7th Nov 2023
The white sheep of the family: Our favourites from Rolex’s often neglected collection of white-dialled sports watches.
by Watch Collecting
There seems to be a common thread running through many high end brands that their tool watch collection is conspicuously short on white-dialled models.
It is to be expected in many ways. As opposed to a dress watch, where the main requirement has always been that it complements a smart outfit, tool watches were primarily intended to serve a specific function. Often, that would be to provide easily readable information during a job or sporting activity that was, by nature, on the hazardous side; flying, diving, exploring, etc. In those situations, the designer’s focus was always on providing the highest contrast and legibility, and a black dial with white hands was always judged to do it best.
Of course, the days when luxury mechanical tool watches are routinely used for their initially conceived roles are far behind us, but it is still surprising how few white-dialled examples there are of some of horology’s biggest icons.
Rolex is a good case in point. You won’t find a Submariner or Sea-Dweller with a white face. Some, such as the Explorer, had them many moons ago, while the jury is still out on others. The ref. 6542 GMT-Master, for instance, the first iteration of the ultimate luxury travellers’ watch, may or may not have had around 100 white dial pieces made by special order for Pan-Am executives in the 1950s, but no one seems able to agree.
However, that still leaves some legendary watches in the stable, and the sports models Rolex does furnish with white dials do tend to be overlooked. We think these models deserve some more love so we’ve highlighted four of our favourites below.
The Rolex Milgauss ref. 116400
Sadly, Rolex discontinued the Milgauss this year, for the second time in its history. Unveiled during the brand’s most prolific era of the 1950s, it was designed as a watch for scientists; its fearsome antimagnetic properties made it the ideal wear inside laboratories surrounded by high output electrical equipment.
However, it was always one of the underdog Rolexes, struggling for sales in a market dominated by more glamorous alternatives. The Milgauss was pulled from production in 1988, following the incredible 23-year-long run of the ref. 1019. Many thought that was that for the model, but Rolex surprised everyone in 2007 when they launched a reimagined version to coincide with the opening of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
The ref. 116400 was released in two variants; a black dial and a beautifully vibrant white dial example. (The later ‘GV’ references were covered by a specially formulated green sapphire crystal).
The white dial gave the Milgauss a completely different look and feel. Bright orange accents found their way onto its encircling minute track, baton indexes, ‘Milgauss’ signature and, in particular, onto the welcome return of its lightning bolt seconds hand.
The ref. 116400 was a superb shakeup of the notoriously sober and conservative vintage references of the watch and came with its antimagnetic party trick still intact—the Cal. 3131 was shielded by a second internal case to protect the movement. Always an outlier in the Rolex collection, the Milgauss was the idiosyncratic choice amongst the usual suspects. And now that it is out of production, expect demand, and premiums, to rise.
The Rolex Explorer II ref. 16570
Rolex’s adventurers’ watch, the Explorer II, is arguably their most famous use of the white dial. The model itself stems from 1971, debuting with the ref. 1655, presented with a black dial only. The first use of the white, or ‘Polar’ dial, came with the follow up reference, the transitional ref. 16550. But in 1989, Rolex brought out the long-running third generation, the last to be given the classic 40mm proportions; the ref. 16570.
This version offered a number of upgrades on its predecessors, including improved movements in the shape of the Cal. 3185 and, in its last few years, the Cal. 3186, as well as better quality bracelets. Available with either black or white dials, it is the ‘Polar’ which is often the more prized. The lume-drenched handset and hour markers are all outlined in black, making them highly readable in even the darkest conditions—handy for a watch built for cave explorers. The large engraved 24-hour numerals stand out effortlessly from the brushed steel case and the bright red GMT hand gives the whole thing a lift.
The 16570 stayed in production all the way up to 2011 and, as such, was given a number of modifications. The original tritium lume was swapped first for Luminova, then Super-Luminova. The lug holes of the early versions disappeared in the late 1990s and solid end links were added to the Oyster bracelet around the same time. The Cal. 3186 was installed late in the production cycle, bringing with it the Parachrom Bleu hairspring.
The Rolex Explorer II was a slow burn for Rolex, one which took decades to find its audience. Today however, it’s started to gather some serious momentum and is appreciated for its unique looks and as a refreshing alternative to blacked-dialled offerings from the Crown.
The Rolex Daytona ref. 116520
The legendary Cosmograph has long been the Rolex sports watch offered with the most variety. Even in its earliest incarnations, the brand always seemed more willing to take risks and experiment with it in regards to dial colours and styles.
That remains true today, with there being far more examples of the Daytona in the catalogue to choose from than any of the other Professional Collection pieces. And, as well as the various dial options, the model is also available in every type of metal Rolex produces. However, while you can buy the Daytona in all three flavours of gold, the two-tone of Rolesor and even platinum, it is the steel versions which have always had the longest waiting lists.
The ref. 116520 is an especially fascinating reference, as it can claim to be the first and last in a number of ways. Unveiled in 2000, it was the first Daytona released with an in-house movement, the Cal. 4130. The previous two generations both ran on third-party engines; from Valjoux and Zenith respectively. That Cal. 4130 was also the first calibre of any Rolex watch to be fitted with the Parachrom Bleu hairspring, with all its antimagnetic properties.
But conversely, the ref. 116520 was the last all-steel Daytona. When it was retired in 2016, it was replaced with the ref. 116500LN, complete with a bezel formed from Rolex’s own Cerachrom ceramic alloy. It is one of those strange decisions you come to expect from the brand. There had always been steel bezeled models of the Daytona from the very start but, after 53-years, the ref. 116520 represents the final one.
There were both black and white dialled versions released, each with small but crucial stylistic differences from the previous generation. Due to the new movement, the sub dials were placed a little higher than before and two, the running seconds and the 12-hour counter, swapped places. The rings around those totalisers also changed, going from black to silver. In addition, the handset and hour markers were made thicker and more legible and the Oyster bracelet was upgraded with all solid links. But the fundamentals, including the sweeping 40mm case and screw-in crown and pushers which granted 100m water resistance, remained in place.
There is no doubt that the Rolex Daytona is now one of the most important sports watches ever made, and the ref. 116520 ranks up there with the very best, especially in white!
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 114300
It is impossible not to appreciate the simple minimalism of the Oyster Perpetual collection. You get three hands to tell the time…and that’s it. Except, not only does it do its job in the most versatile and austerely handsome way possible, it will keep on doing it forever. It may be Rolex’s entry level range, but the watches are constructed with exactly the same fastidiousness and attention to detail as anything else which bears the name.
The ref. 114300 was a relatively blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release, running from 2015 to 2020. For many, it was the perfect watch. Its 39mm diameter made it the ideal t-shirt to tuxedo all-rounder, it came with a bombproof engine in the shape of the Cal. 3132, complete with Paraflex shock absorption, and it was as cost effective as you could get. Originally offered with a choice of three quirky dial colours; dark rhodium, red grape and blue, those were joined in 2018 by two monochrome classics in black and white.
By far the most admired of those was the latter. Unlike the rest of the ‘OP39’ series which had sunburst brushing on the dials, here the white was given a matte, slightly textured finish. It meant that it managed to pull off the neat trick of being both dynamic, shifting tones across silver, ivory, eggshell and everything in-between in different lighting conditions, but also remained incognito—the Oyster Perpetual’s USP.
It was a cause of some consternation then when Rolex took another one of those strange decisions to replace the whole range in 2020 with the current 41mm collection. Yet, it does give some good news for those lucky enough to catch one at retail when they were available. The ref. 114300s have become solid collector’s items with the white dial variant, produced for just two years, being the rarest and most popular of them all.