Rolex released the second generation of its now iconic Daytona chronograph in 1988. I was a kid in Chatham, New Jersey, an area densely populated with wealthy stockbrokers and insurance salesmen who worked in Manhattan. It was Wall Street’s hardest-charging decade, and despite my young age, I started noticing the businessmen in my town wearing their bonus watches, these new Daytonas—mostly steel versions, but occasionally I would catch glimpses of flashier, rarer yellow-gold ones.
Today the Crown’s flagship chronograph is one of the most recognizable and collectible watches in the world. Many Daytona models sell for three to ten times their retail price on the secondary market. Paul Newman’s personal Daytona famously sold at auction for $17.8 million in 2017. Waiting lists for new steel Daytonas are years long. And it all started with this watch, the so-called Zenith.
When Rolex introduced the first-generation Daytona (a version of which Newman owned) in 1963, it was a manually wound sport watch that required frequent adjustments to keep time. By the ’70s, it existed in a world of user-friendly quartz timepieces. So in the mid-’80s, Rolex started buying an automatic chronograph movement made by watchmaker Zenith and modified it heavily to create the new self-winding, second-generation Daytona, which replaced the manual version.
The improvements weren’t just internal: The Zenith was also larger than the first-gen Daytona, 40 mm compared to the original 36 mm. It received a few aesthetic modifications as well, including the signature crown guard and contrast-color rings around the sub-dials. The bigger profile and the super-legible dial made the Zenith recognizable from across the room—a crucial feature for America’s Gordon Gekko era.
Almost overnight, the Zenith Daytona—flashier and more expensive than Rolex’s other sport watches—became the ultimate status symbol for corporate raiders and Hollywood producers alike. And once the second-generation Daytona caught on, the emerging watch-collector class started snapping up vintage models. The current Daytona craze, the insanely inflated resale prices, the outrageous auction records: It’s all rooted in the Zenith, which was replaced by the third-generation Daytona (powered by an in-house Rolex movement) in 2000.
The new Daytonas are great, but my childhood fascination with the Zenith abides. I’m especially drawn to the ones made between 1988 and 1993 (like this one here), which have an unusual upside-down 6 on the small hour sub-dial. A vintage gold Zenith and a new gold Daytona cost approximately the same (around $30,000)—for now. But given the Zenith’s historical significance, the frenzy for these things might only be getting started.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue with the title “Celestial Being.”
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