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Rolex at Watches and Wonders 2023: The C + T Staff’s Review

Watches and Wonders turns the Palexpo – a massive convention center in the very cradle of watchmaking, Geneva, Switzerland – into a small city of brilliantly decorated watch manufacturer’s display booths. Within the Palexpo’s seemingly endless carpeted halls, the most important watch manufacturers in the world set up shop for a week and reveal their latest and greatest works of horological art for the new year. During this week, the Palexpo buzzes with camera shutters snapping, watch nerds yapping, and an ever-growing community unified in discourse and opinion over the new releases.

To call the spaces industry majors like Rolex, Cartier, and Patek Philippe erect within the Palexpo a booth is like calling the Titanic a boat; technically accurate, but entirely underselling the scale and scope of things. Rolex’s display this year evoked a hulking, permanent-feeling retail location that confronted showgoers immediately when entering the Palexpo’s main hall. As the great titan of the Swiss watch world, Rolex and the many new releases it displayed this year were the buzz of much of the show and the Crown revealed no small sum of new releases at Watches and Wonders 2023. From the seemingly universally-loved yellow gold GMT, to a titanium Yacht-Master, to a revamped and optimized Daytona lineup, to what arguably the most divisive watches the brand has ever released – the emoji-laden “Jigsaw” dial Day-Date and the “Celebration” or “Bubble” dial Oyster Perpetual, the buzz surrounding Rolex this year has been inescapable. 

Watches and Wonders is an event that we believe needs to be experienced in-person to be fully appreciated, and any collector worth their salt will tell you that there’s simply no substitute for seeing a watch in-the-metal. As such, the C + T Team made its way to Geneva and got up close and personal with the newest releases that have set the horological world ablaze. These are our opinions and takeaways on Rolex’s many new releases.

Cameron Barr - Founder and CEO:

I wasn’t particularly surprised or impressed by anything that I saw from Rolex at Watches and Wonders. While there were a couple of unexpectedly interesting releases, most of Rolex’s new wares were very predictable. 

That said, I really liked what was added to the Yacht-Master range, especially the titanium variant and stone dial variant. The titanium variant takes a watch that I think has always been the black sheep of the Rolex sports watch range and makes it something much more functional and something I could see actually being used for its intended purpose. With the stone dial variant, incorporating a stone dial in a sports watch is an interesting approach and one we’ve only ever seen Rolex do with a few vintage yellow gold Submariners that came with lapis dials and a few precious metal Daytonas. I think it really works in this application and while a precious metal/stone dial variant of this watch provides the polar opposite of the thing I like about the titanium release, it shows Rolex leaning into the Yacht-Master’s “sports-watch-as-jewelry” appeal.

I like that Rolex finally did away with the Cellini line – which I think was a long time coming. While I think the reference 1908 they’re replacing it with is really interesting, the sizing is disappointing and it’s undeniably too large for the category it’s trying to play in. I think the open “Mercedes-meets-Lollipop” hour hand they went with really elevates the watch, but a 39mm case for a dress watch is just a bit ridiculous. Of course, Rolex makes 40 and 42 millimeter watches for a reason and they’re selling – so it makes sense that they’re leaning further into large watches. However, those large sizes are always going to be a turn off to vintage enthusiasts and collectors that pay attention to heritage-inspired pieces. Returning to smaller cases is definitely the direction the modern market is going in, and you can see that in Tudor’s big releases this year, but it also underlines the different customers Rolex and Tudor are courting. Tudor understands its customer base and has defined itself as a brand for the true enthusiast and someone that wants to see a heritage brand tangibly express an interest in its own history. Rolex is ultimately focused on the modern watch consumer who wants to buy larger watches and might never blossom into a full-blown horology enthusiast that might not care about the roots of the brand, but want a respectable watch from the most important brand in the business. Modern Rolex is for the mainstream consumer.

The “Bubble” dial Oyster Perpetuals surprised me and I’m actually a big fan of them after seeing them in-the-metal. I think that these watches make sense from a horological perspective and apply a playful and artful aesthetic to the brand’s classic bread-and-butter, time-only watch. This release makes much more sense to me than the “Puzzle” dial Day-Date. It’s got everything you want from a traditional Rolex – markers on the dial, a chronometer-certified movement, etc – but these watches also show Rolex has some self-awareness by acknowledging how much everyone loved the colored dial Oyster Perpetuals from 2020 by using those colors for the bubbles and finding a fun, funky, and artful way to pay homage to those watches, which are kind of contemporary classics now. 

As far as the hot topic “Puzzle” Day-Date goes, I think that watch is just absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know why Rolex would produce a watch like that, other than someone in marketing at Rolex taking a bunch of mushrooms or something. It’s incredibly misguided and I have no idea what Rolex is really trying to say with that piece. For a brand that constantly talks about its technical prestige and the caliber and quality of their movements, this watch undermines that entire conversation as there’s no usable day or date function thanks to them being replaced with emojis that mean nothing. The watch is meant to evoke emotions and feelings, but ultimately the only feeling it evokes in me is that it’s ridiculous. Honestly, why not put a quartz movement in that watch and call it a day? The person buying it doesn’t care about the brand’s heritage or the technical prowess of Rolex, or really what the Day-Date is meant to represent within Rolex’s line as an emblem of prestige. 

On the other side of the Day-Date line, I like that Rolex re-released stone dial variants of the Day-Date range and that they’re using really intriguing stones that we’ve never seen used for Rolex dials before. That’s exciting, but I think they need to simplify the offerings a lot. These watches all have either paved Roman numeral markers or gem-set bezels and those additions really take away from the elegance of the watch itself and also take the focus off of the exclusivity a unique stone dial already boasts. The diamonds and the large numerals really add a lot of unnecessary noise to these pieces and it’s a “more is more” approach that I just don’t care for. 

Ultimately, I think Rolex has a responsibility to protect its brand heritage and to carry itself in a way that honors that and these new releases show once again that Rolex isn’t interested in doing that. Other than refining the Daytona offerings and the yellow gold and two-tone GMT releases, just about everything Rolex put out this year really fails to add to that heritage and history in an appropriate way.

Tyler Vanes - Chief of Operations:

Rolex has been battling the “boring” headline for the past five years – essentially since they released the “Pepsi” GMT at Baselworld. That watch was the last Rolex release that was truly celebrated by the community. Every headline last year was about how boring and predictable Rolex has become and I personally think this brand sat down after last year and asked how they could make headlines and how do we shake the “boring” narrative? They did a lot of work this year to do that. That’s why we see the “Puzzle” Day-Date, that’s why we’re seeing stone dial Day-Dates with paved numerals and bezels, and that’s why we’ve seen them do away with the Cellini line. That’s why they’re producing a Yacht-Master in titanium with a beveled case. What I think we’re seeing right now is actually a good thing from Rolex – even if the releases themselves aren’t particularly great.

I think these new releases are a foundation for Rolex to build off of, and a way for them to shift into making pieces that are actually interesting. I think it’s good if Rolex is producing stuff that is both tasteful and distasteful, because it brings the Rolex back into the conversation for something other than just not having watches available at retail. Rolex is ultimately a very multifaceted brand and I think that they have found their personality as it applies to modern Rolex, and I think you see that with the new Daytona.

The new Daytona releases present drastically better in-the-metal and while it might seem like the updates to the model are a subtle change in photos and on paper, they add up to make a very big difference in-the-metal. In my opinion, the new Daytona is sleeker, slenderer, and more wearable than its predecessor. The proportions of these new Daytonas are where they should have been before and between the changes in case height, bezel dimensions, and the markers, it just feels less bloated to my eye. It feels like they trimmed the fat on the Daytona and it’s a 100% improvement, but not something that you can easily see in press photos. You actually have to handle it to understand what a drastic change these small adjustments add up to make. The ceramic bezel Daytona Rolex released in 2013 was a drastic update to the Daytona line, which had had a steel bezel since essentially 1988 essentially, but that was a very 2013 watch aesthetically. Everything in 2013 felt a little bloated and blown up; Panerai was really big and case sizes were all expanding. So to my eyes, the new Daytona release is a mature version of what we saw in 2013 and I think it’s a great move forward. The unsung hero of the new Daytona releases at Watches and Wonders was absolutely the white gold model, which I think is the unintentional heritage model of the ref. 6263. Between the silver dial with red “Daytona” text, the full black sub-dials, black outer bezel ring, and the new, slimmer design, it mirrors the look of my favorite 6263s brilliantly. I still would’ve loved for Rolex to have done something more interesting for the model’s 60th anniversary, but I think these new Daytonas are overall a real success for Rolex. 

As the resident champion of dress watches at C + T, I think the ref. 1908 is a good start. For me personally, the dimensions are too large and I think most true enthusiasts are going to be in agreement there. However, it’s a big step for Rolex to do away with the Cellini line and to replace it with something that has a design focused more on Rolex’s heritage. While the 1908 isn’t quite there yet for me, I’m excited to see what comes out of Rolex’s dress watch pursuits in the future and this is a good start. I’m optimistic. Aesthetically, I think it’s a very nice dress watch for a guy with a very large wrist, but I think 36 to 37 millimeters would’ve been perfect for it.  

Something that I don’t think is being discussed quite enough is Rolex releasing the Explorer in a 40mm variant. I think this watch is going to sell extremely well and it takes a classic and beloved model and renders it in the dimensions that a lot of people in the modern watch market have been looking for. Whether or not the market demanding a large Explorer is a good thing is up for debate, but it was a smart move on Rolex’s part to make this watch as far as catering to the modern watch market and the hype market goes. I think it’s going to do extremely well for the brand. That being said, as a vintage enthusiast, I’m not the biggest fan of it. I think that they actually perfected the Explorer when they produced the watch originally in 36 millimeters. But it is progress in that Rolex is now producing the Explorer in a size for both the true enthusiast that likes classic dimensions and for the modern consumer that likes the charm of the Explorer, but always thought it was too small. It shows that Rolex is listening to their market and fulfilling a request. 

I did not think I was going to be a fan of the “Bubble” dial Oyster Perpetual, but I actually really like it a lot after seeing it in-person. I think it’s fun, flirty, and cool. The “Bubble” dial succeeds for me in that it’s not taking itself too seriously and I think it’s cool to see the Rolex design house, which is usually super strict and stays in its box, breaking free and having some fun. That’s a big deal. That being said, I think they missed the mark with the “Puzzle” dial Day-Dates, but we also know they did that essentially just to make headlines and break the “boring” headline.

Rolex is puffing out their chest to show their personality right now, and that’s why we’re seeing things like a bunch of models with stone dials. A lot of these releases feel like a gorgeous person walking into the room, but with an offensive amount of perfume on. You’ve got models with fantastic stone dials, but the watches themselves are just overdone – oversaturated with diamonds and too over-the-top to really work. There’s something of beauty there, it’s just warped and lost in the extra sauce they’ve covered the watch with. 

Something to consider with all of these new releases is that whether they’re good or bad, we’re here to talk about them. The discourse happening around these releases is the exciting thing about the community and I think even if they missed the mark on a few of these releases, I’m optimistic about Rolex trying to shake things up.

David Von Bader - Senior Editor:

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m just not a fan of modern Rolex overall, and I’ve frequently described the contemporary versions of Rolex’s classic models as cartoonishly overblown vamps on the brand’s traditional aesthetic in my writings here. To my eye, the divide between the proportions and materials used on the vintage Rolexes I love and the brand’s modern offerings is simply too wide to bridge. I also have a smaller wrist and prefer understated case sizes, which adds a lot to my bias. It’s important for me to have that spelled out clearly before cracking into any criticism of the releases the brand brought to Watches and Wonders, but I did make a serious effort to be objective and consider not only the brand’s place in the modern watch market, but the wants of modern watch buyers when I entered the Crown’s massive display at WnW. 

For me, the most exciting pieces Rolex brought to Watches and Wonders were the revamped and slimmed Daytonas. The Daytona is the last great sports watch in the Rolex lineup as far as I’m concerned, and – along with the Explorer – the only contemporary Rolex that I feel truly balances a modern aesthetic with the DNA and heritage of its iconic predecessors. I agree with Tyler in that I think the updates to the Daytona make them fully-realized and mature versions of the models released in 2013 that most of us would own, but so few of us can actually get our hands on, and I’m sure these Daytonas will become modern classics. I was also quite taken by the white gold variant and I agree it provides more than a small hint of the iconic ref. 6263, but it also also drove home the disappointment that Rolex didn’t do something bigger to celebrate the model’s 60th anniversary. I refuse to believe the people making decisions at Rolex are blind to the adoration the Daytona has within the vintage space and I think taking a heavier-handed and tangible approach to celebrating its past and the love the enthusiast community has for the vintage models would only do the brand good. We all know they have no problem selling steel Daytonas, so why not really do something for the fans?  

Another major takeaway from Rolex’s new releases is that the Crown is pushing its ranges into their respective margins, something the new Yacht-Master releases prove. The titanium Yacht-Master takes a sports model that I think most enthusiasts have typically seen as a piece of jewelry, rather than a serious sports watch like the Submariner, and redefines it as a much more functional modern tool watch. Frankly, it looks more like what I’d want from a modern Submariner than the current Submariner – though we all know Tudor is actually carrying the weight of the Sub for Rolex these days. At the same time, adding a stone dial variant to the precious metal Yacht-Master doubles down on that watch’s personality as the elevated sports Rolex. Personally, I take the new yellow gold GMT-Master if forced to pick a modern Rolex sports watch that lets people know I’ve made it, but that’s neither here nor there. 

There was a lot of talk about the brand axing the Cellini line and replacing it with the ref. 1908, which I think is a handsome watch, but simply makes no sense within its category at 39mm. It’s a dress watch for people that are going to wear it strapped to the cuff of their shirt. That said, I don’t necessarily think Rolex is trying to pull market share from the establishment marques that have defined and will always own the dress watch category with the ref. 1908; I think they’re trying to make dress watch buyers out of modern Rolex sports watch buyers. The 1908 is a piece that I could see being someone’s second Rolex and filling the role of a more upscale watch for someone that likes the bold sizing of modern Rolex and otherwise might not consider a traditional dress watch or have much interest in the history and horological significance of Patek or Vacheron or their peers. 

When it comes to the big conversation piece releases Rolex brought to the show, the “Bubble” dial Oyster Perpetual and the “Puzzle” dial Day-Date, I’m pretty flat on the former and outright offended by the latter. For the cost of entry, I think having fun with the dial of the Oyster Perpetual is great. Go crazy, get funky! It’s a consumable watch and – willing Rolex actually makes steel watches available again – I think there should be options in this line that are as playful as possible. Even if the visual appeal of this particular one doesn’t set me on fire, it sets a precedent I’m happy to see. In the case of the “Puzzle” dial Day-Date, I think it was a publicity stunt and a childish way for the brand to assert itself as something other than stiff and boring. It’s a watch designed for no one, and if you’re going to destroy the functionality of the Day-Date’s complications, you could at least make it look interesting. I hate it and I’m embarrassed that the watch world is being collectively forced to discuss it right now. 

Overall, I think Rolex is on the right path to satisfy their modern customer. I think a lot of what they put out this year was misguided, but it does show progress. However, I still feel it’s a tragedy for a brand with such important heritage – to the point that it’s almost public domain – does so little for its true enthusiast base. Brands with similar history and relevance in other spaces, like Porsche and Fender, have all proven how powerful honoring the past and listening to the enthusiast community more than you listen to the board can be. I wish Rolex would follow suit.

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