Between large, legible pilot watches, intricate chronographs, and durable dive watches, tool watches have always had an undeniable appeal. You don’t have to calculate your remaining oxygen or time your laps at Le Mans to appreciate the intersection of form and function that defines a tool watch. Although antimagnetic watches are often buried in the back-pages of manufacturers’ catalogues, they serve a distinct purpose. Since the 1950’s, the Rolex Milgauss has been the face of this often-overlooked category. After six years of nearly daily wear, this black dial Milgauss remains robust, comfortable, and, if possible with an orange lightning bolt second hand, subtle.
First released as the Reference 6543 in 1954, the Rolex Milgauss was designed for function every bit as much as the Submariner or Daytona. Although not the first antimagnetic wristwatch, a title that belongs to the 1930 Tissot Antimagnetique, the Milgauss significantly increased a movement’s capacity to withstand magnetism. The exact history is convoluted, but a certain level of collaboration between Rolex and CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, led to a watch that could withstand 1,000, or mil, gauss. Without delving too deeply into the science, a “gauss” is a measured unit of magnetism. A refrigerator magnet measures around 50 gauss, demonstrating the Milgauss’ competency not only in everyday life but in highly magnetic laboratory settings as well.
The Milgauss went through a number of early iterations, including the addition of the signature lightning bolt second hand with the Ref. 6541. Despite having both the function and flare of a futuristic gadget, Rolex struggled to sell the Milgauss and eventually pulled the model from its catalogue in the late 1980s. After a nearly 20-year hiatus, the Milgauss returned in 2007 as the Ref. 116400. The watch debuted in three 40 mm versions: a white dial, black dial with a unique green sapphire crystal, and this, the black dial with a clear sapphire.
Unlike dive watches or chronographs, the function of an antimagnetic watch is hidden within the case and movement. Only the name and second hand offer a suggestion that something scientific might be happening. As has been the case since the first Milgauss, the movement of the Ref. 116400 remains shielded by a small Faraday cage, a layer of soft iron that diverts magnetism away from the heart of the watch. Prior to this reference of Milgauss, the shield alone provided protection from 1,000 gauss, but the Caliber 3131 movement adds to the watch’s antimagnetic capabilities with a Parachrom hairspring. The movement, shared only with the Air-King, is simple yet durable and comes with a 48-hour power reserve.
The Milgauss’ antimagnetic fortification results in the noticeable weight and relative thickness of the watch. The Milgauss is 13 mm thick, around the same as a Submariner and about 2 mm thicker than the similarly designed Oyster Perpetual 39. It’s also heavier than the Oyster Perpetual 39, but the weight is easily justified by the function the antimagnetic shield serves. Despite this, the Milgauss is extremely wearable. Its balance and the near-perfect shape of the Oyster case prevents the watch from feeling top-heavy or bulky. Personally, the weight makes the watch feel solid and emphasizes the quality of the build. For those who think that ultra-lightweight titanium watches are too light, the Milgauss is the antidote.
The two black dial Milgauss watches differ in more ways than just the color of the sapphire. Along with its green crystal, the Ref. 116400 GV, or glace verte, includes orange applied baton indices at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock and orange numbered minute markers at each hour. The clear sapphire model simplifies things in comparison with its green-tinted brother. Uniform, white applied indices keep the orange highlights focused to the second hand, Milgauss lettering, and orange block hour markers. Unlike the white, GV, or newer “Z-Blue” Milgausses (Milgeese?), the black dial is completely absent of numbers. Although discontinued in 2013 ahead of the “Z-Blue” version, the black dial Milgauss lent its painted block indices to the Oyster Perpetual 39 released in 2015. This simplest Milgauss may have had more of an impact on the Rolex lineup than its relatively short production run would suggest.
Daily wear has aged the watch beautifully and subtly. The stainless, “Oystersteel” case has resisted any large dings and has replaced its original mirror polish with a softer, lovingly worn finish. The flat sapphire is elevated slightly above the bezel but doesn’t instill the same fear of narrow doorways as some domed crystals. The sapphire has, unsurprisingly, remained flawless and will continue to do so in the absence of any errant diamonds.
The Oyster bracelet needs little introduction as it has become the mainstay of Rolex’s sport lineup. It is extremely comfortable in both winter and summer months, with no signs of stretching or wear on the links. Although the distinction between the polished center links and the brushed outer links has faded slightly, there is still a noticeable difference between the two. The bracelet can be quickly extended by 5 mm with the Easylink system within the clasp, a feature I have found really useful while outside on hot days.
Although the black dial Milgauss was cut from the Rolex lineup in 2013, with the white dial following suit three years later, it still stands up to the remaining green sapphire models. While the case design deserves some of the credit, the combination of the black dial and the minimal orange highlights allow the watch to be easily dressed up or down. The lightning bolt is as much of a sense of humor as Rolex allows themselves and, given the history of the watch, it never feels gimmicky. Overall, the watch is more than just a heavier Oyster Perpetual 39 with a fun second hand. The Milgauss is a purpose-built tool watch with a function that just happens to be buried beneath its surface.
To have a look at more specs and for current pricing visit the official Rolex website here.