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Rolex - Wildcard: Rolex Cellini

Rolex Wildcard: Rolex Cellini

Come again? The world leader, an outsider? This dress watch seems at odds with the brand's habits. Or does it?

I must confess that the very concept keeps bugging me. A formal, dress Rolex? That goes against everything I know, love and value with that brand. The Cellini collection has been around for decades, went through different iterations and styles, but never met a clearly defined audience. It was too original, too far off the brand's key concepts. In particular, most of them were hand-wound, which borders on heresy, coming from a brand that basically built itself around the concept of automatic watches. And lo and behold, come 2014, the brand with a crown launched a whole new Cellini. Pink or white gold case. Guilloché dials. Long, slender indices cut midway by the minute track. Leather straps only. Complications long unseen (date but not in a window, GMT but off-centered, moon phases). In fact, the Cellini's whole context has ended up being altered. Today, it is categorized in the “Classical watches” segment, along with the Day-Date, the other Rolex that only comes in precious metals and has long been the brand's flagship.

Yet, it doesn't take much thinking to realize how much Rolex has to offer in this very competitive watch category. The category that is broadly defined as “Classical watches” tends towards generic design, since it’s profoundly inspired by the cleanest of all eras of watchmaking — the 1950s. Despite existing within this design vocabulary, the Cellini has managed to avoid looking like a vintage watch. Rolex has notably steered clear of the vintage paradigm, a subject the brand is deeply suspicious of as a whole. The Cellini resembles nothing else in the market, really, especially thanks to the dial's originality, pattern and all. Furthermore, all Cellinis are now automatic in a segment where handwound stills reigns supreme, partly because of antiquated proprieties of traditional watchmaking This set of unspoken rules stipulates that a gold, dress watch is to be wound by hand and that's that. Finally, forgive me for stating the obvious, the Cellinis are fitted with Rolex movements. And that is basically the best a man and a woman can get. With a five-year warranty to boot. 

So here I am, unpacking my Cellini Date, ref. 50515, pink gold case (actually, Everose gold, the in-house gold alloy with high palladium content to replace the more common silver) and silver guilloché dial. It comes on a varnished, light brown alligator strap with a pin buckle. She gives out the plush feeling of luxury and prestige that usually comes with a gold Rolex, yet it is unlike any other Rolex. My first impressions don't have much to do with the Cellini itself, more with wearing a gold watch. It is an experience in and of itself, one which I am not accustomed to. At 98 grams, the weight is hefty but let's bear in mind that a smaller, 36 mm gold Datejust weighs 20% more. The case is not discreet, not by a long shot, not even compared with highly polished steel. And also, there's the price that won't get out of my head. Although after a thorough comparison with 8 direct competitors from highly visible brands, only one turned out to be cheaper.

Wildcard: Rolex Cellini

Cellini Date ref. 50515 © WorldTempus/David Chokron

It's now time to look at and feel the Cellini. To have a taste of it. To scrutinize it with that mix of emotion and cold thinking that so often comes with discovering a timepiece. The dial is very bright, which comes from its color, its sunray guilloché pattern and also from the solid gold indices and double circling around the date at 3 o'clock. The sword hands lie on top of that to create a perfectly readable ensemble, which will turn out to be maintained in dim lighting conditions. At 39 mm, the diameter is perfect... for me. Indeed, there is no such thing as a universal watch size. But it should be noted that Rolex went in the way of discretion, a choice that resembles the brand more than most people know. Anyhow, the feeling of size is altered by several elements of design. The case is curved on both sides, the bezel is knurled, but finely and only on its outer rim. In short, Rolex is playing with the eye in order to create a particular sense of volume. In that, the Cellini reveals itself to be very meticulously designed. Also, the feeling of a conspicuous watch quickly fades, which has a lot to do with the soft tones of the Everose alloy. 

I'm now setting the time and date. The knurling on the crown is so perfect it feels like it's deliberately designed (it most certainly is) to provide the fingers with the best feeling and grip. When pulling the screwed-down crown, every notch is perfectly placed, one after another. It is therefore impossible to pull like an ox and reach the last position. One must go through each of them, one at a time. First position: winding. The movement makes exactly the right amount of noise: enough to be sure one is at the right position, but not so much that it sounds like an old rattle. Also, the rotor is perfectly silent, which is a mystery since it is mounted on notoriously noisy ceramic ball bearings. I set the time, pull again to set the date and, surprise surprise, that's not happening. The crown's ultimate position makes the hour hand skip by one-hour increments instead of setting the date. So I must now turn and turn and turn the crown...

Flipping the Cellini brings a sudden realization. Watch lovers won't get their usual eye candy. In keeping with its (annoying) habit, of which the previous generations of Cellinis were a notable exception, Rolex only uses closed casebacks. This one is made of solid, opaque, polished gold. There is simply no seeing the movement, cal. 3165, its openworked rotor, its blue Parachrom hairspring, its clay-red inverters, its double-anchored balance bridge, its unsung finishings.

Wildcard: Rolex Cellini

Cellini Date ref. 50515 © WorldTempus/David Chokron

Let's dwell on that movement for a bit. Cellinis aren't (yet) fitted with the latest generation of calibers from the 32xx family. So, in terms of power reserve, mine only lasts for two days, not much more. But even though it isn't mentioned on the dial (yet another unusual choice for a brand that has made it such a massive argument), it is a certified chronometer. After a week on the wrist, really worn in real life by a real person, the watch lost 2 seconds in 120 hours. Which is tantamount to 12 seconds per month, a great result. The downside is the caliber's thickness. Rolex declined to specify but it is clearly above 6mm and it really shows.

On the wrist, The Cellini Date is a hefty 12.3mm thick. For such a watch, the norm is under or barely above the 10mm mark. Reaching that thickness is all the easier as most watches in that segment are either handwound or fitted with a slim automatic movement, sometimes thanks to a micro-rotor. But here's the thing: Rolex's quality relies, among other things, on wide technical margins of error. Their calibers are thick because it makes them more rugged and reliable. The space between hands is a good example. It keeps them from touching each other, which prevents damage to the hands and movement. A precious few tenths of millimeters are lost here and many other places. As a result, the Cellini doesn't sit still on the wrist. It won't nest properly because its back is lower than the horn's ends.

How do people react to it? After the usual string of wows and other such proclamations of appreciation, people who went into more detail mentioned that it put them in mind of a feminine watch, although not in a pejorative way. Vintage looking, to the untrained eye. Chic, of course. What's most notable is despite its being an unusual watch for me to wear, no one found it beside the point, affected or overboard, even though I had kind of braced myself against this type of comments. 

So the Cellini is full of surprises. There was no way Rolex was going to relinquish its inviolable quality principles, and that has consequences. But in the meantime, those rules have given birth to a gorgeous dial, top-notch polishings, a gold color that manages to be both warm and not showy. If you can look past the thickness, the Cellini is a watch to consider because it is off the beaten path... which is no small paradox for such a ubiquitous brand.


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