26th Jul 2023
Behind Closed Doors: A Look at the Exclusive World of Rolex’s ‘Off-Catalogue’ Watches
by Watch Collecting
Rolex’s portfolio of watches is a varied and extensive one, a fastidiously curated collection of pieces designed to appeal to a wide cross-section of enthusiasts. However, as all-embracing as it is, what you see online or in brochures doesn’t tell the whole story. There is actually another range behind the ones we all know, a small and extremely select compilation of ‘off-catalogue’ pieces created for either highly specific markets or else for certain individuals with an extensive buying history.
More often than not, these special editions are core models which have been handed over to Rolex’s team of gem setters to go to town on. Their dials, bezels and bracelets returned emblazoned in precious stones of every type, size and colour. What we end up with is some truly extraordinary items of jewellery, accompanied by some even more astounding price tags. Below, we have picked out a few of our favourites.
The Rolex Daytona ‘Leopard’ ref. 116598 SACO
One of the most infamous examples of Rolex’s bespoke pieces, the Leopard Daytona first appeared in 2004, a great, roaring ‘wild beauty’ of a watch that delighted some and horrified others. The effect the model had on Rolex purists, for example, who only 12 months previously had thought the idea of adding a green bezel to the Submariner was going a bit far, can only be imagined.
At its heart, the ref. 116598 SACO was a conventional, yellow gold Daytona, powered by the stock in-house Cal. 4130. But that’s where all normal criteria ended.
The watch’s bezel was set with 36 baguette-cut cognac sapphires (from where we get the reference designation—'SAphirs COgnac’), while the lugs were dressed with 48 brilliant-cut diamonds, with a further eight standing in for hour markers.
Nothing too controversial so far. However, both the dial and the leather strap were given an outrageous leopard-skin print, raising the model far beyond the conventional and into the world of unconstrained extravagance.
Overall the combined effects were stunning, albeit the dictionary definition of ‘love-it-or-hate-it’. But evidently, the Leopard was well received enough in the right circles to stay in very limited production all the way up to 2019.
The Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116748 SARU
Positively understated in comparison with the piece above, the GMT-Master II ref. 116748 SARU was launched in the mid-2010s as the latest in a line of gemstone-enhanced GMTs dating back to the hedonistic days of the ‘80s. What made the SARU and its predecessors so successful was that Rolex adhered closely to the standard example, but simply upped the lavishness.
So the watch got to keep its signature Pepsi bezel, half in blue and half in red to help differentiate between night and day when using the watch for its originally intended purpose of tracking a second time zone. Except here, it is sapphires representing the PM hours and rubies indicating the AM (The fact there are no numerals to be found can be glossed over under the circumstances!)
Apart from that, however, all was as normal. This series of the GMT-Master II was the first to be given Rolex’s 'super case', its lugs and crown guards almost twice the thickness of previous generations, and it was also the first to sport the 'maxi dial', with larger indexes and a fatter handset. Both are in evidence here, complete with yellow-gold outlines. The bright green signature at the six o’clock is a nod to the fact this was part of the 50th-anniversary collection too.
The ref. 116748 SARU was actually among the least showy of the off-catalogue GMTs that made up the half-century series. The ref. 116758 SARU, for instance, was similar but with more diamonds filling in on the lugs and guards, and it was also available with a full diamond pavé dial—an option curiously absent with the 116748 SARU.
Yet, for the ultimate blinged-up GMT we have to turn to the ref. 116769 TBR. An 18k white gold watch somewhere underneath, it was set with some 30 carats of diamonds; 79 round cut stones set into the case, a further 44 baguettes in the bezel and scores of tiny gems arranged in waves across the dial. Even the bracelet was buried in ice, with barely a hint of metal visible. The model went on sale in 2007 and instantly became the most expensive piece Rolex had ever made, retailing at around £385,000. And if it was too tight, adding a link to the bracelet would set you back about £20,000!
The Rolex Day-Date 36 ref. 128159 RBR
If there was ever a Rolex watch suited to a bit of pizazz, it’s the Day-Date. In 2021, the brand quietly introduced three very special off-catalogue versions of the President, with some seriously bold styling.
The trio came in each flavour of gold—white, yellow and Everose—but, much like with the iced-up GMT above, it is really a case of having to take Rolex’s word for it. Barely any of the precious metal can be seen under the acres of diamonds adorning every inch—254 brilliant cut stones on the lugs, lug caps and case sides, 52 set around the bezel and an incredible 450 arranged on the dial. Even the gold Crownclasp has been swathed in diamonds; 61 to be precise.
Fortunately, each of the three has been given its own colour scheme to help you tell them apart. The yellow gold model (ref. 128158) has its alligator strap in a warm coral, echoed on to its enormous enamel Roman numeral indexes, while the Everose example (ref. 128155) has those features in burgundy. The standout, however, is the white gold piece, which uses turquoise, elevating the whole thing to a bright, summery vibe.
All of the pieces run on Rolex’s latest double calendar movement, the Cal. 3255, complete with Parachrom Bleu hairspring and Chronergy escapement. Accurate to the manufacturer’s own Superlative Chronometer standards, they keep to a timekeeping precision of -2/+2 seconds a day and give a 70-hour power reserve.
It seems like a long time since the Day-Date was the definitive establishment watch, a sober and discreet statement piece worn exclusively in the dark corridors of power. These days, you are more likely to encounter them in music videos or on the wrists of elite sportsmen and women. These three special editions are merely the latest in a string of alternatives aimed at disrupting the watch’s time-honoured reputation.