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Vintage Rolex Watches For New Collectors, $10,000 & Under

Paul Altieri

For newer collectors, the mere thought of getting into vintage Rolex watches may be intimidating. Not only is it a vast market with so many models, nuances, and history to consider, but it can also be a highly expensive and competitive corner of the watch-collecting world. That said, there are a few hidden gems to discover too, which can be a great way for newer collectors to dip their toes into the vintage Rolex watch space. If you’re considering your options, here are our top picks for vintage Rolex watches for new collectors, priced at $10,000 or less.

Explorer II 16550 Black Dial

Explorer II 16550 Black Dial

Rolex introduced the Explorer II in 1971 as a watch designed specifically for spelunkers or cave explorers. The original ref. 1655 included a fixed 24-hour bezel and a 24-hour hand to allow wearers to differentiate between day and night when looking at the sky wasn’t an option – such as in dark caves. Rolex eventually upgraded the model to a GMT watch that could indicate two time zones. The reference 16550, released in 1985 and produced until 1989, was the first Explorer II to include GMT functionality. It was also the first to feature a larger 40mm case, offer the option between a black or white dial, and have a sapphire crystal. Powering the watch is the self-winding Caliber 3085 movement that oscillates at 28,800 beats per hour. 

Why are Black Dial Rolex Explorer II 16550 watches good vintage options?

The Explorer II 16550 with a black dial is one of our top recommendations for a vintage Rolex for newer collectors for several reasons. First, it is a Rolex sports model, which is always a popular choice among collectors. What’s more, the Explorer II has a unique and interesting design, characterized by its fixed bezel engraved with large 24 numerals and a long red 24-hour hand on the dial. There’s also a date window at 3 o’clock magnified by a Cyclops lens on the sapphire crystal, in addition to the familiar shaped hour markers and Mercedes-style hands that are customary for Rolex sports watches. Explorer II watches are exclusively available in stainless steel and always paired with a three-link Oyster bracelet. 

Often overshadowed by other sports models such as the Submariner or GMT-Master, the  Explorer II is not typically the first Rolex sports watch that comes to mind. Plus, black dial variants are particularly overlooked because collectors tend to focus on white dials – especially those white dial variants of the reference 16550 that have morphed into a creamy ivory color due to a paint defect. As a result, the currently undervalued black dial Explorer II 16550 can be purchased for $10,000 or less in the vintage watch market. Learn more about this incredible reference by reading our Rolex Explorer II 16550 article.

Rolex Date

The now-discontinued Rolex Date model was a mainstay of the Rolex catalog since the 1950s, positioned as the smaller version of the Datejust. With a production history that spanned well over six decades, Rolex made dozens of Date references in various styles. Regardless of the specific reference, all Rolex Date watches have, as the name suggests, a date window at 3 o’clock on the dial topped with a Cyclops magnification lens protruding from the crystal above it.

Why are Rolex Date watches good vintage options?

With its understated and classic style, the Date watch is a solid option for an everyday vintage Rolex watch. Its compact 34mm case not only looks fantastic on a range of wrist sizes (for both him and her) but it is also currently right on trend as smaller watches are quickly gaining popularity again. 

An advantage of choosing a Rolex Date 34 as a vintage watch is the amount of diversity offered within the collection. Material options include full steel, full gold, and two-tone steel and gold. Moreover, with all the various dial colors, bezel types (such as fluted, smooth, and engine-turned), and bracelet styles (Jubilee, Oyster, and leather bands) available, there are so many vintage Date configurations to suit a multitude of tastes. 

One of the Date’s biggest benefits for newer collectors is their lower price points; in fact, Date watches are some of the most affordable Rolex watches available on the secondary market. You can find steel, two-tone, and gold models for under $10,000. Learn more by reading our Rolex Date watches buying guide here.

Rolex Datejust 36

By far the most recognizable and ubiquitous Rolex watch is the Datejust, which was released in 1945 and remains the brand’s signature classic watch. The Datejust is also Rolex’s most varied collection offering an incredible assortment of sizes, materials, and styles. However, what ties them all together is that characteristic date window on the dial, always at the 3 o’clock position, accompanied by the Cyclops lens for legibility and powered by a Perpetual self-winding movement. While Rolex has made several sizes over the years, the most classic choice is the Datejust 36 as this was the size of the original model. 

Why are Rolex Datejust watches good vintage options?

If this is your first foray into vintage Rolex, the tried-and-test Datejust 36 is a terrific place to start. You get all the characteristics of an instantly recognizable Rolex watch with the added benefit of choosing your favorite material, bezel, bracelet, and dial styles from the immense array of references that were produced over almost 80 years. Additionally, you can go full vintage with details such as tritium lume and acrylic crystals if you select older models or you can enjoy modern upgrades, like sapphire crystals and quickset dates, by choosing newer ones. 

The 36mm diameter of classic Datejust watches is often considered to be that Goldilocks size – it looks great on just about anyone’s wrist. For $10,000 or less, you can certainly find a perfect old-school Datejust watch to kickstart your vintage Rolex collection. 

Rolex Submariner 16800

Rolex Submariner 16800

When Rolex first released the Submariner diver in 1953, the watch did not include a date indicator. However, Rolex expanded its dive watch collection the following decade to include the Submariner Date model 1680. The reference 16800, produced from about 1979 to 1989, was the second generation of the Submariner Date and is often referred to as a “transitional” Sub by collectors since it combines design details of earlier watches with characteristics of later models – a bridge between old and new. 

Just like the preceding ref. 1680, Rolex initially offered the Submariner 16800 with matte dials. However, by around 1984, Rolex switched to glossy dials with hour markers that have white gold surrounds, also known as WGS. 

Why are Rolex Submariner 16800 watches good vintage options?

The idea of owning a vintage version of the world’s most famous diving watch for $10,000 or under is an appealing proposition. The stainless steel 40mm Submariner 16800 still offers excellent value for a vintage Rolex sports watch, particularly considering the importance of this reference in the history of the collection. 

The 16800 was the first Submariner Date to feature a sapphire crystal, a quickset date function, a unidirectional bezel, and a 300-meter water depth rating, all of which have remained the standard traits of Submariner watches ever since. So with this reference, you still get the character and aged look that define vintage Rolex watches while also benefiting from these important enhancements.  

Later Submariner 16800 watches with glossy dials and WGS offer exceptional value and can still be purchased for $10,000 and under.

Choosing the Right Vintage Rolex

Armed with some key information and recommendations, you’re now better equipped to venture into the exciting world of vintage Rolex watches. Regardless of which model you end up choosing with your $10,000 budget, if you opt for a Rolex you know you’ll enjoy wearing (irrespective of what’s considered trendy or not), then you’ll automatically come out on top. 

Paul Altieri

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