When we’re talking about the hunt for the cheapest Rolex, that’s something that needs to be put into context. Being budget-friendly and “cheap” when we’re talking about Rolex watches is not the same as most other budget-based discussions. Rolex is a luxury watch brand—there are no affordable options in the Rolex collection. In this context “cheap” means “cheap for a Rolex,” which at the time of this article, is between $4,000 and $9,000.

But I’ve met so many new collectors who immediately place the onus of Rolex ownership as something they need to do for their watch collection. It’s either a milestone achievement they’re sprinting to or maybe it’s indicative of a lifestyle purchase, but at some point most watch collectors (whether they admit it or not) do wonder what the cheapest possible Rolex they could get is.

This means that there is inevitably a demand for entry-level Rolex models to be available to those who are looking. In our discussion here of affordable models for the most well-known Swiss watch brand, it’s important to note that our conversation excludes the Rolex Submariner, Daytona, and the Sea-Dweller. The entry level cost on the secondary market, grey market, and retail price on all of these models are outside of our originally referenced price range.

Right off the bat, what’s helpful to keep in mind though is that all of the watches we discuss below are generally vintage Rolexes and will only be accessible in the pre-owned market.

Rolex Air-King 5500

Image: Tropical Watch
  • Case Size: 34mm
  • Movement: Caliber 1520 or 1535
  • Crystal: Acrylic
  • Price: $3,500 – $5,500

Defined by its simple dial, efficient case design, and unpretentious wrist presence, the Rolex Air-King collection reminds us of one often forgotten fact: Rolexes weren’t always luxury watches.

During World War II, British RAF pilots relied heavily on a variety of Rolex models as part of their essential duties. Rolex was incredibly desirable as a tool watch during this time for 4 distinct reasons: they were accurate, reliable, dust-proof, and quite water-resistant for the time thanks to Rolex’s Oyster Case technology. With so many British soldiers wearing Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf (the founder of Rolex) was shocked to learn that British POWs were having their watches stolen while they were being processed and held in Germany.

As such, Rolex offered replacement timepieces to soldiers under an honor system for payment after the war (this was only possible due to the Geneva Convention’s mail provision for POWs). After the war, Rolex honored the bravery of the RAF and their role in WWII with the “Air” collection of timepieces, of which the “Air-King” is the only remaining model.

With all this history and legacy, it’s probably a surprise to learn that the Air-King is often one of the most affordable Rolex watch models available. There have been many iterations of the model but the one that’s the most iconic is the Air-King 5500.

The 5500 was part of the second generation of Air-King models released in 1957. It features a simple smooth bezel and a 34mm Oyster Case, which was a standard case size for a man’s wristwatch during this period. The dial is straightforward, uncluttered, and features nothing more than what is necessary for its function. All of these would become hallmarks of the Rolex Air-King line for decades to come.

Current market prices for a Rolex Air-King 5500 will vary between $3,500 to $5,500 depending on the condition of the timepiece and where you’re picking it up from.

Rolex Air-King 14000

  • Case Size: 34mm
  • Movement: Caliber 3000
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Price: $4,500 – $5,500

Originally released in 1989, the Rolex Air-King 14000 was the successor to the previously discussed Air-King 5500, which after being produced for over 30 years was due for an upgrade. As such, the 14000 presented many opportunities to improve the Air-King line while staying true to its aviation origins.

For example, the 14000 features a sapphire crystal, which functionally is an upgrade from the original acrylic crystal of its predecessor. Now while the stainless steel case design and sizing of 34mm were relatively unchanged, the Air-King 14000 presented the iconic Swiss watch brand with an opportunity to use improved materials and crafting techniques in the construction of both the Oyster Bracelet and Case.

However the largest change by far was inside the case. This new generation of Air-King 14000s featured the Rolex Caliber 3000, which was a significant upgrade to the previous Caliber 1520 and 1535. This change resulted in a Rolex timepiece that was more accurate and reliable with a chronometer certification (although there are some models that used the Caliber 3000, which do not feature this certification).

In the current market a Rolex Air-King 14000 would be anywhere from $4,500 to $5,500 depending on quality, variation, and from where you’re acquiring the watch.

Rolex Air-King 114200

Image: Tropical Watch
  • Case Size: 34mm
  • Movement: Caliber 3130
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Price: $5,000 – $9,000

Continuing the progression of the Air-King collection, the 14000 would eventually be replaced by the Air-King 114200. Added to the Rolex catalog in 2007, the 114200 struck an integral balance between preserving the history of its predecessors and making efforts to modernize certain aspects of the watch to appeal to contemporary audiences.

For example, the iconic Oyster Case remained 34mm but featured a slightly taller case design in order to increase the overall robustness of the watch. The movement was also upgraded to the Rolex Caliber 3130, which was a more modern iteration of the previous Caliber 3000, which meant it featured improved craftsmanship, accuracy, and durability.

However the most significant change that the 114200 introduced was the inclusion of many different dial designs and styles. One of the more noteworthy additions was the inclusion of Arabic numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, which brings an extra layer of design to the otherwise historically minimal dial. There are even 114200 models with full Roman numerals around the dial.

Those on the hunt for the cheapest Rolex models out there can expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000 for a Rolex Air-King 114200.

Rolex Explorer 14270

  • Case Size: 36mm
  • Movement: Caliber 3000
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Price: $5,000 – $8,000

The first Rolex Explorer was released in 1953 to embody the spirit of exploration, ruggedness, and human endurance. But more specifically, the Explorer was developed to honor Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest—they were the first people to do so in the history of mankind.

With that culturally significant and supercharged impetus, the design and appeal of the Rolex Explorer continues even to this day. However there is one model in the history of this iconic timepiece that has had the most impact (and it also happens to be one of the most affordable Rolex models): the Explorer 14270.

Featuring a deep glossy black dial, white gold lined applied hour markers, a sapphire crystal, and a more refined case profile, the 14270 presented an overall watchmaking design philosophy that was more of an “elevated” dress watch and less of a rugged tool watch. The previous generation of 1016 models was in production from 1963 to 1989 when it received various design and technical upgrades in the form of the Rolex 14270’s release.

The bracelet was refined for additional comfort and the movement was also upgraded to the Rolex Caliber 3000. These changes are slightly controversial in that such refinement pushes the Rolex Explorer design more into a luxury watch category as opposed to a rugged tool. However, the aesthetic upgrades of the 14270 have been included in future models as well, solidifying the 14270’s place as a milestone release.

Prices for the Rolex Explorer 14270 have risen over the years, however you can still expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000.

Rolex DateJust Ref. 1600s and 16000s

  • Case Size: Ranging from 26mm to 41mm
  • Movement: Various
  • Crystal: Acrylic on older models, Sapphire on new
  • Price: $4,000 – $5,000

To commemorate their 40th anniversary in 1945, Rolex released the DateJust. While date windows had become somewhat normal at this time, the Rolex DateJust made history and significantly raised the bar by being the first wristwatch that had a date window that automatically changed at midnight. This significant feat coupled with the timepiece’s quintessential tone-setting for dress watches worldwide ensured that the Rolex DateJust would be one of the most influential watch designs in history.

Over the decades the DateJust collection has changed and evolved to the meet the demands of new audiences as well as to accommodate advances in technology and materials. However, of all the designs released in this iconic Swiss timepiece’s history, there are two that are not only noteworthy as design milestones, but also for our discussion on budget-friendly Rolex models: The Ref. 1600 series and the Ref. 16000 series.

Introduced in the 1950s, the Ref.1600 series introduced a somewhat slimmer case design as well as the most character defining features that would remain unchanged for decades such as the hand style, dial layouts, and bezel options (with the 1601 and 1603 featuring a fluted bezel). Two decades later in the 1970s the 16000 series was released which introduced more upgrades and design options.

For instance, the base DateJust 16000 model featured a stainless steel case fixed with a smooth bezel on either a jubilee bracelet or a classic Oyster bracelet. Whereas the DateJust 16013 features a two-tone combination of stainless steel and yellow gold on the case and bracelet. Plus, the bezel is fluted and the overall composition of the piece is designed to look more luxurious. Also notable across all 16000 references is the upgraded Caliber 3035 movement, which features the world’s first quickset date function.

A Rolex DateJust 1600 series should be priced between $4,000 to $5,000 while the 16000 series should be between $5,000 to $8,000 (with prices varying from reference numbers, condition, and source of acquisition). Interestingly, prices for the Day-Date (which features a Day and a Date window) are significantly higher compared to its cousin the DateJust.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 1000s and 6000s

  • Case Size: Ranging from 24 to 41
  • Movement: Various
  • Crystal: Acrylic on older models, Sapphire on new
  • Price: $3,000 – $7,000

Rolex released the first water-proof case (that was also dust-proof) in 1926 called the “Oyster” case. Five years later they then released their first self-winding automatic movement, which allowed the user to wind their watch simply by moving it. This gave rise to the notion of the “perpetual” movement. Thus, in the 1950s the two concepts were officially combined into a standout winning combination called the “Oyster Perpetual.”

Over the decades the overall design ethos of the Oyster Perpetual hasn’t significantly changed. It’s shape and style are timeless, beautiful, and appropriately understated. It is as essential and basic a dial as you can get with Rolex—there is no date function. While staying true to these design ideals there have been different designs, colors, and styles over the years. Now the problem is that due to the modern relative product scarcity of certain Rolex models, price tags on modern Oyster Perpetuals tend to be inflated.

However, there is still a place for the iconic Oyster Perpetual in our discussion on affordable Rolex models. The 5 and 6 digital references tend to be those that are scarce and experience price increases due to the market. However, the 4 digital earlier references are much less competitive. While the market has still certainly impacted them, it’s not nearly to the same extent. Of the 4 digit Oyster Perpetual models, the ones to focus on are the ones that start with 1xxx (like the 1002 and 1018) and 6xxx (like the 6084 and 6580 pictured above). Interesting note—the 6580 above is a redial, which can impact (lower) the price since some parts will not be original.

For a 4 digit Oyster Perpetual on the pre-owned Rolex watch market, one can anticipate the cost to be anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 depending on the model, condition, and location of the watch.

Let us know below your thoughts on these pieces – we’re always going to be updating this list so feel free to share any other suggestions on which models we could add here.

6 thoughts on “Cheapest Rolex Watches: The Most Bang For Your Buck Choices”

  1. Any of these watches mentioned, you can’t go wrong with. If your unsure when the watch was last serviced. Allow in your budget a complete servicing. Have it serviced by a Rolex Service Centre! At this point, don’t go cheap and allow someone down the corner to work on your watch. Regardless of how well they smile. This watch will last you the rest of your life with the proper care.

  2. Thanks for the article. I found myself researching this exact topic several months ago while I was searching for that first Rolex piece to commemorate a special milestone in my life. I ended up finding an OP Ref# 1007 from 1966 in excellent condition with box and papers from a local watch dealer. I was able to negotiate a price that was on the lower end of the spectrum you wrote about. I love how under the radar yet elegant the watch is. The engine turned bezel adds a lot of depth and it contains several interesting design details upon further inspection.

    Appreciate your content, especially the pods. Would love to support you guys! Let me know how!

  3. (I’ve recently fallen for the Bremont line.)

    Next up though is a classic Roller. Probably a Date Just.

    Nicely Leone on the article.

  4. I would add the explorer 2. They can be found for 6 or 7k even now. And the Thunderbird… Most neglected Rolex of all time.


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