Rolex’s best-kept secret

By Katherine Arteche

Having a family secret is not an unusual thing. The spectrum could range from being in possession of something prized, like a secret recipe, to something that may be regarded as social taboo, like having a secret sibling. And while this is an odd way of introducing Rolex’s Cellini collection, looking at the watches, one can’t help but feel that the Cellini is Rolex’s best-kept secret. Truth be told, when most people think about getting their first or next Rolex watch, a Submariner, Cosmograph Daytona or GMT-Master II would top the list. Each one of these watches is described as robust, cool and timeless, and they are models that would trump against all other watch models — having them in your collection would complete your initiation into the community of mechanical watch lovers. The Cellini name, however, is barely heard of — not because it is any less worthy than the other watches, for all the certified timepieces that emerge from the manufacture bear nothing less than optimum precision, but simply because “robust” and “cool” are the last words anyone would put to a Cellini.

Cellini Moonphase
Unlike its brothers that are suited up with a thick collar of a bezel, diving into deep seas or venturing across timezones around the world, the Cellini is their soft-spoken, dapper counterpart. Rolex’s first dress watches were made as early as its inception when the manufacture was still helmed by Hans Wilsdorf. The late ’20s was a golden age for Rolex, as its innovation of the Oyster watch made waves in the milieu of high-end watchmaking, particularly after the historic swim of Mercedes Gleitze, the brand’s first-ever ambassador, across the English Channel wearing the watch with the famed hermetically sealed case. Come 1928, the Rolex Prince was introduced. Slim, small and classical, the Prince was everything the Oyster watch was not, yet its peak seemed somewhat muted, buried underneath the folds of the brand’s adventurous DNA. Nevertheless, it provided fans of the brand with an alternative watch to wear for less vigorous occasions.

The 18K white gold version with a white lacquer dial, as seen on former US president Barack Obama’s wrist.
The Cellini name pays homage to 16th-century artist Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian goldsmith and sculptor, whose prestigious works included commissions for kings and the popes. The Cellini collection was born to be Rolex’s line of  “tuxedo watches”, and its original designs very much emulated the sophistication of the Italian Renaissance age. In 1986, the print advertisements upped the ante with depictions of Cellini’s works — the Saliera (or salt cellar) and a decorated prayer book cover — with the 4670 and 4324 models, both of which were dressed in 18K yellow-gold cases and bracelets. It is imagined that the marketing direction for these “dress watches” was skewed towards art aficionados who spent frequent evenings at the opera, where these gilded timepieces were bathed in chandelier lights and plush carpets, surrounded by tinkling glasses of sherry. They were the “pretty” Rolex watches whose good looks made up for their quaint-sized 18K solid gold cases. The watches appealed to both genders, though the manufacture provided manual-winding movements for men and quartz versions for women. In 2005, the Rolex Prince models were brought under the Cellini family, which cemented the impression that the Cellini line was reserved for classical timepieces.

Come Baselworld 2014, the Cellini line was rejuvenated in three new models — Cellini Time, Cellini Date, and Cellini Dual Time. With a diameter of 39mm and 18K white or Everose gold cases, the three set the new DNA of the Rolex dress watch, bearing similar physical attributes across the board. The angular Cellini models were replaced by round-faced models framed with double bezels — fluted and domed — and time is read off slim indexes and hour hands that are placed against white, black or silver dials. The 18K white gold version with a white lacquer dial, as seen on former US president Barack Obama’s wrist, caused quite a stir when he donned the Rolex Cellini Time at this year’s Invictus Games in Toronto, making it the first watch he was seen with since vacating the Oval Office. Fronting both the Date and Dual Time versions was the Rayon flammé de la gloire guilloché dial, which was reminiscent of the Cellini Rolex Prince, whose white- and Everose-gold models featured the same guilloché pattern. Yet when placed side by side, the Cellini Rolex Prince and the newer Cellini models show a quantum-leap difference in design. It is more probable that the recent refinement was a modernization of the Cellini Cestello, a model whose developments don’t leave much of a trace, though a quick search in the vintage department would unearth round-shaped cases housing the same enamel or sunray-finished dials, with the familiar Cellini script in cursive writing.
Three years later, another Cellini made an entrance at Baselworld 2017, this time with an astronomical complication that elevates the beauty of this understated dress watch. The moonphase indicator at six o’clock is the first feature one would lay eyes on — unlike other moonphase complications that are typically shown through an aperture, in the Cellini Moonphase, a fully exposed disc is juxtaposed against the otherwise simple dial. Two moons — one a meteorite-applique full moon and the other, a new moon represented by a silver ring — are set against a blue enameled disc showered with silver stars. The moonphase is read from the indicator set at 12 o’clock on the subdial. The 2014 versions of the Cellini brought the minute ring away from the circumference, and it remains so for the 2017 versions, but with the addition of a date ring that is numbered “1” through “31”. A blue centre date hand gestures via a crescent-shaped tip, separating itself from the 18K gold main hour, minute and second hands. With the provision of a 48-hour power reserve, the features are driven by a new 3195 caliber, a self-winding mechanical movement that is unquestionably made in-house. Marking another first for the Cellini Moonphase is the Rolex overcoil used in the oscillator, unlike the previous three models that carried Breguet’s. A brown alligator-leather strap with an 18K Everose gold buckle finishes with an adjustable folding Crownclasp, also the first in a Cellini timepiece.

If it wasn’t for the famous five-point crown, not many watch lovers would be able to identify the Cellini as a Rolex. And it is a shame because the Cellini line certainly carries as much legitimacy as its bulkier brethren. The understated elegance of the Cellini watches provides a refined counterpoint to the robust design of Rolex’s more famous watches. The Cellini is for those times when we are content to spend a quiet night indoors, with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 playing softly in the dim amber light, appreciating a glass of the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignon no one else knows about.