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Is the Rolex Daytona Steel worth the wait?

A writer on a quest to obtain this highly-coveted timepiece

The Rolex Daytona Steel (Instagram)

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For those who easily give in to temptation, journalism is a dangerous profession. All-day, every day, we get information about new things, cool things, beautiful things, things we love, things we might fall in love with, things way beyond our reach, things we already have and things we plan to buy — plenty of temptation.

Then there is the entire marketing and public relations machinery constantly in overdrive, inviting us to write about and, if that fails, “experience” things that we didn’t previously realise we liked or needed. I never once was tempted. But then along came a charming PR executive with an Omega brochure around the same time that Daniel Craig was showing off the special edition Omega Seamaster that he had adorned in one of the films. This was before April 2012. I remember the year well because I haven’t worked a full-time job since then, and yet I have been hooked on watches that I really should not be buying with the savings, which my dad and friends say I’d need when I get really old. At 42, I am supposed to act mature. But who acts responsibly and maturely in the face of temptation?

That temptation currently is Rolex. Not the Explorer, not the Air King, definitely not the Day-Date, Datejust or Date (too many wearing them), the always-in-demand Submariner (I prefer Tudor Black Bay 58), GMT Master-II or even the classy Oyster Perpetual (okay, if I find the last two, my resolve might be tested). I want the all-steel Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oystersteel — each and every bit of micro-engineering of the carefully handcrafted calibre 4130 in-house movements held in a beautifully designed 40mm steel case with three subdials and a tachymeter on the ceramic bezel. 

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What’s not to love about it? It looks and feels like a real watch and not like a gimmicky extension of the phone on your wrist that responds to touch, reads out the time and texts and even plays music. It never pings, vibrates or tells you to stand up or work out. The battery health never deteriorates because there is none. You will never have to carry cables to charge it. It also shows you the time and can track lapsed time and speed too, but we also have our phone for those things. The Rolex Daytona just sits on your wrist, oozing style and putting your good taste and appreciation of fine things on display. 

The Daytona has got history. It is a testament to the timelessness of micro-engineering, which remains relevant in this day and age where every screen you own tells you the time and date. The combination of springs, cogs, wheels, and weights arranged and packed together in a case the size of a coin, working so efficiently to show you the time that it doesn’t err by a couple of seconds over days while working against gravity and magnets. It is difficult not to be fascinated. It still remains relevant, and despite the rushed obituaries after the birth of the smartwatches, there has been a huge spike in demand for mechanical watches in recent years.

And best of all, unlike smartwatches, the Daytona, for that matter most Rolexes, actually appreciate in value almost as soon as a retailer sells you one. (One of Newman’s 1968 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona sold for $17.75 million at a New York auction in 2017).

So, what’s stopping me from getting one? One is the fact that it costs about 10 lakh in retail, and as my commissioning editor matter-of-factly points out, “You won’t be able to buy one by just writing.” That’s not untrue. Shelling out money for even the cheapest Rolex definitely calls for some sort of financial planning and advice. And even if you have the money, the Daytona is one of the most difficult watches to buy in retail today. Not just the Daytona, but any steel Rolex, including the entry-level Oyster Perpetual Steel, is very difficult to get. 

I called the official Rolex dealers in Kolkata. They had just one watch then-- a 36mm mother of pearl dial with diamonds. I lost interest when I heard “mother of pearl”. I turned to Google next. No matter what expensive or semi-expensive watch you search for, Ethos always pops up on top of the page. I called them, and they said they would arrange a call back from the Rolex team. While my query for a 39,000 Seiko Presage got a prompt response within 16 hours of inquiring, it took the Rolex team four months to call back only to offer me watches that I do not care for — the steel and gold Datejust. I turned to an art collector friend in Mumbai. He called his watch dealer friend. The watch dealer friend told him, “If he wants the Rolex Daytona in retail, he could wait 20 years and still not get it.” 

A watch expert at a leading global auction house in Dubai with who I went to college and has been the watch guru to many warned me: “You are unlikely to find a single steel Rolex at retail prices in any authorised dealership in the world. And the steel Daytona is particularly difficult to get.” 

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Not convinced (after all, who spends a mid-range car worth’s money on an old fashioned watch), I landed up at the Exclusive Lines Rolex showroom in Kolkata a few months ago. The first time I went there, there was not one watch in the showroom. Apparently, more people than one can imagine are willing to spend crazy money on a luxury timepiece. A sales representative politely answered my queries about the Daytona, took down my details and told me he would inform me when stock arrived. A week later, without notice, I stopped by again, and this time they had plenty of watches on display. There was just one steel watch—the Datejust with white gold fluted bezel. There was also a Daytona, Cellini and Sky-Dweller, all in precious metals. Seeing me there for a second time, the sales rep sounded more involved and told me about a “waitlist” for steel and all professional Rolexes such as the Submariner, GMT Master-II and Daytona. I had heard about the “waitlist” but didn’t fully fathom the seriousness of it.

The demand for luxury watches has exploded of late, not just Rolex but all luxury watches, including Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Richard Mille, and A Lange & Sohne. Many enthusiasts believe the big brands stymie the supply to inflate the demand, but watch-making of this kind takes time as every step in the making of these watches requires human intervention and each human working in these factories requires years of training. So, increasing production is not as simple as outsourcing it to another human farm-like facility in China as Apple does. In September, Rolex issued a press release admitting their “current production cannot meet the existing demand in an exhaustive way” as all Rolexes are assembled by hand, a process that “naturally restricts our production capacities”.

No watchmaker of repute would want to bump up production at the cost of quality as Rolex says that is “something we refuse to do as the quality of our products must never be compromised.” And no watch enthusiast or collector would appreciate any compromise in quality. And that’s where the waitlist comes in.

In the watch world, it is the waitlist that makes you aware of time. I have spoken to several Rolex dealers in India and recently visited showrooms in Paris, Vienna and Helsinki too. Each and every one of them has told me about the waitlist while suppressing an internal chuckle when I mentioned the Daytona. The only readily available Rolexes in most showrooms across the world are just the Datejust watches. 

The Dubai-based watch expert had also warned me that the authorised dealers do not take anyone without a Rolex profile seriously even for their waitlist. “Many might even put you on one, but you are unlikely to be considered for an allotment,” he told me. Zimsons in Coimbatore registered my interest in September last year and said they could arrange the Oyster Perpetual 36mm by November end. When I called them to check after a few weeks, the sales manager disconnected my call and never called back. Ethos’ Rolex team called back a couple of months after I registered my query on their Rolex helpline to offer me the Datejust models in steel and gold—the Rolexes you are most likely to be able to buy by simply walking into any authorised dealer. Also, I am unable to wrap my head around the fact that a sales rep whose job description is, primarily, to cater to customers doesn’t even display the courtesy to call back an eager customer. 

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For its part, Rolex has washed its hands of the whole waitlist business. “It should be noted that Rolex watches are available exclusively from official retailers, who independently manage the allocation of watches to customers,” said the Rolex statement.

While I am told about a vague waitlist without so much as a number allotted to me or an approximate delivery schedule, I can readily find as many steel Rolexes as I want in the resellers or grey market. The trouble with the resellers market is that the timepieces cost two to three times the retail price. I was offered the Rolex Daytona Steel 2021 for Rs25 lakh while it retails for a shade under 9.5 lakh. At times the company that owns the authorised dealership also has a reseller dealership. For example, Ethos has Second Time Zone. The Ethos sales agent who told me they didn’t have any steel Rolex watches in retail asked me to consider one from their reseller outlet.

The secrecy and lack of transparency around the Rolex waitlist, especially for steel models, but ready availability of the same watches in the grey and resellers market, many times run by the same people and companies who run authorised dealerships, makes one wonder if there is some “unholy” nexus here. Several watch collectors suspect it and often complain about it.

I don’t want to use the resellers and grey market despite some reputable and reliable players for two reasons — exorbitant price tags and, more importantly, the world is flooded with fake Rolexes so good that even watch experts need to closely scrutinise them to figure out if they are real or fake. To my untrained eye, it would be all the same.

So, it has to be a retail Rolex. While Kapoor Watch Company in Delhi has assured me they would try to give me a Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36mm by this summer; no one has put me down on a serious waitlist for the Daytona yet. The fact that it’s so elusive, partly, makes it all the more attractive to me. But if it continues like this for another year or so, my pursuit of the Rolex Daytona might end with the Tudor Black Bay Chronograph Panda (also on a waitlist as you read this). And that might be the beginning of building my profile with a watch dealer who might finally give me that coveted steel Daytona.

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