Vintage Rolex Buyer’s Guide: Case Details To Look For When Buying A Vintage Rolex

This first in the series will focus on the case, because it carries a high priority on value and it can be quite difficult to find information on its various critical value drivers.

Future articles will cover dials, hands, and luminous; bezels and inserts, crystals and crowns, bracelets, and more esoteric minutiae that is fascinating to people like you and me.

Do you have or need more clarification? Please comment! We’re all learning and, given those tattered edges on all the puzzle pieces, it’s inevitable that I’ve missed or misstated something, especially in this first article on cases where there are few perfectly fitting pieces.

This article will cover case condition, serial numbers, case typefaces, and the biggest punch in the gut: service cases.

Unpolished, Poorly Polished, Overpolished?

Even billionaires get pissed off when they find out they overpaid. Case condition, just below dial condition in priority, can dramatically affect the watch’s value. Are you buying a watch to keep for life, or one that you may flip after the honeymoon period? Or maybe you want to keep it in a safe deposit box to pass on to your grandchild? Regardless of why you’re buying it, you need to be able to recognize a good case from a bad one so you don’t overpay. 

In reality, however, you probably won’t dislike wearing a watch if the case is in poor condition. And chances are slim that an over-polished, thin lug will actually break at the lug hole. It’s just a factor for price.

Perhaps the most frustrating challenge is that only the most knowledgeable and scrupulous watch sellers describe case condition into account in their listings. These dealers will show you pictures of the lugs and give an assessment on the case condition in the description. So if you’re looking at a watch and there are no pictures of the lugs, either stay away or, if you’re hot after the watch, ask for pics–you need to see the reference and serial numbers anyway.

Then there’s the “unpolished case” description. This claim is such a hot button that in the Vintage Rolex Forum Marketplace sellers are prohibited from stating it. But has it been overpolished? Polished inexpertly? Does enough metal remain on the lugs? How about the crown guards? Are parts polished where they should be matte, or vice versa? Being able to recognize an over-polished or poorly polished case is difficult even when you see the watch in person, much less in photographs. Hopefully, this guide will give you enough information to start to recognize what’s good and bad.

Take a look at the three examples. The things to look for:

  1. Thin lugs. An over-polished watch will have thin, rounded lugs, usually with little edge or definition between the top of the lug and the side of the case. The bottom edges will be rounded instead of flat and sharp. One imperfect test is if you can see the spring bars protruding from the lug holes. It’s imperfect because the owner may have bought spring bars 1 or 2mm longer than stock, which you could see with Rolexes with smaller than a 20mm lug width.
  2. Crown guards. Ensure they are symmetrical and thick.
  3. Top of lugs should be matte and have the correct, even grain.
  4. Lug holes should be surrounded with adequate metal. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that a lug would break at the lug hole because of a lack of metal but for value, it’s important.
  5. Chamfers (the transitional, beveled edge between the top of lug and side of case), if present, should be even and as narrow as original. Note that current references have no chamfer, as in the Excellent example. You’ll often see chamfers polished to be much wider than the original specification, which is a look that usually results in a lower value.
An example of not so great lugs on a 5513 Rolex

Myth Alert!

One test to not worry over is unequal lugs. Apparently, Rolex designs sport cases with crown guards to have an ever-so-slightly thinner lug on the crown side of the watch. So if you see this, don’t immediately pass on the watch. The more common reason lugs look unequal is that lighting on chamfers and bevels can easily fool you into thinking the lugs are asymmetrical.

Case condition assessment requires expertise that can be found with vintage watchmakers, experienced dealers, and select members of the Vintage Rolex Forum. But before posting your “how does this one look”, do your homework. If it’s obvious you’ve made an effort to learn, you’ll be taken seriously. Fortunately, there are some checks you can make that are easier to assess with pictures that can save you thousands.

Serial Numbers (Usually) Tell A Good Story

Ok, so serial numbers are not totally black or white. But they can make an important contribution to the puzzle that tells you the watch is a Maybe or No-Go. First, know where to find the serial number–on every Rolex older than 2008 you’ll find it between the lugs at the 6 o’clock side. From 2005 to 2007-ish the serial is also inscribed on the rehaut, which is the interior flange between the dial and top of case. After 2007 it was only inscribed on the rehaut. 

The model/reference number is shown on the opposite, 12 o’clock side between the lugs. Don’t worry if all but the first two digits of the serial are redacted in the photograph. This keeps fraudsters from posting the watch, claiming it’s their own. Ask the owner for a clear picture of the whole serial.

You’ll want to correlate the serial number with the production date of the watch. This is always found on the interior of the case back, where you see the quarter and year of manufacture, along with the reference number. A common online guide for serial numbers is found on Bob’s Watches –but just know that there are tolerances. Referencing my 5513, its 2.6m serial should place its year of manufacture between 1971 and 1972.

However, the case back states the 3d quarter of 1970 as the year of manufacture. There is a chance the case back was replaced but because I know the watch’s provenance and the notorious semi-reliability of the serial number guide, I’m not worried by this misshapen puzzle piece.

Triangulate With The Serial Number

There are other ways to leverage the serial number to validate the watch. For some watches with multiple variants of the dial, for example, having a serial number out of the correct range suggests that the watch may have been assembled with parts from other watches. Don’t think this is likely? Go to the marketplace on the Vintage Rolex Forum and look through all the dial-only listings. After you shakily chug your third gin and tonic you’ll resolve to pay attention to how all the pieces of the puzzle line up.

Here’s a simple example – the famous 5513 Submariner dial has at least 10 variants. Below shows a range of serial numbers for two of them, the Non Serif and Serif dials. Detailed info is provided in the bible for 5513 matte dials, www.5513mattedial.com:

Here’s a real world example of the moderate fuzziness you’ll have to deal with: my 5513 is a 2.6m with a caseback stating it was made in the 3d quarter of 1970 and t’s a non-serif dial. This is in the overlap so good – but If the serial were 3.5m and a non-serif dial? That would raise a yellow card. Triangulating dial type with the production year chart, if a Serif dial 5513 had a 5m serial and 1970 production date?  Red card. 

Side note that if you find a watch with a 4.4m serial that wasn’t manufactured around 1976, it’s a service case (more on that later). Run like Forrest Gump. You can also use movement / calibres to triangulate, but this check can be more fuzzy than correlating production years. But like production years, it’s worth knowing the correct movements for the watch you’re researching.

You’re Not My Type...Face

Oh geez. Now we’re into the extreme esoterica of vintage Rolexes. But checking the typeface of the serial and reference numbers on the case is another piece of the puzzle that could disqualify a watch from consideration. There are at least 5 known typefaces, including one which is the service dial font (hint: important). There is a ton of information in this Vintage Rolex Forum (“VRF”) thread from user Xeramic but here’s a summary table of the typefaces with corresponding production years. You’ll see considerable overlap so only concern yourself with outliers:

For a quick example, here’s my 5513 matching the Typeface A image from Xeramic:

If you compare the bottom image (my watch) with the other typefaces it’s apparent that only one works: typeface A. Again, this is another piece to the puzzle. To quote Xeramic: “Further, there might be individual re-engravings by RSCs, but without very convincing papers I would rather refuse a watch with a font divergent to the shown ones.”

Enough of the squishy, fuzzy-as-my-granddad’s-ears checks – here’s a no-brainer, which also happens to be the single biggest hit on a watch’s value.

Service Cases

You’ve probably encountered service dials in your research but may not have known that there are service cases. Service cases are used by Rolex Service Centers (“RSC”) when the watch turned in for service has a case that’s beyond cosmetic repair, probably as a result of improper over-polishing. 

Rolex is notoriously aggressive with these kinds of decisions and can make them unilaterally, so be warned if you take your Rolex in for service at an authorized dealer that any component may be replaced if Rolex feels that it could compromise the integrity of the watch.

Fortunately, Rolex makes identifying a service case easy: the first two digits of a serial number are 4.4 million or 4.7 million (typically 4.4mm). Here’s the same image from Xeramic:

There is one potential grey area for service case serials: watches made between 1976 and 1977 were in the 4 million range. So it is possible to have a legitimate case with a 4 million serial, if the production year and font types are correct. But.

How prevalent are service cases? In my search for a Sea Dweller earlier this year I came across one with a 1976 production year and 4.4m serial. The listing stated that Rolex replaced the dial, hands, crystal, and bracelet. Did they replace the case? Probably. This was listed on a well-known dealer site and the case was not discussed nor was there a picture of the serial number. I know that there are watches from 1976 in the 4m range that are not service cases but haven’t come across any. My feeling is that these cases will be in the 4.0 – 4.3 million range and have the proper typeface for the production year.

The case for cases

The components of a vintage case are fairly difficult to assess because of the loose guidelines. The condition of the lugs and guards, the roaming serial number guide, the typefaces – few offer cut and dried answers. 

Walk away with a few important bits of knowledge: service cases are 4.4 million and 4.7 million serials; thin, pointy lugs are a no-go or should be heavily discounted. And if the serial number falls significantly outside the corresponding range of production years or outside of its corresponding dial variant or movement, ask more questions. 

Last, buy the dealer. You’re sure to get comprehensive pictures and information. Just know that they’re human and can make mistakes, but they’ll own up to protect their reputations and because they are watch lovers too.

Now get back to the journey and start dreaming of the destination!

6 thoughts on “Vintage Rolex Buyer’s Guide: Case Details To Look For When Buying A Vintage Rolex

  1. Superb detail and insight jack!! Can not wait to read the rest of this. Thanks for sharing your infinite wisdom! 😄

  2. I rarely comment anymore as I have started taking your articles for granted, sorry about that – i read them religiously. This is excellent information and timed just right as I’m looking to acquire a vintage sea-dweller myself. Thank you so much for posting this! Looking forward to more of this. Easy to read and understand (essential for my old brain…)

    Sincerely,
    Claude

    Ps: Welcome Mr Jack!

  3. I honestly thought the “Good to go” example was the best it can get. Shows my lack of knowledge in this area. Did not know the lugs were that crisp on vintage models as shown in your ‘excellent’ comparison. Thank you! Bookmarked 🙌

    Sadly, The vintage market in belgium is horribly overpriced. Lucky you in the USA !

  4. I wonder if it is as also as straightforward to spot a service dial? Can you please tackle this at some point in the future? Very helpful, thank you!

    1. Dials are next! I’m hoping to get that out in 1-2 weeks. In some ways, it is even more apparent that a dial is a service dial, to answer your question. The surest way is if the luminous is supposed to be tritium, by the age of the watch, but you can see it’s luminova (“Swiss Made” instead of “T<25" at the bottom). It's harder when you have correct luminous but definitely do-able.

      Hope this helps! Jack

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