The Rolex Yacht-Master 40: like a can of Red Bull
Jordan Ferro12 October 2020 | 10 min read
If you could buy yourself one Rolex, which you couldn’t ever sell, which one would it be? With that constraint in mind I would wager that most enthusiasts would think of many pieces, but surely would not end up choosing the watch that I get to present to you today. Today I will explore with you a hidden gem in the Rolex professional line-up, a stainless-steel watch in 40mm that has escaped the recent mania for this category of timepieces, and yet makes for an amazing daily-wearer. The watch I am talking about is none other than the Yacht-Master 40.
Before exploring the factors that intrigue me about this curious piece of wrist-candy, and reviewing the many facets that help build this amazing watch, I want to help shed some light on the story of this unloved range. So, let’s take a leap back in time to explore the history of the Yacht-Master, and why I believe it is an important element in their professional collection.
The events that led to the introduction of the Yacht-Master
The first point of interest I would like to visit concerns itself with the story of André-Jean Heiniger. Despite being a man of low profile, he doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia entry, Heiniger was the most influential man to help shape the company second only to Mr. Hans Wilsdorf himself. He began his work for the brand in 1948, and two years after the passing of Wilsdorf he took over his role as the CEO of Rolex in 1962.
Heiniger would go on to lead and develop the brand for the next thirty years. That makes him, excluding Wilsdorf, the individual with the longest reign on the brand. Beyond just being the boss for a long time I consider him such an influential person because he more than anybody else helped mould the brand into the shape it has today. Whereas Wilsdorf built Rolex up as a company known for making timepieces of exceptional quality it was Heiniger who helped the brand survive the quartz crisis and move them into the luxury segment. The transition that he led would go on to define the whole industry.
There is a story that captures the Heiniger attitude towards Rolex perfectly. A friend asked Heiniger during a chat “How is the watch business doing?”, to which he replied “I have no idea”. His friend was probably somewhat confused by the answer, but he went on to elaborate “Rolex is not in the watch business. We are a luxury business”.
Heiniger would step down from his position as the CEO of Rolex to be succeeded by his son in 1992. In the last year under his leadership he would oversee the introduction of not one, but two new product lines. To understand the gravity of this event, you have to understand that the next new product the Genevan watchmaker would introduce would be the Sky-Dweller in 2012, and the last watch before that was the Daytona in 1964. The two new watches that ended up being the swan song of Heiniger and the epitome of the previously mentioned story are the Pearlmaster, and more relevant to this story, the Yacht-Master.
These two watches have in my mind always been like twins. One of them was created for the classical collection and one for the professional line. They both have a vague connection in their naming linking them to the ocean, the Pearlmaster being referred to as “The pearl in the Oyster collection”, and the Yacht-Master as “The watch of the open seas”. They are even similar in their reception from watch enthusiasts, both being relatively expensive while not offering any stand-out features that would differentiate them from the other watches in the catalogue.
The first model, reference 16628
This is however not a blog about the Pearlmaster so let’s take a look at the relatively speaking rather short history of the Yacht-Master. The very first model they released was the reference 16628, and my oh my they were not playing around with this watch. It was released completely in 18k yellow gold with a contrast rich white dial complemented by black onyx hour markers.
The very early mark 1 models had a case basically identical to the submariner with spring bar holes, sharp edges, and flat lugs. In fact, the only major differentiating factors were the dial, the precious metal bezel, and the name. Before we explain the evolution of this model towards the design we come to expect of the Yacht-Master I just want to briefly touch on two rumours surrounding this watch.
The first is that the Yacht-Master is in some way related to an early Daytona prototype from the late sixties. While it is true that Rolex did reuse the name from way back when, these watches are about as related to one another as the Space-Dweller is to the Sea-Dweller. This model can however be argued to be a predecessor to the Yacht-Master 2, a watch which deserves a whole blog for another time.
The second is that the Yacht-Master was meant to replace the Submariner, but at the last moment Rolex decided that this model was too controversial a change and instead opted to release it as an independent piece. That story seems highly unlikely, just think about it: do you really believe Rolex makes radical last-minute changes akin to the scale of introducing a new product line after 28 years since the last one? Add to that the fact that Rolex revels in making watches for obscure purposes, and that the Yacht-Master fails to perform as a diving watch with its low water resistance, bi-directional bezel, and lack of lume pip.
Now you might say that Rolex did change those things to differentiate it more after deciding to make it an independent watch. That would in turn mean that the original design of the Yacht-Master must have been exactly like a solid gold Submariner, a watch that mind you was already being produced and sold way before 1992. As with any of these Rolex rumours I am not saying it is impossible, I am just saying that the more I think about it the less it adds up. It just doesn’t make sense considering who Rolex is as a brand and how they have acted in the past.
The Yacht-Master was quickly developed from a watch that looked eerily similar to the Submariner towards a stylistically very different piece. Rolex changed the case shape making it much more rounded which grants a dressier feel as well as adding lugs that hug the wrist. This kind of style is associated usually with the more expensive models, like the Day-Date or the Daytona. Rolex also eventually introduced a cobalt-blue Sunray dial which is one of the most beautiful dials Rolex has ever produced, giving the Hulk a run for its money.
What I find interesting is that the design of the Yacht-Master was the earliest example of the design language that would go on to define the super case era we are living in today. Maxi hands and markers as well as the fatter lugs and crown protectors all saw their premiere with the Yacht-Master. Therefore, while most people argue that the Yacht-Master is just a copy of the Submariner, I feel compelled to point out that it was the new Submariner that in actuality heavily leans on design elements introduced by its younger brother, rather than the other way around.
Stainless Steel delight, ref. 16622 – The Silver Surfer
The year is 1999. The world was in the midst of the dot-com bubble and one of the biggest fears for the public was the Y2K bug. Amidst all this excitement Rolex decided that it was finally time to give the Yacht-Master the stainless-steel touch. It was this model that introduced that platinum bezel that has become iconic for the collection as well as it being the first professional model that was offered in multiple sizes.
This version of the Yacht-Master was the first I personally connected with. I am dating myself here a little, but it was this model with its monochromatic look achieved through using a platinum bezel that stood out to me and that I liked to refer to as the “Silver Surfer “.
While I have not personally experienced the launch and events surrounding it, I have been told by several people who have been around in the watch game longer than me that this was a very hot model upon release trading above retail and commanding long waiting lists akin to many other models today. Something that I have found in my research and that does speak to the popularity of the watch is the fact that this model was a celebrity favourite. Worn by the likes of Brad Pitt, Phil Collins, and Bruce Willis the 16622 was always a watch that was easy to spot and stood out in the crowd.
The biggest advocate however must have been the watch-nut, who also happens to be nutty in many other ways, Charlie Sheen. He sported a 35mm version in his character of Charlie Harper in the hit show “Two and a Half Men” in what has to be one of the best watches ever cast for a character. Among all the somewhat serious professional watches the Yacht-Master stood out for being fun, versatile, yet still capable in all the ways that make Rolex who they are.
The first time I personally held this watch in my hand was in Dubai on a stop while flying from Singapore back to Germany. Trying to pass the time I wandered through the gigantic airport and found myself walking right into an AD during a time where you could still buy professional watches as a walk-in customer. While I had heard a lot of critique that this watch is too monochromatic and found myself agreeing from the pictures I had seen that illusion faded fast once I got to experience the details of this timepiece myself.
The matching red lettering and seconds hand adds a necessary dash of colour that breaks up the otherwise sterile look and grants a sporty appeal. The highlight is the platinum dial which is a solid metal disk that is sandblasted to achieve a glittering finish that has always reminded me of when the sun hits the fresh snow in the morning back when I went skiing in the beautiful mountains of Austria. It was exactly that moment when I knew that despite what everyone wants to believe the Yacht-Master is an awesome watch, if not one of the very best Rolex has to offer.
Ref. 116622 – Bringing the Yacht-Master into the 21st Century
In 2012 the Yacht-Master was finally updated to the standards of a contemporary Rolex. This meant most significantly that the bracelet got changed to have a more solid feel with solid end-links that were shorter making for a smoother transition as well as the milled clasp that we have learned to love about the Rolex lineup of today.
When introduced the 116622 was available in two dial variants. The platinum dial model was kept but with some adjustments. The sandblasting used to achieve the glittering finish was finer in nature which reduced the shimmering effect which I personally wasn’t a fan of but objectively helped with the legibility of the model. This also allowed Rolex to make the printing on the dial finer giving the whole watch a slightly more elegant feel.
Listening to the customer base probably more than we sometimes give them credit for they also added a new dial for those who still found the platinum dial version too hard to read or monochromatic. The Yacht-Master was now also available with a blue sunburst dial which I find to be a contender for the single most beautiful dial Rolex ever made. It retains the red-accents which grants it the same colour scheme as a can of Red Bull, an analogy I will elaborate on in a little bit.
In 2016 the platinum dial finally got retired, something that I personally find to be sad considering this metal dial was completely unique in the collection and visually had so much depth to offer. In its place came the rhodium dial which continues the precious metal theme of the variant it was replacing and through its sunburst optic offers a similar silvery style while having a lot more contrast. It is matched with a baby blue seconds hands and lettering that really drives home that this is a fun watch that doesn’t have to take itself too seriously as it does not have an extensive history and nerdy collectors to pay attention too.
And that’s it. Sure, 2019 there was an update towards the ref. 126622 which got the new caliber 3235 with an extended 72 hour power reserve, but because visually nothing really changed I don’t consider these a real update like the jump between the 16622 and the 116622 was one.
Conclusion – Why the Yacht-Master is the Red Bull in the Rolex mini-bar
People like to use nicknames to explain certain watches. Some are forced, some are fitting, but they all tend to help explain what the watch is about. I said previously that the Yacht-Master with the blue dial had the colour scheme of a can of Red Bull. Beyond just the visual similarity however I feel that the spirit of that drink is similar to what the Yacht-Master represents.
If we are honest with ourselves the Yacht-Master is about as much a sailors watch as Red Bull is an athletes drink. Sure, the advertisements may make you believe it and there is an argument to be made that they both help with performance but at the end of the day these are just excuses to justify your purchase. The reality is athletes drink water (occasionally laced with steroids) and sailors are best served with a G-Shock.
The undeniable fact remains that when looking at its direct competition within the Rolex catalogue the Yacht-Master will always have the odds stacked against it. The tool watch crowd rightfully claims that both the submariner and GMT are cheaper, offer more functionality, and are more sensible options and symbolise what Rolex is about as a brand. I say bollocks to that. Despite its lacking historical prowess, the Yacht-Master is the most genuine Rolex available. In its spirit it does not have the Wilsdorf resourcefulness that started the brand, but instead the Heiniger luxury that helped the brand thrive and survive. Whether the Rolex nerds want to admit it or not, without that very spirit that is at the core of every Yacht-Master produced it is doubtful that Rolex would even be the king of the industry right now.