A horological unicorn with origins of almost mythical quality, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona in platinum with a Tiffany-blue lacquer “Stella” dial is a very rare watch with a previously unknown story. Not until other pieces of such legend had come to light in recent auctions did we learn the true nature of this exceptional watch.
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, reference 16516, was manufactured in 1998 and is one from a rumoured set of five unique platinum Daytonas with the Zenith El Primero movement, each with a different dial. Sotheby’s has auctioned two so far, with both selling for record-breaking amounts.
The first piece to surface, with a black Tahitian mother-of-pearl dial, sold for HK$6.8 million (US$871,000) in 2018. Sotheby’s auctioned another possibly unique Cosmograph Platinum Zenith Daytona in the summer of 2020, this one with a lapis lazuli stone dial. It sold for HK$25.4 million (US$3.27 million). A third and very rare Cosmograph Daytona highlights Sotheby’s upcoming Important Watches auction (23 April, Hong Kong). The watch is ticking.
A Moment in Time
“In terms of wristwatches, the transitional period is a very interesting period as it is before any actual form is given to a model,” explains John Chan, Sotheby's watch specialist who has a special passion for and deep knowledge of Rolex watches. “In history, there are a lot of transitional periods where a watch would suddenly have some red print on the dial or some special features on the case.”
“This one shows the transitional period when Rolex was still figuring out how they would want their modern Daytona to look, and there was more flexibility in how they would want it to be designed.”
Transitional works can be particularly interesting pieces. They reflect both the past and the future of an artist or brand’s creative direction, differentiated both from the pieces that preceded them and those that followed. They also offer a glimpse into the thought process involved at creative intersections, revealing a direction that could have been.
Since their production tends to be limited, these timepieces are extremely rare and are highly sought after by collectors.
All these qualities are visible in the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. The design details, the dial and case in particular, are noteworthy, says Chan.
“This watch’s design is quite special because the outsourced Zenith movement was only available for a short ten years. Each watch from the set was fitted with a different dial too,” says Chan, who points out that it’s also the first Daytona to have Arabic numerals.
A Rolex Daytona like this is part of the Zenith movement calibre, which is given its own reference number.
“It was the last outsourced movement before they started using their in-house movement,” says Chan. “What's also really special about this watch is that it's featured in a platinum case that no one has ever seen on any automatic Daytona from the Zenith period.”
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona also has a strong historical value. The model with the Zenith El Primero movement was the first to follow the mechanical movement.
“The automatic Daytona already features a lot of history with Rolex,” says Chan. “It's the first automatic, so that marked a very big transitional period for Rolex when they were taking on more of a modern shape.”
But it is the limited number of units of this particular beauty that makes it so prized.
“Most importantly, there are only a limited number of these watches in platinum. For Rolex, it's very hard to find limited editions because most of the watches are produced in big quantities. So, for a watch to be encased in platinum and never seen in the market before, is monumentally rare,” said Chan.
The features and materials ensure that this watch has a unique place in any collection.
“For the details, we have seen Rolex choosing mother of pearl before. But this one features a very interesting kind of blue lacquer, which on a Datejust Rolex would be called a Stella. But it has a very interesting turquoise color Stella dial, and no one really knows why Rolex made such a unique platinum case for this watch,” explains Chan.
The platinum timepieces are celebrated within the Rolex collecting community. The story behind their mythical origin, how they were commissioned and the luminaries associated with them have become the stuff of legends.
An Important Watch
“I believe in years to come, this will probably be one of the biggest watches that represents the current modern watchmaking for Rolex,” says Chan.
As luxury watch collectors mature, particularly in Asia, more are starting to gravitate their collections towards earlier pieces. He believes there will be growing demand for this type of watch, given its special aesthetic and historical significance.
“I think this watch represents the beginning of the current period of Rolex. In the years to come, it will only become more and more historically important.”