The History and Development of the Rolex Datejust

Published on Saturday 20th of November 2021
Rolex Watch History

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How to set the Rolex Submariner


A lot of attention is given to the professional watch range. It would sometimes seem that the whole world paying attention to every update or new addition to the Submariner range or GMT Master II etc, but one collection that is often overlooked is also one of the best-selling, most successful watch models ever made, the humble Rolex Datejust.
The Rolex Datejust belongs to the family of Classic Watches by Rolex, meaning, unlike the Professional Watch range, it was not made to cater to a particular industry or sport. Instead, the Rolex Datejust lends itself to many occasions, being worn as a daily watch by many thanks to its classic versatile styling, making it suitable wrist attire in a t-shirt as much as it is at home under the cuff of a dress shirt.

The Rolex Datejust was first released in 1945. It was made to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rolex, and was the first automatic wrist watch to feature a date complication that would change itself at midnight, meaning ‘the date is always just’, giving the watch its name. As well as this ground-breaking technology, this first Datejust with the ref 4467 came in an 18kt yellow gold 36mm case, and a new design 18kt yellow gold bracelet. The bracelet had a five piece link design, with the three smaller centre links finished with a high polish. This bracelet was brand new for the 40th anniversary special edition, and so became known as the Jubilee bracelet, a design still used today.

It wouldn't be until the 1950s, with the ref 5030 and ref 5031, that the 18kt yellow gold dress watch would be available in a bi-colour steel and gold case and bracelet. These models were also the first to have the Datejust name printed onto the dial. Up to now the Rolex Datejust had a relatively flat acrylic plexiglass, the standard of the time, but in 1953 Rolex changed the design of the watch glass that would define all Rolex watches to have the date function until today. Rumor has it that the wife of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf’s wife complained that she was having difficulty reading the small number in the date window in the dial, so to make the date easier to read, Rolex had a small magnifying lens put onto the watch glass above the date window. Named the Cyclops after the one-eyed giant of Greek mythology, Rolex patented the bubble-like magnifying lens in 1955, and it soon found its way onto the rest of the Rolex range. Like all features on Rolex watches, the Cyclops design has remained the same, with some small improvements as technology evolves, today the cyclops is made of scratch resistant sapphire like the rest of the watch glass, and has an anti-reflective coating to avoid glare that gives it a slightly blue hue.

1955 saw another variation of the now well established Rolex Datejust. Made as an award given to US Air Force pilots returning from combat missions and named the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph (ref 6202), these watches had a numbered rotating bezel on the standard Datejust case, in place of the fluted bezel, that can be used to measure time intervals. These modified Rolex Datejusts became known as ‘Thunderbirds’. The Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph was the first production watch with a rotating bezel, and the case of the Turn-O-graph would go on to be used as a base for the first ever Rolex Submariner, and Rolex GMT, The Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph would be produced on and off until 2011, and today the original ‘Thunderbird’ models are highly collectable and very sought after by enthusiasts.


1968 Rolex Datejust
1968 Rolex Datejust


The next major update to the Datejust came during the late 1970s. Rolex updated the Datejust range with the new 3035 movement. This movement meant that the date on the Rolex Datejust had a new quickset function, meaning the date could be adjusted independently of the time. This new generation of Datejusts were given five digit reference numbers beginning with 160_ _, and had a solid 18kt yellow gold variant, a “Rolesor” (stainless steel and yellow gold) version, and a stainless steel model with the fluted bezel made in 18kt white gold, all of course available with the iconic Datejust Jubilee bracelet. It was available in case sizes as small as 26mm, up to the gents size of 36mm. During its production run which ended in the late 1980s, the ref 160_ _ generation of datejusts also saw some introductions to tis design options, with the option of a steel polished bezel, or a steel engine-turned bezel in place of the 18ct white gold fluted bezel option. There was also the option of a steel oyster bracelet on the Datejust, instead of the Jubilee bracelet.

In 1988, Rolex replaced the ref 160_ _ range of watches with a new updated range, this new and improved Datejust was given the ref 162_ _, and had yet another new movement, the caliber 3135. Although having the same functions as the previous movement, the new caliber 3135 movement had offered a number of slight improvements that promised better reliability, and timekeeping. This new ref 162_ _ generation of Rolex Datejust also saw the introduction of the scratch resistant sapphire glass. Other than the new improvements, the Datejust range remained almost completely unchanged when it was released in 1988. In the mid-1990s however, Rolex would begin to phase out the lug holes from their cases, and started to replace the Tritium lume that Rolex had used for decades on the dial and hands of its watches, for a new material called Luminova. A few years later Rolex replaced that with the improved Super Luminova. This meant that although the Rolex Datejusts made from1988 all that way to the mid-2000s used the same ref numbers, the model changed significantly during its production.

In the 64 years between its launch in 1945 and 2009, the Rolex Datejust has been consistently traditional when it comes to the size of its watches, with the ladies option being the smaller 26mm case size, and the gents size being the 36mm case. With the exception of the odd 31mm midsize option being available, (albeit not very popular to begin with), the 26 and 36mm case sizes of the Rolex Datejust had been the standard. However in the mid 2000s, with bigger watches becoming more fashionable, the Rolex Datejust was at risk of being left behind. The 31mm case size was starting to get more popular as a ladies size, and the larger 40mm size of the Submariner and GMT Master range becoming more popular with gents, the Datejust had to evolve to keep up.


Rolex Datejust 36 and Ladies Rolex Datejust 
Rolex Datejust 36 and Ladies Rolex Datejust 


Baselworld 2009 saw the launch of the new addition to the Rolex Datejust range, The Rolex Datejust II. The Rolex Datejust II took the timeless design of the Rolex Datejust and made a 41mm gents dress watch that can keep up with, and cater to, the demands of the Rolex customer in the 21st century. Available with a steel case and bracelet, or a combination of steel and 18kt yellow or rose gold, it still has the look of the classic Rolex Datejust with the 18ct white, yellow or rose gold fluted bezel, as well as a steel polished bezel option, and an oyster bracelet with polished centre link. The Rolex Datejust II was an instant hit, and continued to be popular until 2016 when it would be replaced by a similar 41mm Datejust.

2016 signified the start of a complete overhaul of the Datejust range that would take four years to complete. The year saw the fragmented range of Datejusts that was bracketed into separate groups like ‘Lady Datejust’ and ‘Datejust II’, streamlined to one range of Datejusts, separated only by their size. The Datejust II had its case redesigned with a thinner bezel to fit in with the rest of the range, and became the Datejust 41, the biggest watch in the new Datejust range. The others being the Datejust 36, Datejust 31, and Datejust 26. The larger sizes of his new line of Datejusts were also fitted with the new Rolex calibre 3235 movement, which replaced Rolex’s longest running and most successful movement, the calibre 3135, with more than 90% of the parts in this latest movement being brand new. The new calibre 3235 includes a new escapement, along with other significant improvements, allowing for a 70-hour power reserve.


A selection of Rolex Datejust
A selection of Rolex Datejust 


Since 2016 the Rolex Datejust range has changed again, with the Datejust collection today doing away with the 26mm case size, making the selection of ladies Datejusts available in a 31mm case size, a new 34mm mid-size and a 36mm unisex size. With the gents options comprising of the 36mm unisex size and a 41mm full size. The ladies sizes of Rolex Datejusts have by far the largest choice of dial and bezel options in the whole Rolex catalogue, with customised options from scattered diamond set white gold bezels, mother of pearl diamond set dials, up to a wide choice of colours with diamond hour markers, to diamond encrusted VI numerals. The gents options are slightly more reserved, sticking to black, white and blue, with only a few exceptions, but still more choice than any other gents Rolex watch. The most notable dial in the options is the slate grey colour with green roman numerals, also known as the ‘Wimbledon Dial’, an option that was carried over from the Datejust II option list. This dial is called so as around the time of its release, it was the dial option on the model used in the promotional material for Wimbledon tennis tournament, where Rolex has been the official timekeeper since 1978.


Looking for a pre-owned Rolex Datejust?

Looking for a pre-owned Rolex?



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