When it comes to case size, trends certainly change with the times. Today, around 38-39 mm is considered a small watch, at least when it comes to men’s timepieces. Any watch that measures less than 34 mm is typically considered a women’s model. But this wasn’t always the case, especially when it comes to Rolex.
Watch connoisseurs will know that the first Submariner from the 1950s, the ref. 6204, was surprisingly small at just 37 mm. The famous Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” measured the same. Moreover, the predecessor to today’s Explorer, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 6098, which accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest in 1953, was merely 34 mm in diameter.
These sizes are rather hard to imagine for a modern (supposedly) masculine diver, chronograph, or tool watch. As for elegant men’s dress watches from the 1950s and 60s, they were similarly sized at 33-36 mm.
Less Is More: Watches for Gentlemen
Of course, a gentleman’s watch shouldn’t be too flashy or draw too much attention to itself. A truly elegant timepiece stylishly displays the time before slipping seamlessly back under a shirt cuff.
This is obviously more feasible if you’re wearing a slim timepiece on your wrist rather than a massive tool watch. The former is what we’re looking at in this article. More specifically, we’re exploring some modestly-sized vintage Rolex watches that are worth a closer look.
Relatively Affordable and Still Wearable
The best thing about these smaller vintage Rolex models is that many are still flying under the radar, making them notably more affordable than some of their siblings like the Submariner. Plus, despite their smaller case sizes, these men’s watches are still very fashionable today.
A key factor in all of this is the elegant yet compact design of the Oyster case, which has been left largely untouched for decades.
The design tends to look bigger on the wrist than it does on paper. As a general rule of thumb, I typically estimate a 2 mm difference. So a Rolex that measures 34 mm in diameter looks more like a 36-mm watch on the wrist. Similarly, a 36-mm model will look closer to a 38-mm timepiece when worn.
The following recommendations aren’t going to suit those of you who like to wear 43-mm watches and above. However, if you are drawn to 40-42 mm timepieces, these watches may be for you. Likewise, if you tend to go for 38-39 mm models, you may find some affordable alternative among the following timepieces.
Let’s start with a relatively “affordable” Rolex.
Entry-Level: Rolex Oysterdate Precision Ref. 6694
In my opinion, the Oysterdate Precision is the perfect entry point into the world of vintage Rolex watches. Incidentally, it was also my first vintage model. You can purchase one today for roughly 2,200 USD, which is comparatively affordable for a vintage Rolex.
A few things to note about this watch: The Precision features a hand-wound movement, the 1225, without a quickset date. The watch measures 34 mm in diameter and was in production from the early 1960s to the late 80s, meaning there is a large selection available. This increases your chances of finding your dream timepiece.
The acrylic crystal features the typical Rolex Cyclops lens. This material can be cheaply replaced if it’s scratched. You can also easily polish it yourself. As a side note, all of the watches on this list are outfitted with acrylic crystal.
But back to the Oysterdate Precision:
The lugs are 19 mm apart. This is an “in-between” size, which is important to note because it can make finding replacement bands more difficult. Unless you buy an original Rolex strap, that is, which can be costly. Be sure to always take note of the lug measurements when purchasing vintage Rolex watches for this reason.
As mentioned, this was my first Rolex. I bought it a few years back at a moderate three-figure price. It seems that even small, simple vintage Rolex watches can appreciate in value. It certainly didn’t make a poor investment.
Rolex Air King: King of the Air Ref. 5500
If you like the Precision but manual movements aren’t for you, you may find the Rolex Air King Oyster Perpetual ref. 5500 a bit more appealing. “Perpetual” is code for an automatic movement at this Genevan manufacturer. In this case, we’re talking about the caliber 1520 or 1530, depending on the production year.
The Air King, as its name suggests, is a pilot’s watch with links to WWII. The word “king” in the name makes reference to its 34-mm case – a generous size for watches in the 1930s and 40s.
Early Air Kings were still hand-wound, so we’ll go straight to the ref. 5500, which was in production from 1957 to 1989. Again, this extended production time gives buyers a better chance at finding a version that suits them.
The Air King is somewhat of a tidier Precision with an automatic movement. It lacks a Cyclops lens and date display, meaning fewer functions but a cleaner dial. It even features the word Precision above 6 o’clock and the stylized model name at 12 o’clock.
In terms of price, the Air King ref. 5500 currently costs between 2,200 and 3,300 USD, depending on its condition and the completeness of the set (with/without a metal bracelet and box & papers).
I must say that the Air King is a slightly better choice than the more affordable Precision in terms of value for money. Of course, your wallet will make the ultimate decision; however, if you can spend a bit more and don’t need a date display, then the automatic Air King might be the better option for you.
The Early Explorer: Ref. 1016
While the last two Rolex models could be considered insider tips, the same cannot be said for the Rolex Explorer ref. 1016. You can tell by its cost alone that this watch isn’t an undiscovered gem; prices start around 10,900 USD.
This isn’t the first Explorer – that was ref. 6610 – but it is arguably the most popular. Why? A popular American watch blog has regularly featured the 1016 for several years now, which has likely increased its visibility, prices, and appeal.
In a nutshell, the Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 was produced between 1963 and 1989. It measures 36 mm in diameter, making it slightly larger than the two previous models in this article. Depending on the production year, you’ll either find the automatic 1560 or 1570 movement ticking away inside.
In theory, there was only ever one version of the 1016, and it has a black dial. However, the aforementioned blog claims there is a very rare white version. In typical Explorer fashion, this reference features a triangle at 12 o’clock and Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.
As mentioned, this model has seen some serious appreciation in recent years. Back in 2009, you could find models for less than 5,500 USD, but nowadays expect to pay anything between 10,900 and 22,000 USD, depending on the watch’s age and condition.
You’ll even find some watches priced upwards of 32,000 USD. It’s hard to say whether there is much room left for appreciation here, but the 1016 is – without a doubt – an attractive and highly coveted timepiece.
Let’s turn to a mysterious and somewhat rare vintage Rolex with a small Oyster case.
The Mystery Watch: Rolex Oyster Commando Ref. 6429
This watch is best described as a combination of all the vintage models listed above. It features an Explorer dial in a 34-mm Oyster case – at least, that’s what most sources claim. An earlier description mentions a 33-mm case, which is only the start of the mystery.
The same article shows the ref. 6429 with a different set of hands than other Commandos – again, a complete mystery.
As far as I can gather from my research, the Commando was a custom watch made for the US military in the late 1960s/early 1970s. They were also sold to the public through Abercrombie & Fitch according to an old newspaper advertisement (source: Mondani).
There were apparently two different dial variants available: one with “Commando” written above 6 o’clock, the other without. Since so little is known about this watch and there are numerous theories floating around, you should approach any purchase with extra caution. Make sure you do your research, have a good knowledge of Rolex, and back away if any doubts arise, especially considering prices for this model range from 8,800 to 27,000 USD. This kind of rare and poorly documented timepiece can quickly lead to a bad and costly investment.
Or to borrow the words from the Fratellowatches blog, “Rolex Commando Ref. 6429 – Extremely Rare, Worth the Risk?”
That’s it for now in terms of vintage Rolex classics in small Oyster cases.
If you haven’t found the watch for you above, check out other 34-36 mm vintage Rolex models such as the Datejustand Oysterquartz to see if something else catches your eye. There is bound to be a vintage Rolex to suit every taste.