s like watching a robot try to be human. There’s an emulation of what it thinks inspires emotion that hits so cold that it’s actually endearing. I kid you not, Rolex really says, “The dial is the distinctive face of a watch, the feature most responsible for its identity and readability.” I half expect them to follow up with, “Teach Rolex how to love.” Oh dear. I think I’m anthropomorphising a watch.
What’s also great is that you can only get this dial in the 36mm steel version, which is a size that not only coincides with the kinds of Datejust Rolex was making in the 80s and earlier, but also means you really have to commit when you go for this dial. There’s no big, flashy 41mm version. You go small or go home.
There’s the iconic date and its magnifying window too, of course, and the updated calibre 3235, so you’ll get better than COSC precision and a healthy 70 hours of power reserve. But overall, for all the clinical precision, you actually get a Rolex watch with a heart and soul. It’s learning. It’s becoming like us.
As much as I love a good old simple black-dialled Rolex, seeing this experimentation is far more exciting to me than simply assembling the GMT-Master II incorrectly, painting it green and calling it done. There’s a different kind of thinking going on here that’s got the same heart-in-the-mouth risk as when it created watches like the King Midas. That’s one of my favourite Rolexes and one of the most memorable, created in a sink-or-swim moment, so it’s great to see even in a huge boom time for Rolex that it’s still not above a little bit of experimentation.
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