Just a few weeks ago, Rolex did something it almost never does – at least not until recently. It released an anniversary watch outside of the normal trade show structure. The brand went rogue, caught us all by surprise, and unveiled what is quite possibly the hottest watch of the year.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Le Mans, Rolex announced a very special Daytona. Taking everything new that the brand announced at Watches & Wonders 2023 (new symmetrical case, metal-edged bezel, re-configured dial layout, and new movement), this latest iteration of the Daytona is just…extra in all the right ways.
And look, we've seen Rolex do the anniversary dance in the past. We've got our Kermit Submariners (with black dial and green bezel insert), and our platinum Daytonas. What makes those watches different from what we are seeing in the new "Le Mans" Daytona is that they were each new manifestations of a known design. And that's because Rolex doesn't do homage, or so we thought.
Our hands-on coverage with the redesigned Daytona from Watches & Wonders 2023.
This new Daytona is the Crown doing a throwback design in its own way. It's not a re-edition or a 1:1 copy of a vintage model. It's a new luxe Daytona that uniquely speaks to the past. So what is that past? Well, it's a mixture of the Paul Newman styling and aesthetics of the very first Daytona model, which itself links back to Le Mans.
Origins Of The Daytona 24-Hour Races
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most storied and prestigious endurance race on the planet. The Rolex Daytona is the most famous mechanical chronograph on that same planet, so named for a different 24-hour endurance race (I'll let you guess), who's origins point back to the Le Mans.
And that's because the original Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 was not actually called the Daytona at first. The marketing and advertising behind the model that first sprang up in 1963 did not refer to this watch as "Daytona" because it wasn't actually called that yet. Instead, the ads make reference to a chronograph called the "Le Mans."
Yes, the Rolex Daytona, by all accounts, was originally going to be called the Rolex Le Mans. Daytona would eventually take the billing thanks to Rolex's sponsorship of the 24 Hours of Daytona in the mid-1960s.
But it was Le Mans that set the table some 60 years ago. So while this new Daytona released in June celebrates 100 years of the Le Mans race, it also marks 60 years since the Rolex Cosmograph was on the cusp of going by the very same name.
Rolex’s Variation On Homage
To be clear, we are not going to call this an homage because, well, it isn't. But there are enough Easter eggs hidden in the design of this new chrono that point to models of Rolex past: notably that first reverse panda (black dial with white registers) ref. 6239 Le Mans Daytona, as well as the Paul Newman Dial (a specifically funky dial iteration with red accents and unique typography made famous by the A-list actor) in both ref. 6239 and ref. 6263 format.
If you're going to pay serious money for any Daytona, I tend to think it should be one of historical importance.– Ben Clymer, Hodinkee Founder
So what really separates a non-Newman black dial from a Newman black dial Daytona? A whole lot actually. A traditional non-Newman Daytona looks very similar to early Heuer Carreras in a lot of ways. You have the standard matte black dial with white hash marks, and high-contrast white sub-registers with standard numeral printing, including the flat-four in those sub-registers. And that's sort of it.
Hodinkee Founder Ben Clymer goes deep on the iconic chronograph made famous by Paul Newman himself.
The Newman dial on the other hand brings in a lot more visual intrigue and contrast to the dial. The outer hash marks on the dial are done in a vibrant red against a white outer backdrop. The inner dial is a flat black color. While it shares the white sub-registers with the non-Newman, it's what's on the inside that counts here, and nothing is standard. First are the inner-markers with squared ends, and the unique numerical style in an almost deco-format with sharp edges. These are known as exotic dials and looking at them, you can see why.
While these Newman dial Daytonas were not particularly popular in their day, the Newman has gone on to become the most recognizable manifestation of the Daytona, period. These watches continue to fetch huge results at auction and have not lost any popularity in the modern era of collecting.
Paul Newman is about as significant a figure in watches as they come, and his posthumous impact on horology cannot be overstated. Whether it's the 6239 Newman Daytona with pump pushers or the later ref. 6263 model with its screw-down pusher design, the man himself made an icon out of one of the worst-selling Rolex models of its day. That's power.
This 2023 model takes a little bit from the Le Mans and the Newman to create this celebratory look. The first is the use of red accents, even if they are not in places you would normally find them (in this case, on the bezel). But you see things here like the use of a black ceramic bezel, which is a riff on the black acrylic bezels of the older models.
The standard black dial and white sub-register motif really feels like a direct call-out to the very first ref. 6239 Le Mans Daytona. The use of the simple typography in the sub-registers and overall pared-down design is about as close to that look as you can get in a modern Daytona package. It's when you look inside those pushers that you see where the exotic impact comes into play. The markers inside have the same squared-off look that we see on the vintage Newman dials. And I'll go so far as to say that bringing back this design cue is almost as unexpected as the emoji Day-Date.
Doing The Anniversary Thing The Right Way
Look, when Rolex does an anniversary – especially with the Daytona – it makes it extra special. And that usually means precious metal. In this case the choice was white gold, which was a great call here because it takes on the appearance of steel while secretly elevating the watch a touch.
I think it's safe to say that when the platinum Daytona was released in 2013, the general watch-loving public was left wanting a bit. Folks had that year marked on their calendars. They wanted a ceramic bezel in steel, and they wanted a panda dial. Instead, they got something very different and it took time for that watch to catch on.
This was a very different affair, mostly because of the surprise factor and lack of expectation. We thought we were done celebrating the Daytona way back in March. Rolex had done right by us – taking the Daytona to new heights by refining the watch in several ways. A new bezel construction, a more luxurious dial layout, and a new movement were all we really needed. And it took things up a notch with the exhibition caseback on the platinum model. An exhibition caseback on a Rolex?? Mind blown.
So when Le Mans happened – out of deep left field – we were not just surprised, but instantly delighted. This one has delivered from the jump. It has everything we didn't even know we needed via the throwback design inspiration, plus the precious metal factor, making it a watch few will own, but the rest of us are perfectly okay admiring from afar without FOMO.
And this one maintains the exhibition caseback – but it doesn't bother us because the dial is just so cool. And what about that red flourish at the 100 mark on the dial? What's that like? Well, our own James Stacey was able to get up close and personal with the new 2023 Daytona (and take these beautiful photos), and he has some thoughts on this new Cosmograph.
Hands-On With The Le Mans Daytona
The 126529LN Daytona is definitely a watch I'm glad I got to try on my own wrist. One thing to note is that the example I shot is destined for retail and one of very very few that Canada (or anywhere else) will get this year. As such, some of the stickers needed to stay on the watch for its lucky owner to remove. But, in the metal, I was rather surprised by just how subtle it is in person. It is is not dull or boring, but the things that differentiate this model from a standard black dial steel Daytona are all done in a way that is quieter and more cohesive than I had expected.
The white subdials feel right at home on the dial, the red accents are much less bright in reality, and the white gold is heavy (I weighed this example, with all of its links, at 213 grams) but not in a way that feels like it would be too much. Typically, I am admittedly not a massive fan of the Daytona, but along with very much liking the changes that Rolex implemented earlier this year with the latest generation that was announced at Watches & Wonders, this reverse-panda-dial Daytona is easily my favorite of any 6-digit Daytona reference.
While I know many of you reading this will have more experience than I with precious-metal Daytonas, I couldn't help but compare this model to the 2013 platinum 116506 with its ice-blue dial and brown accents. While I'm aware of the growing cult following for the 116506, that is a special Daytona with a very loud presence. In contrast, the 126529LN flies well under the radar, and, despite being among the hardest-to-get watches in the Rolex catalog at this moment, I don't think it would garner any more casual attention than that of a steel black dial Daytona.
That said, if you cross paths with a Daytona nerd, though, you may be late for your next meeting.
A Pedantic Interlude
I've been paying attention to the chatter surrounding this watch since it landed in France a month ago, and one thing that has been bugging me is the social media talk regarding the sub-registers. Everyone is saying that both the typography and markers are reminiscent of the exotic-dial Daytonas of yesteryear.
And I'm here to say that just ain't true. Yes, the squared-off markers are an obvious reference, but it basically starts and ends there. The numerals themselves are basically part of the same numeral package Rolex uses on any of its modern watches and does not appear to have any tie-in with the Newman styling. Now that I've gotten that off my chest we can move on.
Where This Stands In the Modern Rolex Catalog
Just like the old days, when a non-Newman and Newman would coexist in the Rolex inventory, so too does this new watch (non-limited by the way) share the catalog with other, more-modern-leaning configurations.
Exploring the full-breadth (except PND dials) of the Daytona line from the 1960s to today.
So what is the closest sibling to this watch in the Daytona lineup? Well, it appears to be the black dial, kind-of-reverse-panda Daytona on an Oystefelx bracelet with a black ceramic bezel. What's missing on that model is the metal bracelet, open caseback, the red accent on the bezel, the exotic-style square markers, and the stark white sub-registers (these are silver).
I think we all agreed when that watch was released that it was so close to the finish line, but was just missing the extra something. That something is fully realized in this new 2023 ref. 126529LN.
Thoughts On Collectibility
It is absolutely bonkers to have two mammoth Daytona announcements in one calendar year, let alone mere months apart. This is the sort of watch that goes years without any sort of adjustment.
While March's collection refresh was Internet-breaking good, I think the Le Mans is a much bigger deal. For one thing, there will be less of these on the market globally. You just won't see it, and you'll have a hell of a time getting your hands on one.
The way that it speaks to the past should also influence its potential value not just to casual watch buyers, but also to collectors. I asked a couple of our own experts to weigh in on this watch's impact. First up is our own Tony Traina:
I wouldn't necessarily argue that any modern Rolex is 'collectible,' whatever that word means to you, dear reader, but as much as any might be, I suppose this could be it. Especially if Rolex only ends up making it for a year or so (it is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Le Mans after all). Like, when the first one (sadly) shows up on the secondary market, what's going to be the ask, 100k? Does it even matter? More broadly, it's perhaps the most overt historical reference we've seen from Rolex recently, a brand that we're always told: "doesn't do heritage." With this release, paired with recent auction results (courtesy of Rolex itself), it's clear Rolex is as concerned with its history as anyone. And for others (like me, and maybe even you) that are also concerned with its history, maybe that's the most significant news of all.
Next up, Rich Fordon (who you might remember was my co-star in Reference Points):
The design and decision to release the watch is perfectly Rolex. In hindsight, the writing was on the wall since 2016 with the switch to a ceramic bezel on the Daytona along with the slight bezel change made at Watches & Wonders this year, both inching the model's aesthetics closer to plastic bezel, manually-wound vintage Daytonas. Yet, the Le Mans surprised everyone.
The watch itself does not directly borrow everything from a "Paul Newman" dial, just as the newest 126500LN does not borrow everything from a 6263. It is better in live pics than the initial renders and watching supply over the next year or so will be very interesting to me. I think we will see very few of these watches made and that's probably the right move.
At the end of the day, the roughly $50k price tag won't be for everyone. With it, you've got to remember that this is a white gold Daytona on a white gold bracelet. It will be a low-production model and it's tied to this Le Mans anniversary. In a word, it's special. In two words, it's very special, and very special things (especially from Rolex) come with big price tags. Also, the price of a Rolex in this context ultimately doesn't even matter.
One can only guess what the going rate will be when they begin hitting the secondary market, but my guess would be: a lot. But that pricing speaks to excitement and scarcity, which is a concept we know well when it comes to this model.
Is this the hottest Daytona to hit the market since the launch of the steel ceramic models in 2016? You tell me.
The Rolex Daytona Ref. 126529LN. 40mm in diamter, 100m of water resistance via screw-down crown and screw-down pushers. Black dial, reverse-panda design with white registers. Cerachrom bezel with red element. White gold case and bracelet, and bracelet with Rolex Easy-Link adjustment system. Exhibition caseback featuring COSC-certified Superlative Chronometer caliber 4131 with 72 hours of power reserve. Price: $51,400.