Rolex is a rather reserved brand, and none of the watches they manufacture is more conservative than the Day-Date. Also, referred to as the President, it is the horological equivalent of the Mercedes S-Class. It is a product that has never pretended to be an utilitarian tool like most other oyster models. Instead, the Day-Date was always a watch which chose to be an opulent piece of jewellery. As a product, it was known to exude a sense of luxury, being famously only ever produced in precious metals.
Long before Rolex embraced their more fun side, there was a lonely watch that decided to shake things up for the reputation of this model. Today we are talking about the Stella dial watches, why they are so special, and how they were a complete style break for the brand Rolex was over half a century ago. A watch that was unloved at the time because it contrasted the values Rolex had established for themselves, and is today considered a highly collectible and desirable piece that have also helped to inspire the custom aftermarket for Rolex as we know it today.
In a meeting which I have to believe was at least a little inspired by the consumption of illegal substances, someone at Rolex had the wonderful yet wonder-some idea of offering bright neon lacquered enamel dials. A colourful watch dial, what’s the big deal you might ask? Well, to really understand how loud the bang was this timepiece made you have to set yourselves back into that time period. Rappers wearing iced-out Royal Oaks where not a thing yet, and with the classical nature of the watch industry at the time this model was about as noisy as a Rainbow Daytona is today. Now think about what your co-workers and employees would think if your daily watch was a Rainbow Daytona, that is basically what the Stella dials were at the time. They were watches that were not only very expensive, but also exceedingly fast in letting everyone know that you own a watch the price of a car.
As much as this design really did not fit in with what Rolex usually produced around that time, you can forgive them for taking the risk and thinking this would be a good idea. After all, the decision was very much in touch with the zeitgeist of the seventies. Nevertheless, it still failed to be a commercial success, which I personally don’t find very surprising. These bright colours were probably meant to attract a younger customer base, but while a small fraction of that group might have the funds for a Submariner, a Day-Date would be out of budget for nearly all of them. The most fitting comparison that I have seen for this watch is that to the John Lennon Rolls Royce. I think it is rather accurate, especially considering that only one of these cars exists, highlighting how there are just not enough customers like that to go around and buy the amount of Stella watches that Rolex had in mind.
Significantly less creative than the choice of colours is the nickname for these watches, which actually isn’t a nickname at all. While today every significant release has to forcibly be attached to some comic figure, the name Stella refers to how Rolex called these watches in their own catalogues: the “Lacquered Stella Dial”. What made these watches special was the fact that the enamel paint was hand mixed for the dials, meaning that within all the watches produced there will be slight differences in the shades of the colours adding to that unique appeal of this watch.
These dials were available most commonly on the reference 1807, and rarely on some Datejust models. Like many of the other watches that command high premiums at auctions today, these watches tell the tale of an ugly duckling. They were shunned upon their release, and a significant group of purchaser actually chose to change the dial on their watches. Further, there is the rumor that the demand was so low that Rolex had to destroy batches of dials that had been pre-produced.
Today these hard to find Rolexes have seen a reversal in their fate, and quickly have become one of the most desirable Day-Date models from that time period. So much so that Rolex during Baselworld 2013 decided to introduce a colorful range of Day-Date models. While Rolex didn’t officially acknowledge their source of inspiration and tried to differentiate these models by offering them only on leather straps, I have little doubts in my mind as to the connection. After all, especially with a brand like Rolex, actions speak louder than words.
Stella Dial watches have actually become so collectible, that now instead of people wanting to avoid them, we have seen a rise in the aftermarket sector with clients trying to recapture the iconic look of the Stella dials. That is why particular attention has to be paid in order to actually identify which still has a factory dial in good condition. That is because a common problem for these enamel dials produced during that time is that they were prone to cracking. That is also why diamond dial variants are particularly rare as the paint under the heavy indices would often form thin cracks that would eventually spread all over the dial.
To sum up, I think the Stella dial watches were simply ahead of their time. Particularly when considering the interest that simple Datejust models with aftermarket coloured dials and matching leather bracelets have seen as fun seasonal timepieces, you have to wonder why Rolex does not make use of this niche. While I think myself and many enthusiasts will stick to the classics, I could see my mother or sister being very interested in a cheap, fashionable, and fun entry to Rolex. The Stella dial watches in my mind are proof that Rolex has always liked to have a little fun with their watches, and I for one am glad to see how far they have managed to take it, with gem-set colourful watches that have inspired the entire industry.