If the world of horology has a Cinderella story, then Rolex’s Cosmograph Daytona is it. Released in 1963 to a crashing wave of apathy, the brand’s first serially produced chronograph was such a poor seller for the first quarter century or so of its life that dealers could barely give them away.

Photo credit: @amsterdamvintagerolex

It wasn’t that it was a bad watch, or even an unattractive one. Aesthetically-speaking, it had a certain rugged handsomeness to it, and was highly legible; its tachymeter moved to the bezel rather than being printed on the dial, freeing up valuable real estate. And technically, it benefitted from the same sort of ruthless engineering perfectionism Rolex poured into their other offerings, many of which were already steaming towards icon status. Inside beat a modified version of Valjoux’s 72 movement, recognized as perhaps the finest caliber of its type available.

What’s more, few brands had as storied a motor sport legacy as Rolex at that time. Their Oyster watches had accompanied British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell on many of his land speed record attempts aboard the Bluebird, several of them taking place along the hard packed sands of Daytona Beach in Florida, from where they drew the name. A year before the watch’s launch, Rolex had also become the official timekeeper at Daytona’s International Speedway.

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So, all told, the manufacturer had every right to expect yet another unqualified success when their newest creation met the public. The public, however, had other ideas, and their main objection to the watch had a real ring of irony to it. Impressive though the Valjoux 72 was, there was no getting around the fact that it was a manually wound movement. By the early 60s, the convenience of self-winding, or automatic, calibers had become the norm, thanks mainly to Rolex itself and their groundbreaking Perpetual mechanisms, brought out three decades prior. As such, the Daytona had the whiff of antiquity, especially as the first rumors of quartz technology were filtering through from the east.

If people wanted a superb, manually-winding mechanical chronograph, Omega’s Speedmaster was already the accepted go-to, having led the pack for six years by then.

The Exotic Dials

But if the standard-issue Daytonas were difficult to shift, one variation that offered an alternative to their usual monochrome coloring was even more so. In fact, about twenty times more.

The original six references of the watch (the ref. 6239, 6241, 6262, 6264, 6265 and 6263) were all fitted, sparingly, with what were known as ‘exotic dials’, from fabled dial maker Singer.

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These added not only subtle splashes of red, on the outer minute track and the ‘Daytona’ script, but also used an Art Deco-esque font on the sub dials’ numerals. The hash marks around the chrono counters were also finished with small squares, further distinguishing them from the regular examples.

If anything, they only managed to make an unpopular watch more unpopular, the three-color scheme seemingly too much even for the swinging sixties. In truth, the turnaround in fortunes for the Daytona, and especially the exotic dial models, wouldn’t come until the end of the eighties, when it went through its biggest upgrade to date.

Perfect Storm

By 1988, those makers of traditional watches that had survived the mauling of the quartz crisis had started to reposition themselves as purveyors of luxury items, rather than the manufacturers of necessary tools; and none more so than Rolex.

Knowing they couldn’t compete with electronics in terms of accuracy or price, mechanical timepieces were now marketed as an essential part of an aspirational lifestyle, something no well dressed man should be without.

It was also the year the Daytona received its first automatic movement, the El Primero from Zenith.

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That one upgrade instantly made Rolex’s perennial underperformer irresistible to an upcoming generation of well-heeled customers, young men with money to burn, and a new phenomenon of watch collecting was born.

The only problem Rolex now had? They couldn’t make the Daytona fast enough to satisfy demand. Having to rely on the movement being shipped in from a third party hampered production and soon, in a situation familiar to anyone who has tried to buy the latest iteration, waiting lists for the watch started stretching on for years.

Those not willing to pay massive premiums to jump the queue started turning their attentions to previous generations, the manually wound pieces that had once sat gathering dust on dealers’ shelves. Among those they found an especially rare version—with an interesting, multicolored dial.

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Chances are, because only one ‘exotic’ Daytona had been built for about every 20 of the regular models, they would have been an extremely highly sought after watch anyway. Rarity in horology is prized above just about everything else. Yet, with one photograph, they were instantly elevated on to another level; the single most coveted watches on the planet.

The Paul Newman Effect

In 1969, Paul Newman, already Hollywood royalty, starred in the movie Winning, alongside Robert Wagner and wife Joanne Woodward. It was the start of a lifelong passion for the track which would see him compete in a host of endurance events over the next 30 years, including finishing second at the Le Mans 24-hours, as well as still holding the record for the oldest driver to win an officially sanctioned race—he was co-driver for the winning team at, fittingly, the Rolex 24-hour, aged 70.

Photo credit: @paulnewmanactor

In 1972, to mark the year he turned professional, Woodward walked into Tiffany’s in New York City, and bought her husband an exotic dial Daytona ref. 6239. She would have paid around $300 for it.

The watch was one of six Daytonas he owned throughout his life, all with the same style face, with its red detailing and unusual text. He was seldom seen without one, and when he was photographed for the cover of an Italian magazine (and no one, not even the most dedicated industry historian, knows which magazine or even when it was) with his watch prominently displayed on his wrist, collectors decided that particular style would be known henceforth as the Paul Newman Daytona.

Even as an unauthorized one, it would not have been possible to choose a better brand advocate. The star of Hud, Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke, Newman had himself become an icon; tough, honest, strikingly good-looking and demonically charismatic. Every man wanted to be him, and if they couldn’t, next best thing would be to look like him.

From that moment, the value of the once unloved and unwanted timepiece has gone stratospheric. Over the next 30 years, prices at auction for a Paul Newman Daytona have increased faster than for any other mass produced timepiece, and are still rising. Today, a starting point of around $250,000 is to be expected, while exceptionally rare variants such as the ‘Oyster Sotto’ (literally ‘Oyster Underneath’, meaning the ‘Oyster’ name is written below ‘Rolex’ and ‘Chronograph’ on the dial) can easily break the million dollar mark.

Of course, expensive as those are, everything pales in comparison to Newman’s own model, which went under the hammer in 2017. Once thought to have been lost to the ravages of time, the actual watch he wore on that infamous magazine cover became the most expensive ever sold when it went for some $17.75m following just 12 minutes of bidding.

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An event like that only served to bump up the price for other exotic dials still further, and has led to some speculation as to whether the actor’s collection of additional Daytonas might take to the auction stand at some point.

The Dangers

As with anything where vast sums can change hands, the trade in Paul Newman Daytonas is not for the fainthearted. Modern technology makes creating a convincing exotic dial a relatively simple operation, and counterfeit watches on the vintage market are now legion. In fact, it is estimated there are more fakes than there are the real thing in circulation.

The minutiae you need to know before buying one with any degree of confidence, by which I mean the host of tiny yet vital details a genuine dial should have, are too many to list here. But having complete faith in the seller is the number one precaution to take before handing over a single penny. But should you? Are the Paul Newman Daytonas worth the money? On the whole, I would have to say yes. Obviously, paying at least the price of a house for a watch which was once, if rumors are to be believed, thrown in for free as an incentive to buy a more popular model might seem insane. But today they represent just about the most rock solid investment the world of horology offers. Even beyond that, the aesthetics have matured, from once being the brand’s ugliest of ducklings in the sixties, they have become emphatically beautiful.

Photo credit: @gisringhausen

It is hard to think of another watch, made by Rolex or anyone else, which just looks so good. And in terms of rarity and provenance, there is very little that comes close.