A year ago, the very idea of a titanium Rolex was relegated to wild dreams. A prototype had been seen on the wrist of British competitive sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, but the widely circulated online photo had gotten so old that some of us began to wonder if the watch would ever see the light of day. Now, in less than five months, we’ve gotten two watches from the Crown cased in RLX Titanium (a grade 5 titanium). The first was last year’s 50mm Deep Sea Special, the mega dive watch that obliterated the water-resistance record. And now this week we have the Rolex Yacht-Master 42, which unlike the DSS is sized so that a normal human being could conceivably wear it. It’s a big deal. But when seen next to Daytonas with display casebacks, Day-Dates with emojis, a solid-gold GMT-Master II, and an entirely new line of dress watches, a titanium Yacht-Master barely moves the needle of surprise and excitement. What a wild 48 hours this has been for the House of Wilsdorf.
In some ways, it feels like the appropriate response to not be that excited. After all, at this point every other watchmaker under the sun has made a titanium watch, from affordable Citizens in multiple colors of bezels and dials to Jean-Claude Biver’s $500,000 minute repeater tourbillon announced Sunday. And yet, as soon as the new titanium Yacht-Master ref. 226627 started to be passed around the room of Hodinkee editors during this week’s Watches & Wonders trade show, the general reaction was just to laugh with surprise. This 42mm watch, which looks so sturdy, feels so unbelievably light. I mean, that’s titanium for you. But still. You can’t quite believe this watch is real, on a number of different levels. For any of us who’ve ever tried on a steel Submariner (a.k.a. anyone with a passing interest in Rolex), it’s kind of comical to find out how much your brain is preconditioned to see a 42mm steel Oyster case, round indices, and Mercedes hands and think about the luxurious heft that awaits you. At around 100 grams, according to Rolex, the titanium Yacht-Master is so light it breaks your brain.
For a moment, let’s compare the new YM to last year’s titanium Pelagos from Rolex’s sister brand Tudor. Rolex’s choice to put the watch on a bracelet instead of a sportier Oysterflex makes the comparison obvious. I’ve now spent time with both pieces, and I prefer the Yacht-Master. The YM, like the Pelagos, is distinctly a tool watch – something that would have been hard to say about Yacht-Masters in the past. But the finishing a world apart, which is saying something for such an understated metal as titanium. Rolex’s proprietary grade 5 “RLX Titanium” (stronger than the grade 2 of the Pelagos) has the curious property of being equally able to be brushed satin or polished, which means it has the nice sharp and shiny chamfers that you’d like to see contrasted against the dark grey and relatively matte metal. That combination also works well with the more matte and textured dial – and with the contrast of the raised black numerals against a matte ceramic bezel insert, which is is the main giveaway that this is still squarely a Yacht-Master. My main critique (which I share into the void, knowing that Rolex designers will do whatever they think best) is that I wish they’d stuck to the no-date design of Ainsilie’s prototype. In the practical application of most sailing races, there’s really no use for a date. If you’re blue-water sailing and circumnavigating the globe, maybe its useful, though just like dive watches the practical application gives way to the reality of technology. So why not refine the design further and leave the date off altogether? And while we’re at it, a better quick-adjustment option would be great. The price is somewhat immaterial – CHF 13,400 – since the average collector won’t be able to get it at retail anytime soon. But the new Yacht-Master 42 is more than a solid release. It’s a more than a titanium proof of concept. It’s a wearable piece that portends at least the possibility of future experiments with this fascinating material.
2023 is proving to be a year of hits for Rolex with the Geneva-based company debuting a combination of highly sensible new releases along with some unexpected interesting new artistic concepts. When it comes to sports watches, the most interesting new release from Rolex is a titanium version of the jumbo-sized Rolex Yacht-Master 42 with the reference 226627. Only recently did Rolex first introduce a titanium watch in its collection with the almost comically over-engineered Rolex Deepsea Challenge (aBlogtoWatch hands-on here) that is water resistant to 11,000 meters. Very large and also not shy when it comes to price, the Deepsea Challenge is a niche novelty luxury watch — not meant to be worn comfortably on most wrists. The Yacht-Master 42 is a different story and in RLX titanium offers a large Rolex watch-wearing experience but without the feeling of bulk.
The visceral experience of wearing the Rolex Yacht-Master 42 titanium is very odd for any long-time Rolex fan. Rolex more or less helped create the 20th-century notion that you can often measure the value of a watch by feeling how solid and weighty it is. Rolex watches have never been designed for lightness, so most of them are quite hefty, and beloved for that reason. It is common for someone to admire a precious metal Rolex simply by feeling its mass in the open palm of your hand.