The Swiss watchmaker Rolex has something in its repertoire for just about every taste, including of course the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona sports watch. Do you already know what your favorite is from this model line? Then you already know that watch fans have all kinds of timepieces to choose from – with everything from vintage Daytona forerunner collector’s pieces (ref. 6234), to different hand-wound “panda” and “reverse panda” models (e.g. ref. 6239, ref. 6263), all the way to El Primero icons (ref. 16520) and today’s ceramic models (ref. 116500LN). The Daytona also features a selection of two-tone (e.g. ref. 116503) and precious metal watches (e.g., ref. 116518LN). White, yellow, or Everose gold, and platinum: the various materials and buying options offer something for everyone. And let’s not forget probably the most colorful of them all, the yellow gold Rainbow Sapphire Daytona, the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 116595RBOW.
The Search For the Daytona Deal Is On
So where should we kick things off? For starters, let’s put the well-known Rolex Daytona icons aside for this one: the Paul Newman Daytona, panda and reverse panda dials, big red models, floating cosmographs, patrizzi and porcelain dials, Tiffany & Co. Daytonas, stone and meteorite dials, Daytona Beach models, the inverted 6 series, baguette cuts…. You get the idea. As amazing as these Rolex Cosmographs are, we’ll be taking a look today at a sports model that flies under the watch radar: Rolex chronographs that can still be had for comparatively affordable prices. This means we’ll be taking a pass on the rare, expensive Daytona grail models to instead search for a great everyday stainless steel watch.
Refining the Search: Model Years
Rolex Daytonas can be broken down into four general milestone years of manufacturing: 1963, 1988, 2000, and 2016. We’ll skip the first production run from the birth of the Daytona at the start of the 1960s to the end of the Paul Newman era at the end of the 1980s, due to the fact that these models continue to be very expensive. My go-to watchmaker recommends wearing these timepieces (this also goes for other vintage rarities from this period) only on special occasions, not daily. Because we’re looking for a great everyday watch, these timepieces really aren’t what we’re going for.
That means our Daytona hunt gets interesting starting at around the year 1988. You could say that the actual “career” of the Rolex Daytona began with the introduction of the El Primero, and the use of an automatic caliber in this watch.
From Tool Watch to Luxury Timepiece: The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Reference 16520
The up-and-comer Daytona at the time, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 16520, started making its way into the display cases at ADs during this period. Even previous-generation Daytonas that had been gathering dust on the shelves started to enjoy increasing popularity. Demand for the Rolex Daytona was growing noticeably.
The new Cosmograph generation not only saw a new movement, but plenty of visual updates as well. The case of the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 16520 was entirely re-worked, now sporting an impressive 40 mm, up from the more delicate 36 mm of its predecessors, in addition to crown guards and better water resistance. The bezel was now made of steel instead of acrylic. The bracelet had polished mid-links and a polished clasp. The chronograph featured scratch-free sapphire crystal over its dial, which now had more text on it. The Rolex Daytona had undergone the greatest change in its history, going from a watch that delivered excellent, albeit sheer simplicity, to a noticeably pricier timepiece. A tool watch had completed its transformation into the Oyster Perpetual Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified Cosmograph Daytona luxury watch. El Primero Daytonas are a still favorite among aficionados; strong demand means higher prices. But a good Daytona deal? Nope! So let’s see what else we’ve got.
Fast-forward to 12 years later: We’re getting warmer! The Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 116520 has only a few design differences from its highly sought-after predecessor model that came with an El Primero movement. But housing Rolex’s first entirely in-house movement, the 6-digit reference from the 2000-2016 production era was an important development in the Daytona heritage. Its great functionality, iconic design, and affordability puts this model squarely in our price crosshairs. That makes it safe to say: We’ve hunted it down, now we gotta have it.
Rolex Daytona Reference 116520 vs. Reference 16520
You’ll find the key differences between the 5- and 6-digit references on their dials. The well-trained eye will notice that the 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock subdials on the 6-digit reference have swapped places. The 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock subdials on the 6-digit reference have also moved slightly higher on the dial, pushing its five lines of text towards 12 o’clock. These small, subtle updates change the overall feel of the watch, albeit only minimally. Fun watch fact: Daytonas with Zenith calibers are clearly recognizable by how the central pinions of their 3 and 9 subdials are in perfect alignment with the 3 and 9 o’clock indices on the dial’s outer edge. On models with Rolex’s in-house movement, i.e., the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 116520, you’ll notice that these subdials sit slightly but noticeably higher (have a look for yourself, it’s a cool detail many of us might tend to miss). The 6-digit reference also has slightly thicker indices; the same can be said about its hour and minute hands, and about the rings around its subdials, the latter of which on the white-dial version are now gray instead of their black.
The Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 116520 has an overall look that’s as amazing as its individual elements: the automatic Rolex in-house caliber 4130, a 40-mm stainless steel case, the classic three-subdial Daytona dial, nostalgic DAYTONA lettering in red, a steel bezel, sapphire crystal, Super-LumiNova, 72 hours of power reserve, and a modern Rolex Oyster bracelet and clasp. Now that’s a sports watch! And even better, it can be yours for around $21,000. Take your pick of a white or black dial; many folks prefer the white dial on the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 116500LN.
The Daytona catalog is a great example of how the Rolex brand has developed over the years. From a pure tool watch to a cultivated luxury timepiece, this Rolex chronograph is a true icon among sports watches. When it comes to the earlier generation that saw its inception in 1988, and the models released starting in 2000, enthusiasts love the comfort and wearing experience these watches deliver, with their upgraded, outstanding clasps, along with excellent water and shock resistance. These combine with the watch’s sapphire crystal for an overall robustness that’s always ready for everyday wear.
The many years of Rolex Daytonas have given us so many wonderful models to choose from. It’s hard to keep track of them all, especially considering the countless subtle variations in detail, which makes Daytonas an absolute joy for collectors. However, this means there’s a wide range of prices for these watches as well. The Rolex Daytona Cosmograph ref. 116520 offers an affordable option, most notably when compared to its predecessor and successor models. It’s also an opportunistic time to buy right now, with prices decreasing significantly in recent months. But for how long? Well, the 60-year anniversary of this timepiece and the new 2023 Daytona release have put the watch back in the watch world spotlight. The coming months will show us whether this renewed attention will generate increased interest. Just between us? Well, we are talking about the Rolex Daytona here, so yeah, it definitely will.