Why I Bought It: Vintage Rolex Day-Date Reference 1803
by Martin Green
Sometimes with watches it’s like it is with pets: you don’t choose them, they choose you. I haven’t had this happen for quite some time, but it did happen recently to me when I stepped into the office of WatchWorks Haarlem.
I was meeting with owner Farid Froon to discuss a mutual project and had zero intentions of buying a watch, let alone a Rolex Day-Date Reference 1803 from 1976. However, this Rolex happened to be on Froon’s desk as it had just come in from service. As a true watch junkie, I had to try it on. And that is something that I probably shouldn’t have done.
Falling into place
It was one of those moments when everything falls into place. And my immediate infatuation with the watch may have had something to do with my outfit of the day. It was lovely weather, perfect for khakis and an Italian linen shirt, which both flawlessly matched the look of this Reference 1803. All fell into place, and at that moment I knew that this had to become my Day-Date.
As it is a Rolex, details matter, especially for this Reference 1803. It was made in 1976, the last year that Rolex offered this reference with a café au lait-colored dial and white pad printing.
This latter detail makes all the difference as it is less pronounced than black printing and under certain angles it seems to disappear altogether. It gives the dial some ghost-like characteristics that only further add to the appeal of the watch.
Froon had already nicknamed it “El Fantasma de la Habana,” in English “The ghost of Havana.” There is a lot to say for this nickname as I can easily imagine myself wearing a nice linen suit while smoking a cigar while walking down a boulevard in Havana on my way to a perfectly chilled Cuba Libre. The only problem with this is that I don’t smoke, have never been to Cuba, and prefer other cocktails over the Cuba Libre. But that is all beside the point.
The appeal of a vintage Rolex Day-Date is part patina and part preservation. I don’t like watches that have too much patina, but I also don’t want them to look nearly new. These aspects have to be in balance to be right for me. And this Reference 1803 is the perfect combination.
The case is still clean and preserves that sharp look. The tritium dots on the dial have damaged the area right around them, which makes them not only more visible but also look something like fried eggs. It gives the Day-Date a sense of vintage charm, more so because Reference 1803 has a pie-pan dial. This effect is relatively modest as only the section with the minute track is curved. While this doesn’t turn it into an Omega Constellation, it does add an element of depth and more play of light.
As a yellow gold Rolex of this age, the metal has a slight hint of pink to it because the alloy used at that time contained a higher amount of copper. It makes the watch look warmer, and perhaps that is also why Cuba came right to mind when I saw it. This tone truly comes to life on the brushed surfaces on top of the lugs. I always prefer yellow gold over pink as I find the latter often a bit too harsh and enjoy the classic look of yellow gold more.
This tone, however, offers the perfect balance to satisfy both cravings.
To bracelet or not to bracelet
The President bracelet that originally came with this Reference 1803 is no longer there. Your guess is as good as mine as to what happened to it in the 46 years of this watch’s existence. It may have just been worn out and sold for scrap gold.
In all honesty, I don’t mind. This Reference 1803 would have quite a different look with a gold bracelet. It is a lot of gold, perhaps even too much of a good thing, as it would also overpower the appeal of the light-brown dial and its subtle color difference to the case. On a leather strap, like this one from Molequin, the watch is more classic and toned down. It gives you another element to play with.
In this light earth tone that Molequin calls Sandstone you get a tone-in-tone effect, but put it on a blue strap or, one of my favorites, British racing green, and the Reference 1803 shows a different side to its character.
With a diameter of 36 mm this Day-Date is perfectly proportioned for my wrist. It has presence and doesn’t look small, but at the same time is it not overpowering like I am wearing a block of gold with a crown that grabs the attention of those around me.
A big bonus with this watch is that while its original bracelet is lost, it came with an original and period-correct yellow gold Rolex buckle. This is a detail that probably also contributed to making this Reference 1803 immediately feel like my watch when I strapped it on.
It is a detail that provides a certain charm and one that turned this Rolex into my watch.
Quick Facts Rolex Day-Date Reference 1803 from 1976
Case: 36 mm, yellow gold
Movement: automatic Rolex Caliber 1556, fourth generation of the Day-Date movement, 2.5 Hz/19,800 vph frequency, 26 jewels
Functions: hours, minutes, (hacking) seconds; day, date
Year of manufacture: 1976
* This article was first published 22 March 2022 at Why I Bought It: Vintage Rolex Day-Date Reference 1803