Originality In Vintage Rolex Watches

Is that the Original …..?

[When buying and selling even late vintage Rolex watches, many people can be sticklers for originality – why is this I wonder?

I suppose it’s because a watch that has had lots of parts replaced is a bit like ‘Trigger’s broom’ and perhaps that 1993 Submariner may not all be that old and this can be extremely important to many people.

So what gets changed over time? Why does it happen? And how important is it?

Let’s see shall we…?

The Dial

This is the most obvious and important component of any watch when it comes to originality and so is the first place that you should look.

With a Rolex there are so many subtle differences, especially with the most collectable models, that it takes a specialist to be really confident of what they’re dealing with. It’s this and this alone which has led us to decline politely whenever we’ve been asked to source a Paul Newman Daytona for a client. It’s a minefield – one that’s certainly possible to cross safely but not a journey that I want to make myself.

At a more straightforward level, the dial of a Rolex can often be dated by the markings that relate to the type of luminous material used on the hour markers. Over the years Rolex watches have been marked with Radium, Tritium, Luminova and Super Luminova – the first two of which were dangerously radioactive to the poor devils who had to work with it.

By looking carefully at the markings at the bottom of the dial which relate to the type of material used – “Swiss”, “Swiss T – < 25”, “T Swiss T”, “Swiss Made” etc., we can tell if the dial is correct for the model and year of the watch.

Now you might be wondering why on earth anyone would need to change a Rolex dial – There are a few reasons including personal preference (not common), water ingress damage (also uncommon) and the most likely which is deterioration of the existing dial through damp, light or failure.

Over a period of time, watch dials can fade unevenly, the ‘lume’ can detach and the overall finish can deteriorate, sometimes creating what’s known as a ‘spider dial’. Dials also sometimes change colour completely and turn ‘tropical’.

Any of these situations would cause Rolex to replace the dial at service – it is usually both obligatory and chargeable.

The watch would then have what’s known as a ‘service’ or ‘replacement’ dial – it’s a genuine Rolex dial but of a later period than the rest of the watch. There is nothing wrong with a watch like this, although it is worth slightly less than a completely original version.

A service dial is not to be confused with a ‘redial’ which is where the original dial, or sometimes a different dial completely, is repainted by somebody other than Rolex. These dials are considered fake and significantly reduce the value and desirability of the watch.

One measure that is often discussed when deciding if a dial is original is the brightness of the lume – over time, the luminosity of both the dial and the hands will fade and decades later they should usually no longer glow.

However, the key words here are “should” and “usually“… This method is not infallible because for instance Rolex Submariner dials from the mid 1960’s are well known for retaining luminosity even after fifty years…Ah, the vagaries of the Vintage Rolex.


The next most important thing to look out for the originality of is the hands. As with the dial, these can sometimes corrode or lose their lume and consequently will be replaced at service or possibly have the lume re applied by a watchmaker.

The same luminosity rules apply as with the dial and a good way to check the originality of the hands is to see whether the lume has faded to the same colour as the dial – again, far from infallible though because original hands and dials can easily have come from different factory batches and therefore fade at different rates and to different degrees. It is a mistake to think that every component of a vintage watch was originally made at the same time and therefore will age identically.

Generally speaking, non-original hands won’t make a massive difference to the value of the watch unless it is ultra rare and highly collectable but they do make a difference.

The Bezel Insert

On the majority of Rolex sports watches the bezel insert is made of relatively soft aluminium with a painted finish that can quite easily get scratched. Rolex will often change these at service or owners may have them changed through choice.

The originality of the insert isn’t nearly as important as the dial or the hands and if a period insert is required, replacements are readily available at a relatively modest cost.

The Crystal or Plexi

The originality of the crystal or plexiglass can sometimes be important but unfortunately is usually nigh on impossible to guarantee. As long as it is made of the correct material, is of the right profile and is an original Rolex product then any more is very difficult to ascertain.

It is sometimes possible to spot a non original plexi or crystal by touch and feel although the most obvious giveaway is that replacements sometimes have the wrong degree of magnification on the date ‘cyclops’ – a schoolboy error.

The Crown

Because the crown is regularly used to wind the watch and because it screws into the Oyster case, it is designed to be a service replaceable part. Consequently it is not unusual for any watch over 20 years old or so to have had a replacement crown and as long as it is genuine and of the right style, this is not a problem.

Internal Components

One of the main purposes of servicing a Rolex is to lubricate the internal components, replacing the original lubricants that dry out over time. A complicated mechanical movement containing dozens of parts is bound to need something replaced from time to time and so some degree of lack of originality is not at all problematic.  It is also often impossible to detect without completely stripping the movement down.

The Bracelet, Strap or Buckle

Over time, any leather strap will deteriorate and so on a vintage watch it is likely to have been replaced. Whether it was replaced with an original Rolex strap is largely academic as Rolex don’t make their own straps and so we never advise anyone to get hung up on this as an issue.

Buckles are different because quite often they can be made of a precious metal and if lost, clearly will affect the value of the watch.  Also, unlike straps, original buckles will have a specific visual style and replacement buckles can sometimes just look wrong.

Rolex bracelets have changed quite significantly over the years and having the correct type of bracelet i.e. Oyster, Heavy Oyster, Jubilee, President etc is important. Within each type, manufacturing processes have changed over the years and while there are no hard and fast rules for which process was used in precisely which year, there is a progression and fairly accurate guidelines. Consequently it is important to know whether your vintage Rolex bracelet should be riveted, folded or forged to match the age of the watch.

One very helpful factor is that Rolex bracelet clasps usually carry a stamp that can be used to date the bracelet. Bear in mind though that a 1972 watch doesn’t necessarily have to have a 1972 bracelet in order to be original and correct –it all depends on what was available when the watch was put together and for this 1972 watch a bracelet from 1970, ’71 or even ’73 could be perfectly original.

The Minefield

See, I told you it was tricky but hopefully you’ve at least found this article interesting and helpful in some way.

As always, the best advice that I can ever give to anyone buying a luxury watch of any age or brand is that unless you are an expert, always buy from a reputable seller who you can trust.

Be careful out there…