The first Rolex moon phase in more than 60 years.
By Sara James Mnookin
The world’s earliest civilizations kept time by observing the moon—tracking the days from one new moon to the next. The ancient Greeks took the process a leap further, inventing the Antikythera, one of the first-known complex machines. Housed in a wooden box with more than 30 bronze gears, the instrument could predict the moon’s phases and position in the sky. According to historians, the Antikythera’s four-annum cycle was used for adjusting to leap years or pinpointing the best city—sans eclipses—to host the next Olympic games.
Alas, this innovative tool (along with the instructions needed to replicate it) was lost at sea, near the isle for which it was later named. Other tinkerers wouldn’t catch up to the Antikythera’s technology for more than a thousand years. But by the late Middle Ages, Italian astronomer and engineer Giovanni Dondi dell-Orologio of Padua had created the Astrarium, an astrological clock that mapped the positions of the five then-known planets, along with the sun and the moon. This time, the device was reproduced—and shared widely—greatly influencing the burgeoning clock (and future watch) industries.
Rudimentary moon pointers—special discs that rotated on the dial to aim at numerals signifying the moon’s monthly age in days, from 1 to 29—can be found on pocket watches dating back to the turn of the 17th century. But since the real moon’s cycle is about a half day longer, these early versions required manually adjusting the watch at least every couple of years. Over time, the moon-phase complication became both more accurate and more beautiful as elaborate sky scenes were painted on or beneath the rotating discs (which sometimes had open holes to reproduce the waxing and waning of the moon). Adding more teeth to the gears turning these lunar mechanisms resulted in watches that needed far less correction. Some moon phases can now stay true for more than a thousand millennia.
Of course, in the current age of smartphones communicating with satellites in real time, moon phases no longer serve any functional purpose. Their value is purely historic and aesthetic, enhancing traditional timepieces with often gorgeous complications. Take the new Rolex Cellini Moonphase (reference 50535), for example. A handsome, oversize 39 mm case in 18-k Everose gold contains a self-winding movement made by Rolex with the company’s Superlative Chronometer certification, with an accuracy of plus or minus two seconds a day. The blue enamel disc at 6 o’clock tracks the various phases of the moon, indicated by an arrow indicator on the subdial. A full moon is depicted by a meteorite appliqué, while the new moon is designated by a simple silver ring.
The Cellini, the most elegant of Rolex’s styles, has long been overshadowed by the brand’s sportier models, like the Daytona and the Submariner. But this particular edition, designed with a subtle brown alligator-leather strap and spare white lacquer dial demands the spotlight—not least because it’s the first moon phase Rolex has issued in more than six decades.
“Rolex watches with a moon-phase indication are exceptionally rare—among the rarest of all of the brand’s historic and modern models,” says Paul Boutros, Americas & International Strategy advisor and senior vice president at Phillips auction house. Boutros points out that, before the new Cellini, only two Rolex moon phases were ever manufactured: “Reference 8171 and reference 6062 were both produced for only a few short years, from about 1950 until approximately 1954. Due to their timeless beauty, size, and rarity, these references are among the most sought-after of all vintage Rolex watches.”
One particular example, the Bao Dai Rolex, a 6062 moon phase in yellow gold with a black dial and diamond indices, once owned by the last emperor of Vietnam, has set records at Phillips both times it has come to market. It sold for $372,346 in 2002 and $5,034,084 in May of 2017, marking the highest price ever fetched by a Rolex, not once, but twice.
“The new Cellini is especially noteworthy since it is the first modern Rolex wristwatch to include a moon phase,” Boutros says. “Due to its large size and classic aesthetic, we believe it will sell well to collectors of modern, complicated wristwatches.”
Resale value is but one reason to get moonstruck.
WHERE TO WEAR IT
With the once stark line between work and leisure dissolving into a blur, few opportunities remain for true formal dress—and the Cellini Moonphase is, undoubtedly, a formal watch. Perhaps that’s why Rolex has become such an ardent supporter of the arts? It’s certainly one way to ensure the brand’s devotees can find suitable venues to exhibit their finery.
The company underwrites select performances at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, the Opéra National de Paris, the Sulzburg Festival and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Austria, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which just celebrated its 50th year at Lincoln Center. Even at the Met, though, dress codes have eased. “Monday nights at the old Met [on Broadway and 39th Street] were all white tie,” says Susan Froemke, a filmmaker who documented the Met’s 1966 move to the Upper West Side in this year’s exceptional The Opera House. “Everybody adhered to those rules,” she adds. “The old house was built by the nouveau riche—the Vanderbilts, if you can believe it—people who couldn’t get boxes at the old Academy of Music. They wanted a place to be seen in their ermine and jewels.”
Now, at Lincoln Center, inside Wallace Harrison’s sleek Modernist temple to the arts, there’s considerably more variety in audience attire. “Today, people are coming straight from work,” Froemke says. “But luckily, they do still make an effort.”
Under the starburst “sputnik” chandeliers, the Cellini will look right at home.
Rolex Cellini Moonphase, $26,750; rolex.com