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You could forgive the Rolex Milgauss, a timepiece created in the mid-1950s for the button-down world of scientists and engineers, for getting a little lost in the crowd. Once one of the brand’s very rare underperformers as far as sales were concerned, the Milgauss had the misfortune to arrive around the same time as some of horology’s greatest legends. The Submariner, Explorer, GMT-Master, and Day-Date all made their debuts in the same several years, with Rolex going through an explosion of creativity like no other.
However, far from being an inferior watch to any of those titans, the Rolex Milgauss had outstanding qualities all its own. Like other Rolex watches produced during this time period, the Milgauss was designed to overcome a modern problem of the twentieth century. Where the GMT-Master helped pilots and airline crews track time in multiple locations, and the Submariner solved the issue of keeping track of time while underwater, the Milgauss’s party piece was its ability to keep accurate time in the presence of the mechanical watch’s biggest enemy: electromagnetic fields.
The post-war years were a time of massive expansion in many technological industries. That progression obviously went hand-in-hand with never-before-seen equipment, including high-tech electronic appliances that created strong magnetic forces. With the delicate parts of a traditional watch’s internal movement affected by even the weakest fields, a model that could withstand prolonged exposure became a necessity. On top of that, households in the 50s began to be filled with an increasing number of laborsaving devices that also produced enough of a field to disrupt the timekeeping of traditional mechanical watches. Theoretically, the stage was set for the Rolex Milgauss to answer the call of a very wide spectrum of the watch buying public. In practice though, that proved not to be the case.
Materials: Oystersteel (904L stainless steel)
Features: Time + running seconds; magnetic resistance
Bezel: Fixed; smooth stainless steel
Crystal: Green sapphire
Movement: Rolex Caliber 3131
Water Resistance: 100 meters / 330 feet
Bracelet/Strap: Oyster Bracelet (stainless steel)
A Short History of the Rolex Milgauss
There is some debate over how exactly the Rolex Milgauss came to be built in the first place. One anecdote of its origins suggests that Rolex created it at the direct request of scientists at the recently-opened European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located on the outskirts of Geneva. Those working in the high energy physics labs were certainly in need of something special in the wristwatch department, but there is no real evidence to support the story. Nonetheless, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility, with it being a similar tale as to how both the GMT-Master and Sea-Dweller came into being – at the requests of Pan Am Airlines and COMEX, respectively.
Whatever the truth is, the original Rolex Milgauss arrived in 1954 with the ref. 6543, and the first run was indeed tested by scientists at CERN. That reference, which was little more than a prototype with only around 150 examples ever produced, was found to be resistant to magnetic forces of up to 1,000 gauss. The model name was taken from that, with mille being the French for a thousand and gauss a unit of magnetic flux density. It is also interesting to note that Rolex does not formally recognize the ref. 6543 as the first Milgauss and instead cites the subsequent ref. 6541 that appeared two years later in 1956 as the official start of the Milgauss collection.
How the Milgauss Works
Rolex achieved this impressive level of magnetic defense by effectively creating an internal Faraday cage to shroud the Milgauss’s movement. Crafted from ferromagnetic alloys selected by Rolex, the internal shield redistributes potentially disruptive magnetic fields through its material, protecting the movement inside. Given that the most defining feature of the Milgauss was not something that was apparent to the untrained eye, Rolex’s first scientist’s watch largely resembled the Submariner. The round steel case, the dial, even the black rotating bezel could all be mistaken for being from Rolex’s legendary dive watch. Only the handset really offered any variety, with dauphine hour and minute hands mirroring the pointed hour markers at the three, six, and nine o’clock positions.
The ref. 6543 was only in production for two years, replaced by the ref. 6541 in 1956. This too bore an uncanny resemblance to the Submariner and the launch of the ref. 6541 also marked the official start of the Milgauss collection. However, the new Milgauss it did receive one subtle flourish all its own: the seconds hand took on an erratic, lightning bolt shape, a small nod to the lab-coated realm for which the Milgauss was intended. But even that uncharacteristic dash of Rolex whimsy didn’t seem to help. The Milgauss continued to underwhelm in the same way as did the Omega Railmaster and the Ingenieur from IWC – two other watches that did the same job in the same way.
The Rolex Milgauss ref. 1019 Arrives…and Stays
In what was almost a final throw of the dice, Rolex released the third generation of the Milgauss in 1960. The reference 1019 arrived with all the sporty-looking tool watch pretensions removed, and with a far more restrained and straightforward aesthetic – as would befit its sober anticipated audience.
Gone was the rotating bezel; a fixed smooth one in plain stainless steel now took its place. The hour markers reverted to the plain batons – more like the style found on the Datejust and Day-Date; likewise, the handset was changed to a more standard stick shape. Unfortunately, the drastic toning down also extended to swapping the quirky lightning bolt-shaped seconds hand for a pencil straight alternative, topped with a tiny red arrowhead. However, the ref. 1019 did offer a choice in dial color for the first time, albeit a small one. Buyers could pick either black or silver, and neither had the distinctive honeycomb design that was characteristic of previous references.
However, there was also one additional type of dial offered for the Milgauss 1019, and rumor has it that it was created to meet the request of scientists at CERN. Otherwise identical to the standard silver dial variants, these special Milgauss watches featured no lume at all on either the dial or the hands. It was believed that the radioactive tritium lume – despite being far less radioactive than the radium that was previously used – would still disrupt the incredibly sensitive lab equipment. Now known as the CERN dials, they are among the most sought after and valuable examples of vintage Milgauss 1019 watches.
Inside, the movement went through an update as well. The initial two references had been powered by the Cal. 1080, the antimagnetic variant of the base Cal. 1030. For this latest arrival, the Milgauss was given its first caliber from the Cal. 1500 series, the Cal. 1580. There were far more similarities than differences between the outgoing and incoming movements, but the balance frequency increased from 18,000vph to 19,800vph and a hacking function was added, allowing for users to stop the seconds hand by pulling out the crown.
After that, just as Rolex did with the Explorer from the same era (the ref. 1016), the brand seemed to just forget about the Milgauss. Both models have traditionally occupied the second tier of the brand’s lineup, perpetually overshadowed by the big household names and becoming more cult favorites and oddities in the range. Unlike the Explorer though, the Milgauss was eventually retired. The ref. 1019 went on unchanged for an incredible 28-years, until Rolex finally pulled the plug on it in 1988, with most people thinking that was that for the scientists’ watch.
The Rolex Milgauss Makes a Comeback
In 2007, Rolex surprised everyone when it reintroduced the long-absent scientist’s watch, to coincide with the opening of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator. The new Rolex Milgauss ref. 116400 arrived in three versions, all 40mm as opposed to their predecessor’s 38mm, and constructed from Rolex’s own Oystersteel alloy, which is part of the 904L family.
The new generation of Milgauss watches still featured an internal antimagnetic shield – just like the inaugural model from the 1950s. However, the Caliber 3131 movement used to power the new generation also featured naturally magnetic-resistant components (such as Rolex’s blue Parachrom hairspring), offering even greater magnetic resistance. The trio of new Milgauss models consisted of a black dial and a white dial piece; the latter already somewhat of a standout in the Professional Collection, which contains conspicuously few white-dial tool watches. The third variation also featured a black dial (although it did have a couple of differences compared to the standard black dial model).
While the other two Milgauss watches from this generation featured traditional clear sapphire crystals above their dials, the third model included a revolutionary new type of sapphire crystal – one with a unique and a beautiful green-colored tint. Known as the ref. 116400GV (GV stands for Glace Verte – “green glass” in French), it represented the first time Rolex had ever made a colored crystal, and it reportedly involves a process so complex that the manufacturer didn’t even bother patenting it, entirely confident that no one else would be able to replicate it.
By 2014, Rolex had discontinued the black dial version of the ref. 116400 fitted with the clear sapphire crystal and introduced a new dial variation known as Z-Blue. Featuring an electric blue sunburst finish with bright orange accents, the new Z-Blue Milgauss also featured Rolex’s green sapphire crystal, making it one of the most vivid and vibrant Rolex models ever created. By 2016, Rolex discontinued the white dial version of the Milgauss, leaving only the two green sapphire models in the brand’s current catalog.
These days, rather than being the eternally ignored outlier in the lineup, the Rolex Milgauss has garnered its own group of loyal devotees. Now considered a bit of a “cult-classic” within the Rolex catalog, the Milgauss is the perfect option for those seeking something a little out of the ordinary in a world dominated by the same handful of Submariner and Daytona references.
How Much is a Rolex Milgauss?
The current Rolex Milgauss collection consists of just two models: one with a black dial, the other with the Z-Blue dial. Both models share the same 116400GV reference number, featuring the collection’s signature green sapphire crystal, and have the same retail price of $8,300. Of course, this being a stainless steel Rolex (even one of the traditionally less popular models), it’s not quite as easy as just strolling into an authorized retailer and buying one. Depending on your whereabouts, chances are you will have to add your name to a waiting list, but you probably won’t have to sit around for nearly as long as if you were after a Pepsi GMT-Master II or a stainless steel Daytona.
Should you decide to source your watch on the pre-owned market, you may see certain Rolex Milgauss models selling for slight premiums above their original retail prices. With that in mind, the current-production Milgauss is not typically accompanied by the same eye-watering premiums that you will find for certain other stainless steel Rolex tool watches. Some examples can be found at a discount compared to their original retail prices, but even when they do trade hands at a premium, it is typically only around $500 above retail.
If you are happy to buy one of the first run examples of the ref. 116400 (starting from 2007 onwards), you can save yourself a significant amount of money. The black dial versions, with or without the green crystal, start out at just under $7,000. The Z-Blue variant (dating from 2014 and up) generally costs closer to $8,000. The realistic asking prices make the latest Rolex Milgauss models attractive options as simple yet slightly eccentric everyday watches. They have enough personality to truly stand out, but not so much that they become watches that you couldn’t wear on a daily basis.
While the Milgauss has lived its life being somewhat shunned in favor of more recognizable Rolex models, its antimagnetic protection makes it a particularly relevant piece in today’s world. Practically everything we rely on in our everyday life now emits some kind of magnetic field, including computers, hairdryers, mobile phones, and even kitchen appliances. For a traditional mechanical watch, a force as low as 50-100 gauss (about the strength of a fridge magnet) has been shown to be enough to impact the timekeeping of a movement. Having the extra security of the internal antimagnetic shield means that the Milgauss will be untroubled by virtually all day to day activities.
Buying New vs. Preowned
Modern Rolex Milgauss references don’t experience the same rapid appreciation on the pre-owned market as the latest stainless steel Submariner, Daytona, or GMT-Master II watches. There’s no doubt being lucky enough to buy one of those big three at retail is a real bargain these days, and many examples trade hands for roughly twice their official price once they reach the secondary market.
However, that’s not to say things won’t change. The Milgauss is one of those models that is finally getting to enjoy its moment in the sun. There is a large percentage of the Rolex collecting community that has a particular fondness for the brand as it used to be – back when Rolex was simply a manufacturer of exceptional, tough-as-nails tool watches that were designed to last a lifetime. The Rolex Milgauss has never been offered in precious metals, staying true to its original tool watch roots and cultivating a loyal following of fans and collectors in the process.
Vintage Milgauss Models
Proof of the resurgence of interest in the Rolex Milgauss can be found on the vintage market, where references from the past are starting to draw some especially high prices. Even the ref. 1019, the longest-serving and therefore most plentiful vintage reference in circulation is commanding a minimum of around $20,000. Mark I dials, identified by having what’s known as half-hash markers (tick marks every 1/5th second rather than every ½ second around the perimeter), can easily add an additional 25% on top of that, whereas the ultra-desirable CERN dial model, with the non-luminous hands and hour markers, tend to be the most pricey examples of the reference, with prices ranging between $30,000 and $50,000.
Of course, the first and second generation of the Milgauss, here and gone in the blink of an eye, are easily the most expensive Rolex Milgauss watches. Only a relative handful of the original prototype ref. 6543, were ever made, and rarely ever do they surface at auction; Christie’s achieved CHF 271,500 hammer for one in 2017. The follow-up, the ref. 6541 was only in production for a few years and will likely be slightly more affordable, but not by much; a model recently sold by Sotheby’s fetched $150,000. Collecting rare Rolex watches continues to be an expensive hobby, and the constantly overlooked Milgauss has some of the rarest references of them all.
Rolex Milgauss References
So far, there have only been four Rolex Milgauss references, not including the green sapphire crystal version of the ref. 116400. Below we lay out the models so far.
Milgauss 6541 (Estimated Preowned Price: $250,000+)
Production Years: 1954-1956
Case Diameter: 38mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Dial: Black Honeycomb
Bezel: Rotating Black Bezel
Movement: Caliber 1080
The first Rolex Milgauss was basically a modified version of the original Turn-O-Graph and was almost a visual clone of the newly introduced Submariner, right down to the iconic rotating bezel and three flat-link Oyster bracelet. A black dial was the only option available, and it was given a honeycomb pattern with the ‘Milgauss’ name printed prominently in red. There were, however, two bezel versions; one calibrated to 60 minutes like the Submariner, the other to 6 units. The ref. 6543 was the reference given over to CERN scientists to test, who confirmed its ability to withstand magnetic fields in excess of 1,000 gauss.
Milgauss 6541 (Estimated Preowned Price: $150,000+)
Production Years: 1956-1960
Case Diameter: 38mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Dial: Black Honeycomb w/ lightning bolt seconds hand
Bezel: Rotating black bezel; fixed smooth bezel also available
Movement: Caliber 1080
The second-generation Rolex Milgauss carried on very much where the first left off. There was little to choose between them mechanically and the movement remained the Cal. 1080. Stylistically though, there was one small decoration. The straight seconds hand of the ref. 6543 was swapped for one shaped like a lightning bolt, as a reference to the watch’s antimagnetic capabilities. The black rotating bezel also stayed for the most part, but there was a version of the ref. 6541 that was fitted with a large, fixed smooth bezel (rumored to have been produced for the U.S. market).
Milgauss 1019 (Estimated Preowned Price: $20,000+)
Production Years: 1960-1988
Case Diameter: 38mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Dial: Silver or Black w/ straight bolt seconds hand (non-luminous CERN dial also available)
Bezel: fixed smooth bezel
Movement: Caliber 1580
With the ref. 1019, Rolex set about giving the Milgauss its own identity for the first time, rather than following the general design language of the Turn-O-Graph and Submariner. That identity though was exceptionally conservative compared to the design of its predecessors, and the watch became one of the more aesthetically unadventurous in Rolex’s catalog. A fixed smooth bezel replaced the rotating version found on previous models. The dials, available in either black or silver, lost their honeycomb pattern, and the lightning bolt seconds hand disappeared, swapped out for a straight, arrow tipped alternative. Additionally, the mix of hour markers found on the dials of the ref. 6543 and ref. 6541, with their medley of dots and darts, became ordinary batons, similar to those found in the brand’s dress watch collections.
The Milgauss’s movement went through an update too. The Cal. 1580 was brought in – essentially a Faraday cage-equipped version of the Cal. 1530; it would continue powering the Milgauss 1019 all the way up to the end of its production run, nearly three decades later. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough of an audience for the model to sustain it. Just as Omega’s Railmaster suffered in the glamor stakes, always playing second fiddle to the Seamaster and Speedmaster, the Rolex Milgauss could never quite fight its way out of the shadows cast by some of horology’s brightest stars. In 1988, Rolex retired the Milgauss altogether.
Milgauss 116400 & 116400GV (Estimated Preowned Price: $7,000+)
Production Years: 2007-Present
Case Diameter: 40mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Dial: White; Black (two variations); Z-Blue
Bezel: fixed smooth bezel
Crystal: Clear Sapphire; Green Sapphire
Movement: Caliber 3131
In 2007, to celebrate the unveiling of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Rolex dusted off the Milgauss name, gave it a radical overhaul, and released the ref. 116400. It arrived sporting a new 40mm case, now crafted from 904L stainless steel (which Rolex now calls “Oystersteel”). Inside, a two-part shield, manufactured from a pair of different ferromagnetic metals, surrounds and protects the movement. The top is engraved with a capital B, with an arrow above it, the symbol for magnetic flux density.
The first run of the new Rolex Milgauss references consisted of a white and black dial version, each with a standard clear sapphire crystal over the top. Additionally, there was also a third variant with a black dial and a green-tinted sapphire crystal, known as the ref. 116400GV or Glace Verte. Best of all, the lightning bolt seconds hand was back, this time in a bright, vibrant orange color. While the ref. 116400 generation of the Milgauss still remains in production, both of the models with clear crystals have since been discontinued. Today, there are just two versions of the Milgauss – both under the 116400GV reference number and fitted with green sapphire crystals – one fitted with a black dial and the other with the “Z-Blue” dial that is a bright shade of electric blue.
The Rolex Milgauss Features and Options
Rolex has never really been a brand to pursue complications just for the sake of offering a more complex timepiece. Every function and feature added to its watches have been to address specific and often widespread problems, whether it’s to help overcome jetlag, time motor racing laps, or simply measure elapsed time while underwater.
The Rolex Milgauss’s USP is the same today as it’s always been; fending off strong magnetic fields. It was a necessity in the 50s when it was first created and is arguably even more important now. The fact that it has long struggled for buyers has been a consistent image problem rather than due to any mechanical shortcomings of the watch itself. Timepieces created for airline pilots, endurance racers, or professional divers are likely to have a wider appeal than one marketed to the more conventional world of the laboratory, regardless of how many pilots, divers, or racing drivers are actually members of the general population.
If it’s Worth Engineering, it’s Worth Over Engineering
In reality, the Rolex Milgauss is at least as technically impressive as any of its stablemates. The early examples were tested up to 1,000 gauss; however, with modern-day additions such as Rolex’s Blue Parachrom hairspring, the current generation of the Milgauss probably offers magnetic resistance far greater than that.
As you would expect, 1,000 gauss is also way beyond the official regulations for what qualifies as an antimagnetic watch. The international standard for ‘Magnetic Resistant Watches; ISO 764 (Horology)’ requires that a model must be protected from a direct current field of 4,800 A/m, which works out at about 60 gauss.
The Rolex Milgauss Comes Full Circle
Although the Rolex Milgauss has largely been unable to call upon celebrity owners or fall back on a military heritage of any kind – two things that often do wonders for any watch’s bankability, its relative obscurity is now becoming its biggest asset. For serious collectors, the rarer the better, and the early references are very rare indeed. Even the ref. 1019, in production for 28-years, is not an especially abundant watch, and prices on the vintage market reflect that.
As for the latest examples, they stand as some of the most vivid and unusually colored pieces in the lineup, thanks to the lively orange detailing and, of course, that innovative green crystal. While it may never get to compete with the brand’s ultra-famous models, the Rolex Milgauss is still a big favorite among Rolex fans and it has never been more in demand than it is right now.