Hello, Newman: A Collector Looks Askance At The Cult Of The Paul Newman Rolex Daytona
Those two words conjure up a number of associations: actor, successful Le Mans endurance racer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and loving family man among others.
But for watch lovers, the name “Paul Newman” is associated first and foremost with Rolex, and in particular with a subset of that brand’s Daytona watches with specific dial characteristics, including a recessed outer seconds track and subdials that feature block-shaped hash marks and Art Deco-style Arabic numerals.
Over the past few years I’ve bought vintage watches (see A Contemporary Watch Collector Goes Vintage), purchased my first Rolex (see Great Rolex Experiment With the GMT Master II Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Crown), and mused in print here at Quill & Pad about the value of rarity (see The Value Of Rarity: Christie’s Auctions A Black-Dialed A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 In Stainless Steel) and the drivers of auction valuations for vintage watches.
But I have to confess that none of that has fully prepared me to understand the cult of the Paul Newman Daytona, which has now been whipped into an outright frenzy by the announcement that Phillips will auction one of Mr. Newman’s very own “Paul Newman” watches at its upcoming October auction in New York (see Paul Newman’s Own Paul Newman Rolex Daytona To Go Up For Auction).
So what to make of the whole Newman mania and how likely am I as a collector to join the crowd of rabid enthusiasts seeking to buy one of these pieces?
Why I’m a “no”
If you’ve ever watched episodes of “Seinfeld,” you will have picked up pretty quickly that Jerry had a particular dislike for one of his neighbors, a postal worker known only as “Newman.”
In subsequent interviews, Seinfeld has explained that there was no specific reason why his character hated Newman, but I know my reasons for being reluctant to embrace the Paul Newman Daytona.
Always too much: I’ll confess that I have flirted with the idea of going after a “Paul Newman” Daytona more than once in the past, but each time I do, the asking price has escalated into a range that I find unacceptable.
The analogous example that comes to mind here from the vintage car world is the Fiat Jolly, a “resort car” with wicker seats and a fringed top that was originally manufactured circa 1960 for Italian seaside resorts.
When a nice used Jolly was $20,000 I thought it might be fun at $10,000. When I finally sucked it up and was prepared to spend $20,000, the number had become $40,000. Now the number is closer to $100,000, and I don’t think I’ll ever go there!
Similarly, as the Paul Newman has taken on cult status within and beyond the watch world, the prices have gone exponential.
A watch for people who don’t know watches: One reason for the explosion in value is that the Paul Newman Daytona has become a popular purchase well beyond the world of serious vintage collectors or even of watch enthusiasts in general.
While I don’t begrudge the various celebrities and self-characterized “ballers” who have discovered the Newman Rolex but aren’t in any way students of horology, I don’t have to like what the mainstreaming of the Paul Newman’s appeal among the affluent has done to its valuation and public perception.
A few years ago, I bid at auction on the leather “Eisenhower” jacket that Ike himself wore during the planning for the D-Day invasion, four-star shoulder patches and all, without having done any research on it or analogous items. Had I prevailed, my guess is that serious devotees of presidential history and military memorabilia would (and should) have viewed me in the same vein as I see some of the current generation of Paul Newman buyers.
Stylish reject: When the Daytonas with so-called “exotic” dials (with depressed outer rims in different colors from the main dial) were introduced, they were quite unpopular, and few were made. Once one of these watches became associated with Newman, however, demand – and value – began to grow.
In a slightly different sense, we’ve seen a similar phenomenon with the Patek Philippe Reference 5020, a TV-screen shaped watch that has turned from a largely rejected ugly duckling into a “must-have” collector piece due to its rarity.
While the boxy hash marks and pronounced numerals on the Newman’s subdials are certainly distinctive, I’ll say the unthinkable: to me they’re really not that attractive.
Tiny distinctions, big valuations: While this point isn’t unique to the Paul Newman, it certainly comes into play: if, in addition to being a Paul Newman, your watch happens to have a retailer’s name like Tiffany or Linz printed on the dial, or even better the modest word “Oyster” printed beneath the main “Rolex Cosmograph” label on a tropical (translation: corroded) dial, you’ve just hit the jackpot to the tune of 700 large to $2 million plus.
By the time that we need to search for such miniscule distinctions to decide who has something of value, I’m smelling a bubble.
Frankens and frauds: Not surprisingly, what goes hand in hand with the point above is the irresistible temptation, at least for some, to turn less valuable Daytonas into more valuable ones by re-printing the dials or swapping parts.
While some counter measures exist such as verifying the serial number ranges, I’m thinking that there is no sure safeguard against finding after the fact that your “Paul Newman” actually has a replacement service dial installed in a watch that started its life as a garden-variety Daytona; your “untouched” dial has had some of its applied indices replaced; or that you’ve bought a piece like the so-called “Texas dial” watches (on which the outer seconds ring on the dial is at the same level as the main dial rather than depressed) that are of disputed authenticity.
Have you worn one: I have, and while it sits pretty nicely on the wrist the best word I can conjure up for the overall wearing impression is “flimsy.” That goes double for the original bracelets, which are far less substantial than today’s robust Rolex solid-link bracelets, and whose condition is often quite optimistically described.
If the description reads “tight” I translate it as “tinny”; “shows some wear” comes off more as “like wet toilet tissue” in my experience.
And as long as I’m at it, I’m not that fond of the pusher feel on the Newman chronograph, either; as watches from this general era go I’m much more drawn to pieces like the Breguet Type XX “big eye” chronographs both aesthetically and functionally.
Why I’m conflicted
Okay, so here’s the part where I confess that I idolized Paul Newman, the man.
Somewhere in a box, I still have the commemorative copy of People Magazine that celebrated his life. In my guise as a car nut and amateur open-wheel racer, I saw him as both a true enthusiast and a legitimate hot shoe.
Cool Hand Luke and his performance therein remain among my very favorites in the film world, and while I won’t go down the long list, many of his other performances have stayed with me as well.
Then there’s his and his family’s charity work, which the sale of his Daytona at Phillips this October will benefit, making this a great reason to support the sale of this particular watch (proceeds from the sale will go to a charitable organization called the Nell Newman Foundation).
And at least by most accounts, he was a devoted husband and father. His famous line about being faithful to wife Joanne Woodward “I have steak at home; why go out for hamburger?” was at the same time immediately memorable, mildly offensive (reportedly Woodward hated being compared to a cut of meat), and wonderfully endearing.
In addition, Newman was a legitimate “Rolex guy.”
He reportedly owned at least five different Daytona models over the years along with other Rolexes, and not only wore them regularly but gave many of them away to friends and family members.
Newman and Rolex are so tightly linked that for me, owning a “Newman” Rolex would be a suitable tribute to the man.
In my fantasies, at least, he must also have found the stock metal bracelets wanting as he wore his Daytonas on a variety of leather straps; for me both a further reason to admire the man and a potential mitigation for one of my objections to the watch.
Finally, there are some aspects of the Newman Daytona look that I do find appealing! In particular I’ll call out the subtle pebble graining of the main dial, especially on the ivory-dialed pieces I’ve seen.
The bottom line
Let’s start with what is perhaps obvious: while I’m a great admirer of Newman and have a certain weakness for bidding on objects such as Eisenhower’s jacket and Albert Einstein’s watch (a story for another time, perhaps), this October lot at Phillips is going to be way out of reach for me.
I do plan on attending the auction, though, wish all the best to the prospective bidders and to the Newman charities that will benefit, and expect an astonishing hammer price.
While I do have some concerns that another childhood hero of mine, Arnold Palmer, will live on in the collective consciousness mostly as a lemonade-iced tea drink, I don’t think there’s any chance that “Paul Newman” will be remembered primarily as the name of a wristwatch given Newman’s many accomplishments and ongoing charitable legacy.
I don’t “need” to own a Newman Rolex to show my respect for the man and I’ll probably do more good for those in need by continuing my regular purchases of Newman’s Own products – so I think I’ll stick to that!
Quick Facts Paul Newman’s own Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Reference 6239
Case: 36 x 14 mm, stainless steel with steel tachymeter bezel; pump pushers; engraved “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME” on the case back
Dial: white Exotic with black registers and chapter ring, red accents
Movement: manually wound Rolex Valjoux Caliber 722
Functions: hours, minutes; subsidiary seconds; 30-minute and 12-hour chronograph, tachymeter
Opening bid: $1 million and above at Phillips New York, October 26, 2017
Produced: mid- to late-1960s
* This article was first published on July 4, 2017 at Hello, Newman: A Collector Looks Askance At The Cult Of The Paul Newman Rolex Daytona.