Finding Your Grail Watch: Vintage Gilt Rolex Edition
The world of vintage horology can be esoteric, snobby, unapproachable. We’re here to try and change that. This week we welcome back @aircooltime to de-mystify the world of gilt Rolex.
What to look for, what to avoid, and how these amazing watches were made.
So without further ado, let’s turn it over to the vintage watch maven and air-cooled Porsche enthusiast himself…
Vintage gilt Rolex from the ‘50’s — ‘60’s era impart a certain vibe. As cool as they are, however, there are also many perils and pitfalls when acquiring a top quality, honest and original example. The popularity of these watches has driven prices to very high levels for top quality and scarce examples. This especially goes for watches that were either relatively low in original production, have survived in top condition or both. I’ll share some of my anecdotal opinions based on personal experience, study and interactions with some very knowledgeable collectors, dealers and watchmaker friends.
Hopefully this info is of value to others who may be interested in these models.
I was partially motivated to write this article because the quality of some restoration work on gilt Rolex is getting very good. This makes it trickier for collectors to ensure they are obtaining honest and original examples. It’s also not uncommon for period correct parts to be swapped (hands, dials, cases) to create “museum quality” pieces that although may be period correct, are not preserved as they originally came from the factory and should be disclosed as such.
Unfortunately, assembly of period correct pieces seems to be a common practice that is often undisclosed. Given the financial investment required to obtain these pieces, I personally prefer acquiring examples that are preserved in as close to original and top condition as possible. My hope is that by sharing this information, we can ensure knowledge, passion and confidence remain high in the community. Unless otherwise noted, pics used are from my iPhone and unfiltered.
Let’s start with a little background on what constitutes a gilt Rolex. Much has been written and illustrated elsewhere, so I’ll be brief in my description.
The gilt Rolex dial consists of a brass blank that was treated and then a galvanized layer of black color applied on top of the blank. This process is what makes the print appear golden or “gilt.” In this way, the coronet and signature sit in negative relief under the black. Next, a layer of clear lacquer was applied to seal the dial and impart a gloss sheen. The lower dial text may consist of a mix of gilt print in recessed relief from the brass blank underneath and a depth rating on some models, which was applied in print on top of the dial.
Some examples also have an underline that was printed under the top or lower dial text section that also sits on top of the dial surface or an “exclamation” dot applied in lume under the six marker. The exclamation dot and underline, are conventionally believed to signify the move to less radium and then to tritium lume respectively in the early ‘60’s. These examples were not produced for very long, and are therefore desired for their relative rarity.
Now let’s dive into how gilt Rolex evolved a bit over this period.
‘50’s — The dials from the early ‘50’s had lume containing more corrosive radium on the dial and hands. The lacquer used at that time was also thinner and this results in aging of a dial with some degradation and typically a more matte or flat appearance as opposed to a high gloss top surface of the dial. Around ’57, the lacquer process had improved, and the radium mix was less corrosive. That’s why you can see examples with less lacquer deterioration in general and more of a gloss sheen to the dial.
By ’59 the process had improved further, and one would expect to see the highest gloss characteristic on a pre-’60 dial containing radium content. In my opinion, we should expect to see non-perfect gloss gilt dials with some minor lacquer disturbance pre-’60, due to the presence of radium and less thick lacquer coatings on examples that have not been restored.
‘60’s- By ’63, the conversion to tritium was reportedly complete to meet the Atomic Energy Council standards of the time and you see the switch from chapter ring dials with “swiss” to open chapter “swiss T <25” on the bottom of the dial. This change in nomenclature was to signify the conversion to tritium as the lume material. The dials from approx. ’64-’66 (end of gilt era) are typically the ones collectors appreciate for the highest level of “mirror” gloss. The combination of less corrosive tritium lume on the plots and hands, along with improved lacquer technique give well preserved examples an incredible mirror shine that seems to have an “oil slick” type depth under certain lighting conditions.
What are some key aspects to look for when examining a gilt Rolex?
Gloss — As noted above, the level of gloss should differ depending on the age of the piece. I personally look at the type of gloss to date of production as one factor. If a dial from the mid-‘50’s is very mirror glossy, I would suspect it’s been relacquered and possibly relumed. See below photo where I believe this particular dial was relumed and relacquered.
The lacquer coating is extremely shiny with minimal aging signs and it meets the lume plot outline in a jagged appearance that I would not expect to see under close examination. A dial from the late gilt period if preserved well should have a high sheen if in top condition. Note the picture below where the dial exhibits multiple hand reflections and you can also see the color of the lume reflected off the dial.
Crazing — It’s not uncommon for gilt dials to exhibit some level of crazing or “spidering” to the top lacquer coat on the dial. (Below photo courtesy of @craftandtailored). One hypothesis is this may have occurred from exposure to different temperature extremes where the top lacquer coat reacted differently than the black layer and expansion/contraction created surface tension differences and hence the crazing. It could also be due to the intrusion of moisture into the case or possibly high levels of heat/sun exposure, or reaction near the lume plots. Although not uncommon and a sign of originality, examples with intact top surfaces, or only very minor crazing tend to go for higher premiums and are often sought-after.
Dial print- Another factor is to look for the gilt print to sit in slight negative relief to the top of the dial color. For example, examine the edge of the print at an angle under bright light to see if you find this appearance. If the print is deeper relief to the black layer, then that’s correct. If the print appears entirely flush to the dial, that is one sign the dial may have been relacquered at some point.
Hand drag- It’s not uncommon to see circular marks around the center post and it can be a sign of originality. (Below picture also courtesy of @craftandtailored). The marks could be due to poor hand installation during service and possibly some lume flakes dropping from the hands and being rotated around the dial, scratching the lacquer layer. Like anything else, the degree of noticeable marking is personal for what can be acceptable as opposed to eye distracting. This aspect may also have an impact on value when compared to similar examples with no drag marks, so be sure to consider that factor if you ever desire to trade or sell in the future.
Lume — Close examination of the lume is also important. The lume on many of the dials is somewhat puffy and domed which really adds dimension to these dials. The actual tone may vary from somewhat tan, orange or lighter yellow depending on the mix of lume material used over time and exposure to light and elements over the years. It’s not uncommon to see a little deterioration of original lume or even some chips, for example on GMT model’s lume, where the GMT hand may have been installed too low when the watch was serviced, thus scraping the very top of some plots. Again, it’s up to each collector’s preference on what level of lume condition is acceptable.
Plot and hand reaction to UV light — A loupe and UV light are your best friends for examination. Go in a dark room and shine a UV light on the dial while taking a video. Remove the light source and run the video until everything fades out. Time to fade will vary from radium (rapid) to later tritium models that tend to hold a greenish glow longer. That said, you want to see a consistent reaction between the plots and ideally the hands in fade time.
Case- After assessing dial condition. I personally prefer unpolished or natural “sleeve worn” cases from use that have not been re-cut or hit with a polishing wheel. It’s very difficult to find these examples and the cost increases dramatically with a top quality, original dial. To me there is something about the original dimensions of the case and pop of models with original chamfers (as shown below) that just adds to the ownership experience. However, I wouldn’t let a great gilt dial in a strong, but lightly touched case be a deal breaker at the right price.
Hands- Gilt model hands should be flat and not convex. A good way to tell is to examine the hour hand at an angle under a loupe to see if there is curvature to the Mercedes portion. The minute hand should also extend beyond the minute hash marks. Hands on many gilt examples are often relumed and it does have some relative value impact, when compared to original hands with original lume. Depending on the period, the flat hands could be gold plated or chrome plated.
Examination in different light — It’s important to examine gilt dials in natural light at different angles under a loupe. It’s expected to see signs of normal aging that are not eye distracting. Many gilt dials have different appearances based on lighting conditions and angle of dial viewing. Ambient light often exposes some of the minor flaws inherent on a dial from this period and my view is they help prove authenticity.
Many of the natural aging and tone changes can be quite visually pleasing, as shown in the example photo below. What you want to be looking for are major and non-natural flaws that could be obscured by darker light settings.
Geiger readings — There is also a lot of controversy on the use of Geiger counters to determine authenticity. I would just say they are one tool that can provide some interesting insight. If calibrated and used properly, I would expect to get a decent reading on examples from the ‘50’s and it would be a red flag for me personally to get a reading close to background noise from that period. I’m not saying a late ‘50’s piece can’t produce a low reading, but it would be a factor for requiring closer scrutiny.
The use of a Geiger on post ’60’s examples seems to produce very different results due to experimentation being done with lume at that point in time and the absence of historical records from Rolex. Some examples have very low readings, typically on early OCC and other dials containing strontium or those with an exclamation dot signifying lower radium levels. An underline dial would not conventionally be expected to register higher than a tritium level reading.
A note of caution on Geiger and UV readings, is that there is some top level restoration work that can create Geiger readings and sometimes correct UV response on relumed dials. As such, they are tools in the arsenal to use in addition to close inspection in hand and against accepted original examples for comparison. Almost perfect gilt examples are very hard to find, and many collectors are ok with some acceptable “wabi-sabi” level of honest aging on authentic, unrestored dials.
In my view, it’s all about personal preference and budget to obtain top condition, as prices can vary dramatically for top preserved examples, especially of the rarer early variants. I think it’s important when buying a gilt example, to get pictures in natural light and at angles. Ideally, you want to see the dial out of the case and under a loupe to inspect the dial closely for any undisclosed damage or noticeable restoration work that may not be apparent under certain lighting conditions.
I hope the above opinions from my experience are of interest. I welcome other insights, as this is not an exact science and the availability of manufacturer documentation is sparse. I share in the spirit of learning and the availability of new, vetted information is most welcome and helpful to our collector community.