Where it all began ....
As we say goodbye to the Rolex Milgauss for good, we thought we’d take a look at the history of this impressive timepiece, that was so much more than just a watch.
Invented in 1954, the Milgauss was the solution to a fundamental issue for scientists at CERN – the European organisation for Nuclear Research.
In the early 1950’s, when the Large Hadron Collider wasn’t even a twinkle in its founders’ eyes, the scientists at CERN in Meyrin, Switzerland found that they had something of a problem. It was many years before the invention of the quartz movement so all of the scientists wore mechanical wrist watches. The accuracy of their watches was of paramount importance, because of the degrees of technical precision that they were working to every day. The problem that they experienced was that the massive magnetic fields that they were working in wreaked havoc with their all-important timepieces.
As some of you may have discovered with your own mechanical wrist watches, they do not like magnetism, and exposure to any magnetic field at all can make them run erratically or even stop altogether.
So, in 1954 the clever chaps at CERN approached their neighbours at Rolex in Geneva to fix the problem, which they duly did.
Magnetism & Milgauss
There are many compounds in the world that are not susceptible to magnetism, but one of the most effective is soft iron. Since 1836 scientists had been protecting delicate instrumentation from magnetism in a soft iron box called a Faraday Cage and so that is exactly what Rolex did with an automatic watch movement.
In 1954, Rolex built a tiny Faraday Cage and encased their 1065 automatic movement in it, (adding the subscript “M”) and creating the first Rolex Milgauss – reference 6543. The name ‘Milgauss’ derives from the Latin ‘Mille Gauss’ – ‘Mille’ meaning 1000 and ‘Gauss’ being the measurement of the strength of a magnetic field. So while automatic watch movements can be adversely affected by magnetic fields as low as 50 Gauss, Rolex’ new creation protected them from magnetic fields up to 1000 Gauss strong.
1954 - 1961: The Rolex Milgauss Exploration Years
After only two years the 6543 was replaced in 1956 by the updated reference 6541 – why they went backwards with the reference numbers rather than forwards is anybody’s guess. The 6541 had the newer 1066M movement along with other styling improvements. The 6541 was a classic piece of 1950’s styling, borrowing heavily from different influences of the day.
The dial featured a waffle texture which was popular on the dress watches of such brands as Omega and Rolex in the 1940’s and 50’s. The rotating bezel had an insert made of aluminium featuring a red triangle at 12 o’clock, borrowed from the styling of Rolex’ own Submariners, first released only two years before. It was the seconds hand however that tapped most heavily into popular culture. The 1950’s was a time of exploration, development and comic book adventure, and the lightning bolt shape of the Milgauss’ seconds hand was a nod to this while being particularly relevant to the work of the scientists at CERN.
The 6541 was undeniably a masterpiece of technical development and 1950’s design and this has subsequently been recognised. In 2023, an original early example of a 6541 would be valued in excess of £200,000.
However, in the 1950’s, its 37 mm case was considered by many to be too large and the styling too ‘industrial’ and so retail sales were relatively poor, even though the similarly sized Submariner was more of a success.
After a production run of seven years covering both references, the original design Milgauss was discontinued in 1961, to be replaced by the much more understated reference 1019.
1961 - 1986: Rolex Milgauss Lightning Strikes
The Rolex Milgauss 1019 featured either a plain black or aluminium dial, later a white option was added, and a fixed, smooth steel bezel. The iconic lightning bolt seconds hand was also replaced in favour of a more elegant, slim straight design.
While the 1019 Milgauss remained in production in various formats for 25 years, it was never a particularly popular watch with retail customers. At the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, demand was so low, that orders were saved up, and the watches were produced when sufficient numbers were reached. This is why you will see 1019 Milgauss’ from 1968 and 1970, but not from 1967 or 1969 as there just wasn’t sufficient demand to make them in those years.
Of course as is always the case with Rolex watches, a lack of popularity when new causes low production numbers and even lower numbers of exceptional examples 50 years down the line. This makes a great early 1019 genuinely scarce and therefore valuable with 1960’s Full Set prices in excess of £35,000.
In 1986, Rolex called it a day and the Milgauss was dropped from their catalogue forever.
2007: Rolex Milgauss Re-invention (again)
Or so it seemed until 2007 when the company was looking for a new and exciting way to rejuvenate their catalogue with a hint towards their expansive history.
The new Rolex Milgauss reference 16400 was a spectacular watch with a 40mm stainless steel case, fixed, smooth stainless steel bezel and dials in either black or white with orange accents. The 116400 also saw the revival of the lightning seconds hand from the 6541, this time in a bright orange colour. The pièce de résistance of the range was the Anniversary model 116400 GV which featured a black dial with a green tinted sapphire crystal (The ‘GV’ stood for ‘Glace Verte’).
The 116400 GV was immediately successful and quickly became the favourite watch of Daniel Craig, at the time the new James Bond, which undoubtedly did no harm whatsoever for the popularity of the model.
After only six years, Rolex discontinued the black dialled version of the Milgauss. A year later in 2014, it was replaced by a blue dialled version with the green sapphire crystal, the 116400 GVZ.
For two years there were three models in the Rolex Milgauss range; the white, the GV and the GVZ, but in 2016, the white was discontinued, leaving only the green glass versions in the lineup.
2023 - RIP Rolex Milgauss
This brings us to March 27, 2023, the saddest day for Rolex Milgauss lovers since 1986. This was the day that Rolex announced the discontinuation of the 116400 GV and the 116400 GVZ , erasing the Milgauss from the Rolex catalogue completely.
So what does that mean for the availability and value of the 116400 models?
Usually when Rolex discontinue a watch completely, it has an immediate and positive effect on both demand and price and in this, the Milgauss is no exception.
As I write, in the week since the model was cancelled, the availability of truly excellent examples here in the UK has fallen by almost 50% and prices have risen by around 10%.
Even after the recent price rise you can still buy an exceptional example of any of the four discontinued Milgauss models for less than £11,500. For a discontinued 40mm stainless steel sports Rolex Full Set in outstanding condition, this represents superb value.
As regular readers will know, I’m a great believer in the power of supply and demand and with this watch the supply is now fixed as they have made all of the 116400s that they will ever make.
Truly outstanding examples make up a fairly small proportion of these, and as demand continues to rise and supply is fixed, if not falling, that leaves only one direction for the price to go. Up.
April 2023 is a great time to buy an excellent example of this beautiful Rolex sports watch before prices rise further.
Luckily for Oakleigh Watches readers, we just happen to have outstanding Full Set examples of all four variants in stock.