Rolex and their historic ties to specialist organisations are well known to many, from retailer dials for the likes of Tiffany & Co., to those produced to be distributed in the Middle East market featuring the royal symbol of Oman and the official seal of the United Arab Emirates, then beyond to the issued watches for Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX) and the British military; sifting through the archives, we can find a wide gamut of bespoke creations from the company.
But as time progressed, production volumes increased, and the challenges of doing customised orders became more pronounced, so the market witnessed a waning of these distinctive and coveted configurations. The last 20 years has seen an evolution in the way Rolex satisfies the demand from a variety of organisations across the military and civilian sectors, creating a new generation of highly collectible references for enthusiasts to excitedly chase.
Dials featuring the coronet and a retailer signature would fade from existence in the 1990s, with the Tiffany & Co. signed Daytona reference 16520 being the most visible from this period, but that did not stop special partnerships with important authorised dealers around the world. The most straightforward of these consist of engraved case backs, such as the edition produced for Relojeria Alemana in Palma De Mallorca for their 135th anniversary, that featured a relief of the store on the reverse of the watch. This format would also be used for presentation watches awarded at Rolex sponsored events such as the Goodwood Revival, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to name a few.
More involved efforts have made appearances, particularly with the sister brand of Rolex, Tudor, including an edition of the Black Bay Bronze with blue bezel for the Swiss retailer Bucherer, and a version of the original Black Bay made for Orologi & Passioni in Milan that had the dial text replaced with the Italian translation. Among the most coveted by collectors is the run produced for the London department store, Harrods, that not only changed the bezel for one in a lustrous green, the emporium’s signature colour, but also had the depth rating printed in a matching tone, providing a rare instance where both the case and dial were revised for a retail partner.
The relationship between Rolex and organisations such as COMEX and the British military are well known to collectors for not only providing individuals operating in extremely challenging conditions a reliable timekeeper, but also offering a feedback loop for product development. As divers and other personnel have moved away from mechanical timekeepers to track oxygen reserves or decompression stops to digital dive computers that provide much more functionality, classic models such as the Submariner and Sea-Dweller have continued to find a place on the wrist as a backup or a reminder of simpler times when on land.
Various regiments have had special editions produced for their members in recent times, including the British Special Reconnaissance Regiment, and the Royal Navy Clearance Divers, but these stuck to the tried and tested formula of applying an intricate engraving to the case back. To the best of our collective knowledge, it is believed that the last time Rolex customised a dial for a military unit was in 2008 with the so-called “Polipetto”, or “octopus” in English, that was produced for the Italian Police Divers Corps. What makes the model so fascinating is not only the logo applied to the dial, and the anniversary text to the case back, but the fact that, of the 78 pieces made, 28 had their engraving specifically executed for the diver which they were given to, including their “brevet” dive certification number. It may have been the last of the breed for Rolex military watches, but it was a particularly special one and proved how far above and beyond the company has been prepared to go.
This neatly brings us to the most recent run of special models made for a particular market, and that is the series destined for the Middle East. Watches produced by Rolex with so-called Hindi or Eastern Arabic numerals have long been coveted by the collectors’ community, emerging on the dials of a very small number of Oyster cased models in the 1950s, the Arabic script appearing on the day and date discs of a tiny batch of the reference 6611, before becoming ever slightly more common (but still exceedingly rare) in the 1960s and 1970s as applied numerals for the Day-Date.
After an extremely long hiatus, the format would return in 2016 on the reference 228206 40mm platinum Day-Date, becoming an immediate must-have among collectors with a fascination for these special dial Rolex models. With its soleil brushed ice blue dial, and contrasting strong blue Hindi number hour markers and matching hands, complemented by the Arabic script for the day and date indicators, the watch has a harmonious presence that works extremely well in the platinum case and president bracelet with the smooth Oyster bezel (or a baguette diamond bezel for those deemed fortunate enough to receive the configuration).
With long waitlists building up as soon as the watch was announced, it was not too surprising to see the formula extrapolated to the Daytona range in 2018, once again housed in a platinum case and bracelet, with ice blue dial, and this time garnered with a brown ceramic or diamond bezel. It may seem an unusual pairing of this Eastern Arabic numeral format in a Daytona case, but there is historic precedence in the form an extremely rare reference 6263 Daytona from the 1970s, which featured the same script for the hour markers, one of which emerged in the Phillips Daytona Ultimatum auction in 2018, once again confirming how important the market is for Rolex, and how long that has been the case.
The take away from all of these examples of the storied company working closely across a range of retailers, professional units, regional markets, and events, is that Rolex is very careful in choosing who they work with, but once the relationship is established, they will go to considerable effort to make sure it is special and enduring.