The History and Development of the Rolex MilgaussBack to Articles
Today Rolex are well known for making watches for professionals and sports people, by tailoring their watches to a specific industry or sport. The most well-known watches that Rolex make for a specific profession is arguably the Rolex Submariner ref 126600, manufactured since 1954 for professional divers, or the Rolex Daytona ref 116500 made for racing drivers.
However in 1954, the same year as the launch of the first Rolex submariner, Rolex had been busy working behind the scenes developing another watch that they hoped would follow the same recipe for success that the Rolex Submariner did, i.e. making watches for a niche market, to sell to the masses.
Rolex looked to the scientific community for a market to sell its next watch for professionals to, specifically the scientific researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.
A watch made to be used in such an environment would need to be legible and rugged like the rest of the Rolex Professional watch range, but scientists posed a unique problem for Rolex to solve, when working with electromagnetic fields greater than 100 gauss, conventional watches would be affected greatly, disrupting the time keeping so much that they either had to deal with a dysfunctional timepiece, or simply not wear a watch. To solve this problem, Rolex created the prototype ref 6543, they took the design of the Rolex Submariner, and created a watch that had a 37.5mm steel case, with an inner case surrounding the watch movement made of a soft iron, effectively creating a Faraday cage around the watch movement, making the watch resistant to magnetic fields, and thus the Rolex Milgauss was born.
The Milgauss ref. 6543 had a black bi-directional bezel with red inverted triangle at 12. Also a black honeycomb dial, and was fitted with a calibre 1080 movement.
The Milgauss ref. 6543 can be traced back as early as 1954, however it wasn't until Rolex had updated this model to the ref 6541 in 1956 that the Milgauss would be officially released to the public. In this time CERN had tested the Milgauss design and certified it as being resistant to magnetic fields up to 1000 gauss, giving the watch its name after the french ‘Mille’ for 1000, and Gauss, a unit of measurement of magnetic fields.
The first official Rolex Milgauss ref 6541 did not differ much from the ref 6543 it was based on, however this model is the first time we see the now iconic lightning bolt shaped second hand feature on some watches. The ref 6541, although technically excellent, did not appear to be as well received by the public as the Submariner or GMT Master it was being sold alongside, only running for four years before being updated massively in 1960.
The Rolex Milgauss ref 1019 came in 1960 with a new design to set it apart from its professional watch siblings, losing the black bi-directional bezel, and with it, the chunky sports watch aesthetic. Instead, the ref 1019 featured a sleek polished bezel, a more refined dial and hand design, and the lightning bolt second hand did not make a comeback on the ref 1019. The Milgauss ref 1019 came with two dial options, black or silver. Interestingly, the scientists at CERN who were still making use of its antimagnetic properties, requested that a third dial option be made available, silver without any lume. The lume used on the dials of the Milgauss ref 1019, like the rest of the Rolex range at the time, was radioactive tritium. The scientists at CERN would find that this luminous material was radioactive enough to interfere with equipment and potentially create anomalies in test results in a lab environment. This dial became known as the CERN or no-lume dial and is considered more desirable by some collectors today.
By the 1980s, the Rolex Milgauss, despite its technical advancements, was proving to be a slow seller. Being overshadowed by the ever popular Submariner and GMT Master range that it had to compete against in shop windows. The Rolex Milgauss range was retired in 1988.
After 19 years, the Rolex Milgauss had been all but relegated to the history books, with nobody really giving them much of a thought apart from vintage Rolex collectors and fans. Then, at the 2007 Baselworld Watch Fair, Rolex made a shock announcement that no one saw coming, a new Rolex Milgauss. The modern Rolex Milgauss was given the ref 116400, (like its now vintage namesake). It also features an inner case to protect it from interference from electromagnetic fields, the design echoed the design of the ref 1019 that had been discontinued almost two decades before.
The new Mlgauss has a larger 40mm steel oyster case, with a polished steel bezel, and steel oyster bracelet with polished centre links. The design gives the Milgauss a sleek, almost dressy design when compared to the other professional watches in the Rolex range. Much like the vintage Milgauss ref 1019 did in the 1960s, the new Milgauss ref 116400 also took a design cue from its past by bringing back the famous lightning bolt second hand.
The new Milgauss came in two dial options, black or white. With the lightning bolt second hand, Milgauss name and dial markers in a bright vivid orange colour, it certainly made the new Milgauss stand out. Although 2007 actually marked 51 years since the watches official birth date, Rolex commemorated its 50th anniversary by giving the Milgauss a new feature never before seen on a Rolex watch, a green tinted sapphire crystal glass option for the black dial variant. The tinted glass gave the modern Milgauss a ref of 116400GV, with the GV standing for “Glace Verte” (French for “green glass”). Rolex famously remarked that the green glass was so difficult to manufacture, that they didn't bother to apply for a patent for the invention.
Between the year 2013 and 2016, Rolex would change the Milgauss line up. The references wouldn't be updated, but they would discontinue the black dial clear glass option, as well as the white dial clear glass option, leaving the only two Milgauss variations as the black dial green glass option, and a new 116400GV with a “Z-Blue” dial with the green glass.
Today the Rolex Milgauss ref 16400GV with black and blue dial option sit within the Rolex Professional Watch range, and although some would say they are still overshadowed by the more popular models in the range, the Milgauss has a growing number of followers, collectors and enthusiasts.
Author: M Flanders