Continuing our exploration into the world of watches, we now look to one area of the watch often gets overlooked — the caseback. While it is true that the majority of the value of a watch rests in the dial, and that the subtle changes throughout the years tell the history of the particular watch brand, solid caseback engravings hold more personal stories and celebrate the owners’ of the watch.
A dying custom, led by the astronomical prices that Rolex sports models now command, caseback engravings are often reserved for those that can take the financial hit on their investment or those who never plan on selling their watch. Normally done to commemorate an event or achievement — like the recent Rolex watches Keanu Reeves gifted his team for the wrapping of John Wick 4 — auction houses are striking gold in the sale of personalized watches owned by notable individuals. A few historic examples are the $2 million USD sale of Marlon Brando’s Rolex GMT-Master and John F. Kennedy’s infamous Rolex Day-Date (aka the Presidential) gifted from Marilyn Monroe.
Much like how we looked at some of the interesting variants of the Rolex Submariner, this feature sheds light on some of the lesser-known cosmetic changes that have appeared on Rolex’s iconic watches. Joined once again by Paul Altieri of Bob’s Watches along with Watchfinder & Co., and Fog City Vintage, he are some interesting caseback engravings that have graced the Explorer II, Daytona, Submariner, and Oyster Perpetual.
Rolex Explorer II 22 Special Air Service
Founded in 1941 as a special operations division of the British Army, the Special Air Service (SAS) is regarded as one of the most respected military organizations in the entire world. In 2021, Rolex granted active members of the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment the opportunity to buy an exclusive version of the Explorer II reference 216570 and subsequently produced a special order of approximately 100 examples. Rolex made both black and white dial versions of the SAS Explorer II 216570, and all of the watches have caseback engravings that feature the regiment’s name (“22 Special Air Service”) with its famous winged dagger emblem, along with the unit’s motto (“Who Dares Wins”) engraved on the 9 o’clock side of the case.
Rolex Daytona Sports Car Series Champion
The Rolex Sports Car Series was the name of the premier automotive racing series run by the Grand American Road Racing Association before it became known as United SportsCar Championship. While the prize money was certainly significant, the winners also received Rolex Daytona watches – and for the drivers, it was all about winning the watch. Unlike a trophy that sits on a shelf or money that goes into the bank, the Daytona watches awarded to the winners were status symbols among competing drivers that were frequently worn and cherished by their owners. While the timepieces themselves are standard two-tone Rolex Daytona watches, their caseback engravings that have the Rolex Sports Car Series logo (along with the word “Champion”) make them entirely more special and desirable to today’s collectors.
Within the world of vintage Rolex sports watches, few names are more revered than the MilSub. A true “grail watch” by all definitions of the term, the Rolex MilSub is a specially modified version of the brand’s iconic Submariner dive watch that was issued to members of the British military between the late 1950s and the end of the 1970s. Along with a handful of other military-specified additions such as sword-shaped hands, a fully-demarcated bezel, and fixed bars between the lugs, Rolex Milsub watches also have their casebacks engraved with their military-issued stock numbers and the Broad Arrow symbol, which signifies that the watches are property of the British Ministry of Defense.
Rolex COMEX Submariner
Along with the military-issued MilSub, the COMEX Submariner is the other private-label edition of Rolex’s legendary dive watch that sits at the top of countless vintage collectors’ wishlists. COMEX is a French deep-sea diving company that partnered with Rolex between the 1970s and 1990s and served as a real-world testbed for Rolex’s various dive watches. The COMEX Submariner exists across several different references, with the most desirable examples being those with the iconic COMEX logo printed on their dials. Additionally, as these watches were issued to COMEX divers, each one has a caseback engraving with the COMEX name and the watch’s individual number.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 116000 Domino’s Pizza
Part of Rolex’s ongoing relationship with Domino’s Pizza, and while not as colorful as the earlier Air-Kings, this Oyster Perpetual was awarded to Domino’s managers who could Sell $25,000 USD worth of pizzas for four weeks in a row. The watch sees subtle co-branding in the form of a bronze Domino’s plaque fixed to the bracelet and a Domino’s logo engraved at the caseback. Each manager awarded the watch was also presented with an official letter from Domino’s Pizza.
Rolex Explorer II 216570 Attack Helicopter
This is a special order version of the Explorer II made for the British Military’s Attack Helicopter Regiment — the same one Prince Harry served in 2010 where he eventually went on to command his own Apache attack helicopter. With only 48 ever made, the association with the military, not to mention its rarity and special Union Jack/Apache caseback engraving, this is a highly sought-after collectible timepiece. Only four have surfaced for auction.
Rolex Submariner 16610 Cinderella Man
This special watch was previously gifted by Russell Crowe to a crew member and was purchased in Toronto in 2005 to commemorate the filming of Cinderella Man. The 2004 Rolex Submariner ref. 16610 sees special engravings in the form of “Cinderella Man 2004” at the top and “Vincit Qui Se Vincit – RC” at the bottom. While the owner did attempt to sell it for some cash, word has it that Russell Crowe himself bought the watch and returned it to the seller.