The story of the Milgauss begins with its striking lightning-bolt shaped seconds hand. The unusually shaped hand is one of the most recognizable and desirable features of the original anti-magnetic Rolex, and one that was greatly appreciated within the small scientific community for whom the watch was intended – and it’s what a much larger group of enthusiasts enjoy about the latest model too.
The Milgauss began with the lightning bolt hand, and has it today, but when the second iteration (ref. 1019) adopted a straight seconds hand, interest in the Milgauss dropped to the point where Rolex eventually decided to stop producing it. In England, retailers found it so difficult to find buyers that they began using the watch as a bargaining chip when selling other more popular Oyster models. That’s right – at some point, you could get this watch for almost nothing (and sometimes you did).
My own experience with the Milgauss is very different. I began paying attention to watches seriously around the same time the Milgauss was re-launched – in 2007 – and for a while, this was the Rolex I wanted to get. I was 18 back then, and like many young adults, I found anything that clearly distinguished me from my parents’ generation very appealing. The new, more down-to-earth, more colorful Milgauss and its electric seconds hand felt like a clean break from some of the other more traditional models made by Rolex. In hindsight it was pretty silly of me to think of any Rolex as being counter-culture. But that’s how I viewed the Milgauss.
The Milgauss reference 6541 was introduced in 1956, and it was one of the first wristwatches capable of keeping time accurately when exposed to strong magnetic fields thanks to its soft iron inner case. This was actually the second Milgauss, after the ref. 6543 (despite the reference numbers, ref. 6543 actually came first) which was a watch Rolex made in very small numbers, and which bears little resemblance to subsequent models.
The design of the Milgauss was initially very similar to another professional Rolex model known for its resistance to water, not magnetism. Just like the Submariner, the Milgauss was presented in an Oyster case made of steel, technically making it a sports watch, and just like the Submariner, it had a graduated rotating bezel, bubble indexes (in certain places), and perhaps most important of all (to collectors) a single line of red text indicating the name of the model.
Just like early versions of Rolex’s diving wristwatch, the original Milgauss now trades for some serious money, not because it was one of the first mainstream antimagnetic wristwatches (look at prices for a 1950s IWC Ingenieur for comparison) but because of its rarity, and the fact that it has aged well in terms of case proportions and overall design. And because it’s an important part of Rolex’s history.
Conceived and manufactured by Rolex, the watch was tested a few miles from the watchmaker’s facilities against magnetic fields up to 1,000 gauss by some of Switzerland’s most brilliant minds at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Before it was anyone else’s, this was their watch.
The Milgauss received only one major update during the 20th century – in the 1960s, when Rolex introduced the reference 1019. The new watch presented quite a few modifications, the most obvious being a smooth bezel, new hands and new indexes, and a straight seconds hands ending in a red tip to echo the red “Milgauss” line of text. This last one’s important. Two dial variations were made (three if you count test models, which do not contain luminous material) in black or in silver, neither of them with the honeycomb pattern anymore. Despite its generous 38mm case, the Milgauss never really found an audience, and Rolex ultimately gave up on the watch in 1988. Something about it just wasn’t quite right.
The Modern Milgauss (And That Z-Blue Dial)
Rolex took a few brave decisions when it relaunched the Milgauss in 2007, almost 20 years after removing it from their catalogue. And it had to. The company, which is known for making very subtle changes over long periods of time, took what was one of its plainest properties and added a healthy dose of color. For the new model, reference 116400, Rolex went back to the lighting bolt shape for the seconds hand, and ditched the clean and clinical polished stainless steel in favor of a bright orange hand. The minutes track and hour markers received the same color treatment. Perhaps the most controversial introduction was made with the Anniversary Model which came with a crystal that was lightly tinted green and which gave the dial a unique halo. Rolex called it the Glace Verte (or Green Glass) and claims it doesn’t have a patent on it because it is so difficult to make.
Then, in 2014, Rolex added a new blue dial glace verte model, and that’s when many people lost their minds a little (myself included). For the first time ever, a Milgauss was selling not just at retail, but way above it. All because of that blue dial, which Rolex calls Z-Blue.
Just to be clear, this watch is identical to other reference 116400 Milgauss models on a technical level. It comes in a traditional 40mm Oyster case that is generously polished, with Oyster bracelet made from 904L stainless steel that has a mix of brushed and polished finishes. The watch is powered by the manufacture-made Caliber 3131, which is a COSC-certified movement equipped with a few antimagnetic features, including a Parachrom hairspring (made with a paramagnetic alloy composed of niobium and zirconium) and a paramagnetic escape wheel (made of a nickel-phosphorous alloy). A self-winding movement with a power reserve of approximately 48 hours, calibre 3131 powers all modern Milgauss watches (as well as the new Air-King).
Dial side, the watch worked too, so Rolex made very few changes. In fact, all Rolex really did was improve on a solid base. Both the baton indexes and Chromalight display (which adds another, more subtle dose of color) were kept, as was the bright orange minutes track. and the orange “Milgauss.” It’s quite different from the vintage models, but that’s the point, and I rather like it.
The only real novelty of the Z-Blue model is the new dial, and boy did Rolex get it right. Blue is an easy option when a watchmaker wants to spice things up. It’s more versatile than the traditional colors of black, white, and silver, being more casual without being too eccentric. But this blue is a little different, because this is a Rolex, and Rolex plays by its own rules. In fact, it’s a metallic blue that veers towards green depending on the light and the angle at which the light hits the brushed dial.
On The Wrist
So, what’s it like to wear? For lack of a better word, it’s just straight fun. This is a watch with a whole lot of personality. It’s self-assured, and in complete denial of its previous unpopularity; scientific, and yet a little immature; rebellious, and yet so thoroughly rooted in Oyster conventions. It goes with everything, but never feels right with a suit. But most of all, it seems to know how unlikely it is someone will pick it up for its antimagnetic features – but it wouldn’t suffer one bit if you tested its resistance to magnetism.
The thing is, from a practical standpoint picking a Milgauss is actually a very wise choice. It’s everything you expect from Rolex in terms of build. It’s made with extremely resistant steel, it’s waterproof to 100 meters, antimagnetic to at least 1,000 gauss (if not more, much more), powered by a certified Superlative Chronometer movement; and, finally, it’s a very good looking timepiece, and it’s far from being the most expensive Rolex. Like I said, it’s a wise choice indeed.
The Milgauss is priced at $8,200 and is available with the Z-Blue dial seen here or a black dial with orange indexes at three, six, and nine o’clock. For more, visit Rolex online.