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We won’t lie; the 1980s was a dark period for the mechanical watch industry at large. Most Swiss watch brands had already gone by the wayside thanks to the influx of cheaper quartz watch options from Japan. In fact, the era spanning from the late-1960s until the late-1980s is referred to as the “Quartz Crisis” in horology history. By 1988, there were only 28,000 employees in the Swiss watch industry compared to 89,450 in 1970. However, the 1980s was also a decade of decadence and flaunting one’s wealth. So for high-end watch brands, such as Rolex, the only way forward was to offer up more expensive options and emphasize that mechanical watches were indeed a luxury product. So while Rolex did not introduce many new models in the 1980s, they did focus on better mechanical calibers, more luxurious materials, and a bevy of new references. Let’s get into the details.
New Rolex Models Introduced in the 1980s
In the 1980s, Rolex introduced just one new model, which was not entirely new, but rather the next chapter of its popular GMT-Master collection.
Rolex Launched the GMT-Master II in 1983
In 1983, the GMT-Master II ref. 16760 joined Rolex’s catalog. Although it shares an almost identical name to the GMT-Master, the inclusion of the “II” indicates that this model is actually different from its predecessor. The main difference between the GMT-Master and the GMT-Master II is that the former does not include an independent 24-hour hand while the latter does. What this essentially means is that the GMT-Master II can display two time zones simultaneously on the dial, in addition to indicating a third time zone by turning the rotating bezel. On the other hand, the GMT-Master could only display two time zones. The independent 24-hour of the GMT-Master II was possible thanks to the new Rolex Caliber 3085.
Rolex made the GMT-Master II ref. 16760 exclusively in stainless steel and fitted it with a red and black bezel. This was the first time a red and black bezel made an appearance in Rolex’s lineup and it quickly picked up the “Coke” nickname to complement the “Pepsi” nickname of the red and blue bezels. The diameter of the GMT-Master II ref. 16760 case remained the same at 40 mm, however due to its thicker case and oversized crown guards, it looked bigger than the GMT-Master—and sometimes goes by the nickname “Fat Lady.”
Aside from a new caliber and new colors for the bezel, the GMT-Master II also introduced modern details such as white gold surrounds on the hour markers and sapphire crystal instead of acrylic.
New Rolex Metal Option Introduced in the 1980s
In the 1980s, Rolex presented a new Submariner Date version, dressed in a novel metal option.
Rolex Launched the Two-Tone Submariner in 1983
Prior to the 1980s, the Submariner dive watch was offered in either stainless steel or yellow gold. In 1983, Rolex merged these two metals together and presented the first two-tone (aka Rolesor) Submariner in the form of the ref. 16803.
The yellow gold and stainless steel Submariner ref. 16803 joined the full steel Submariner 16800 and the full gold Submariner 16808 that Rolex introduced in the 1970s. Therefore, aside from the new metal option, all the other details remained the same, such as the 40 mm case resistant to 300 meters, the dial with tritium for lume, Caliber 3035 inside, and sapphire crystal on top of the dial. Early versions of the Submariner ref. 16803 included the so-called “Nipple Dials” characterized by raised gold hour markers, followed by the gloss dials with flat indexes. What’s more, Rolex made the Submariner 16803 available with black dials, blue dials, or gem-set dials, which are also known as “Serti” dials.
New Rolex References Introduced in the 1980s
1988 was a milestone year for Rolex as the brand unleashed a collection of new calibers. As a result, the brand also made a whole host of new watch references to house them.
New Rolex GMT-Master References Launched in the 1980s
In 1981, Rolex launched a new generation of the GMT-Master with reference numbers 1675x fitted with Caliber 3075. Not only was this new movement operating at a higher frequency (28,800bph), but it also introduced the quickset feature to the watch to permit setting the date independently from the hands.
There were three versions to choose from: the stainless steel GMT-Master 16750; the yellow gold GMT-Master 16758; the two-tone GMT-Master 16753. All watches came with 40 mm cases, tritium lume, and acrylic crystals. Depending on the metal of the watch, bezel options included blue and red “Pepsi” (for steel), all black (for all metals), and brown and bronze “Root Beer” (for gold and two-tone).
Later that decade in 1988, Rolex released yet another GMT-Master reference. The GMT-Master ref. 16700 was actually introduced at the same time as new GMT-Master II references (which we will discuss below). Rolex positioned the GMT-Master 16700 as the less expensive alternative, therefore only made it in stainless steel with either a blue/red bezel or black bezel. Updates included a sapphire crystal, an updated Caliber 3175, and white gold surrounds on the dial. When production of the GMT-Master ref. 16700 ended in 1999, this ended the GMT-Master model entirely and Rolex focused exclusively on the GMT-Master II.
New Rolex GMT-Master II References Launched in the 1980s
Rolex also introduced a new generation of the GMT-Master II in 1988 with the reference numbers 1671x. Unlike the first generation, which only had a stainless steel version, this family included three metal options. There’s the steel GMT Master II ref. 16710, the yellow gold GMT-Master II ref. 16718, and the two-tone GMT-Master II ref. 16713—all with 40 mm cases and sapphire crystals. Bezel options are plentiful, including “Coke,” “Pepsi,” “Root Beer,” and black.
Early versions of the GMT-Master II 1671x watches ran on Caliber 3185, which was then updated to Caliber 3186 in the mid-2000. Additionally, because Rolex produced these GMT-Master II watches for almost two decades, there were plenty of updates done to the watches over the years (despite keeping the same reference numbers). For instance, Rolex switched from tritium to Luminova for luminous material around 1998, and to SuperLuminova in 2000. Moreover, solid end links appeared on the bracelets of the GMT-Master 1671x watches in 2000 and case lug holes were phased out in 2003. Therefore, a 1980’s GMT-Master ref. 16710 will have different details than one made in the 2000s.
New Rolex Explorer II Reference Launched in the 1980s
The 1980s also saw Rolex introduce two different Explorer II references. The first was the Explorer II ref. 16550, which came around 1985. This second generation of the Explorer II watch was markedly different to the first Explorer II ref. 1655 that came out in 1971. The Explorer II ref. 16550 included a larger 40 mm case, a new sapphire crystal, Mercedes-style hands on the dial, and most importantly, a new Caliber 3085 inside—the same one as the GMT-Master II. This now meant that the Explorer II graduated from a watch with a day/night indicator to one with dual time capabilities thanks to the independent 24-hour. Rolex also added a white dial choice (nicknamed the “Polar”) to join the original black dial option.
Yet, the Explorer II ref. 16550 was not in production for that long (explaining why it is often called a “transitional reference”) as Rolex replaced it with the Explorer ref. 16570 in 1989. Design-wise, the newer 16570 kept almost all the same details as the 16550 (except for the addition of black surrounds around the hour markers on the white dial option) but inside the case was the new Caliber 3185. Rolex continued making the Explorer 16570 until 2011, and along the way this reference upgraded to Caliber 3186.
New Rolex Datejust References Launched in the 1980s
Rolex unveiled the now-iconic Caliber 3135 in 1988 and with it, established the brand’s go-to time and date movement. In fact, more than a handful of current production Rolex watches still use Caliber 3135 today! Naturally, to house the new landmark automatic movement, Rolex presented a new generation of the Datejust watch with reference numbers 162xx. These new 1980’s Datejust watches with Caliber 3135 came with the same 36 mm sized Oyster case but they were fitted with modern sapphire crystal. And because they were in production for almost two decades, they underwent some changes—such as luminous materials—along the way.
In terms of variations, the Datejust has always been Rolex’s most diverse collection. Some key Datejust references from this generation of references include the stainless steel Datejust ref. 16200 with a smooth bezel, the stainless steel Datejust ref. 16234 with a white gold fluted bezel, the Datejust ref. 16220 white an engine-turned bezel, the two-tone Datejust ref. 16203 with a smooth bezel, the two-tone Datejust ref. 16233 with a fluted bezel, and finally, the two-tone Datejust “Thunderbird” ref. 16263 with a rotating Turn-O-Graph bezel.
New Rolex Submariner References Launched in the 1980s
Around 1987, Rolex released the Submariner Date 168000. Often referred to as a “transitional” reference, the Submariner ref. 168000 was the first Sub to include a case made of high-grade 904L steel instead of the more common 316L steel. Inside the watch was Caliber 3035 and Rolex only produced the 168000 (a.k.a the “Triple Zero” Submariner) for a very short time until 1988.
To house the new Caliber 3135, Rolex released a fresh set of Submariner Date references in 1988 with the references 1661x. These particular Submariner dive watches also used 904L steel for their cases and included new black gloss dials with white text and applied white gold and lume-filled hour markers. The three references of this generation include the stainless steel Submariner ref. 16610, the two-tone Submariner ref. 16613, and the yellow gold Submariner 16618, all fitted with black aluminum bezels (the green ref. 16610LV only joined in 2003), and sapphire crystals.
New Rolex Sea-Dweller Reference Launched in the 1980s
Not to be left out, Rolex’s Sea-Dweller professional dive watch collection also received a new reference around 1989—the Sea-Dweller ref. 16600. The Sea-Dweller 16600 also brought together a 904L steel case and the new Caliber 3135 movement inside its helium escape valve-equipped case.
This particular Sea-Dweller with a black aluminum bezel on its 40 mm case, black dial, and no Cyclops magnification lens on the sapphire crystal above the date, is actually the longest running Sea-Dweller in Rolex’s history. The Sea-Dweller ref. 16600 was eventually discontinued in 2009.
New Rolex Day-Date Reference Launched in the 1980s
To accompany the new time/date Caliber 3135, Rolex also released a new time/day/date movement for the Rolex Day-Date collection in the form of Caliber 3155. The biggest improvement that Caliber 3155 brought to the Rolex President collection was the double-quickset feature. Therefore, both the date window and the day window could now be set independently from the center timekeeping hands—considerably more practical than earlier non-quickset or single quickset options.
These new 1980’s Rolex Day-Date watches came with the five-digit 182xx references (and 183xx reference for diamond-set cases). Some important Rolex President references from this particular generation include the yellow gold Day-Date ref. 18238 with a fluted bezel, the yellow gold Day-Date ref. 18208 with a smooth bezel, and the yellow gold Day-Date ref. 18248 with a bark-finish bezel. There is, of course, the classic full white gold Day-Date ref. 18239, but there’s also a Tridor version of the President 18239 (sometimes labeled as ref. 18239B), complete with a yellow gold fluted bezel on the white gold case and tri-color gold center links on the white gold President bracelet. Finally, we cannot forget the ultra-luxe Day-Date ref. 18206 in platinum.
New Rolex Cosmograph Daytona References Launched in the 1980s
In addition to a new GMT caliber, a new date caliber, and a new day-date caliber, Rolex also presented a brand new chronograph caliber in 1988. And unlike the previous hand-wound movements that powered earlier Daytona watches, Caliber 4030 is self-winding. Therefore, Rolex introduced, for the very first time, a collection of automatic Daytona watches. This generation is sometimes referred to as the Rolex “Zenith Daytona” watches because Caliber 4030 is actually a modified version of the famed Zenith El-Primero chronograph movement.
In addition to the brand new caliber, the design of the Daytona underwent some changes as well to modernize Rolex’s flagship chronograph. Case sizes grew to 40 mm in diameter, sapphire crystals replaced acrylic ones, and the dials housed a new style of counters and indexes. Design traits that carried over from vintage Daytona models from the 1970s included screw-down pushers, Oyster bracelets, and metal bezels engraved with a tachymeter scale.
The 1988 launch of the new Daytona collection included the stainless steel Daytona ref. 16520, the yellow gold Daytona ref. 16528, and for the very first time, a two-tone Daytona chronograph (ref. 16523). Rolex certainly took the right direction when they introduced the automatic versions of the Daytona chronograph. As many of you may already know, the Daytona is one of the brand’s most coveted models. The Rolex “Zenith Daytona” models were in production until 2000.
New Rolex Explorer Reference Launched in the 1980s
Finally, the three-handed Rolex Explorer collection also welcomed a new reference in the late 1980s with the introduction of the Explorer ref. 14270. Externally, the Explorer 14270 kept the classically sized 36 mm steel Oyster case but instead of acrylic crystal, it now included a sapphire crystal. Rolex also modified the dial by replacing the earlier matte finish with black glossy color and applied 18k white gold hour markers. Furthermore, Rolex added a new Caliber 3000 inside the Explorer ref. 14270 and continued making this 1980’s reference until about 2001.
As we have clearly outlined, the 1980s was one of the most important decades for Rolex—and not because of new models but because of new calibers that paved the way for new references that would endure for the following two decades. Next stop in our journey through Rolex’s history is the 1990s. So, make sure to stay tuned to see what Rolex was up to during that decade.
Perhaps the least known out of all Rolex’s many creations, the Cellini stands apart from the rest of the watchmaker’s output in a number of ways.
Rather than being a name that describes a single series, such as the Datejust or the Daytona, Cellini has long been a catch-all term for any of the brand’s ultra luxury dress watches, available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and styles.
They have been a catalog inclusion, albeit a somewhat underrepresented one, since the earliest days of the company, but the exact year of their debut is difficult to pin down. The creation of Rolex director Rene-Paul Jeanneret, it was his idea in the 1960s to offer something different to the crown’s roster of tool models—a genre which was also Jeanneret’s brainchild. Rather than a watch designed for a definite purpose, meant for divers or for scientists for example, the Cellini pieces were all about elegance and sophistication; the finishing touch to a stylish outfit.
Unlike the Oyster watches on which Rolex has built its unsurpassed reputation, where form has constantly followed function, the styling of the Cellini range has always focused strictly on aesthetics. As such, they have come in a diverse assortment of designs over the years, unencumbered by the restrictions inherent to the Professional collection. Made solely to be worn as dress pieces, none have needed to be built around the brand’s revolutionary waterproof Oyster case, and the vast majority have been powered by manually wound calibers, rather than Rolex’s similarly game-changing Perpetual automatic movement.
While they have usually been at the more conservative end of the spectrum, the 1960s and 1970s gave Rolex’s watch shapers free rein to experiment with something altogether more avant-garde.
Chief amongst these is the King Midas, an extravagantly unorthodox asymmetrical piece with an integrated bracelet, which may or may not (depending on who you believe) have been dreamt up by the legendary Gérald Genta, of AP’s Royal Oak and Patek’s Nautilus fame.
Clocking up a whole host of precedents, it became the first Rolex fitted with a sapphire crystal; the first made in a left-handed version; it was, in its day, the heaviest gold watch money could buy, weighing in at around 200 grams and was also the priciest item in the Rolex catalog.
Originally released in 1964 as a limited edition of 1,000 before going into production as part of the Cellini lineup, it will forever be associated with one man—Elvis Presley. His model, number 343, was a gift from grateful organizers of the Houston Astrodome Livestock Show and Rodeo, where he had just played six days of sell-out concerts. Unashamedly flamboyant and defiantly flashy, it was the perfect present for the great showman.
From the end of the 70s onwards, the Cellini series settled into a more unified visual. The extremes of earlier times were subdued and the collection tended more towards understated refinement rather than eye-catching extravagance.
Models such as the Danaos and the Cestello harked back heavily to Rolex’s formative years—case sizes in the mid 30mm range and with gently rounded curves very reminiscent of the original Bubblebacks.
At the start of the new millennium, the Cellini Prince made a welcome return, an almost identical looking watch to its ancestor from the 1920s. That piece, a rectangular Art Deco masterpiece, featured a separate sub dial for the running seconds hand, a fairly novel inclusion for the era that led to it being dubbed the ‘Doctor’s Watch’, as physicians found it a helpful feature when timing a patient’s pulse. It was also one of the more expensive watches available at the time, and set Rolex down the path to becoming the aspirational brand they are today. (Al Capone, if rumors are to be believed, wore a Prince).
The four rereleased versions from 2005, two in white gold and one each in yellow and Everose, were of an extremely select number of Rolex watches to feature a display case back to show off their hand-wound and exquisitely finished movements.
The contemporary group of Cellini models are all based around four pieces with identical 39mm cases, each with its own functionality. The Time is a simple three-handed edition, while the Date includes a small sub counter at the three o’clock to display the day of the week. The Dual Time also has a second dial, now at the six o’clock, to show an additional time zone, while the final model features something not seen on a Rolex watch since the 1950s. The Cellini ref. 50535 houses a moonphase complication, astronomically accurate for 122 years, along with a pointer date feature, all housed in a beautiful Everose gold shell. Driven by the brand’s own patented caliber, it is about as complex as the crown gets.
The Cellini range has a long and incredibly varied history, and one that is little known even to Rolex devotees. The watches share so little in common with the sports models, and even dressier options like the Datejust and the Day-Date, that they could almost come from a different manufacturer. But the fastidious designs and peerless engineering are consistent with the other true Rolex icons, and they remain an intriguing alternative to the better known names—a collection of stunning watches for very special occasions.
Rolex Cellini Milestones
Rolex director Rene-Paul Jeanneret decides to take the company in a different direction and offer something other than their range of world beating sports models. A new line of jewelry watches for both men and women is introduced, crafted in gold and often with gemstone enhancements, called the Cellini series, named after Benvenuto Cellini, a 16thcentury renaissance goldsmith, painter and sculptor.
The King Midas, originally a limited edition piece rumored to have been designed by Gérald Genta, and bearing many of his favored styling cues, is released. Inspired by the myths of ancient Greece and with a highly unusual case design based on the Parthenon Temple in Athens, it is later incorporated into the Cellini range. Its radical look exemplifies the excesses of the era.
The bold, angular lines of the preceding range are tamed, and Rolex bring in a more cohesive aesthetic. Drawing on their earliest watches, the new models have a decidedly vintage appeal, with soft, cushion-shaped cases and restrained sizes.
The Cellini Prince is revived, a faithful recreation of a watch from 1928. Its large rectangular case is a significant departure for a modern day Rolex, and its four separate versions all feature display case backs. It remains in production until 2015.
The contemporary lineup of Cellini’s is released, featuring the Time, the Date and the Dual Time, all measuring 39mm in diameter.
Rolex launch the Cellini Moonphase, the first watch from the brand to feature the complication since the 1950s.
Today, the names Rolex and Baselworld are inextricably linked. The Swiss watchmaking behemoth is by far the largest exhibitor and uses the annual event to unveil its very latest creations on an unsuspecting world.
However, the show had existed for more than 20 years before the crown arrived and was already the most important date in the horology calendar.
The first appearance of what would go on to become Baselworld took place on April 15th 1917. Originally known as MUBA, or the Schweizer Mustermesse Basel, it was a Swiss goods trade fair held in the Basel casino. As well as the 831 companies representing industries such as insurance, transport and, of course, banking, a small section of the 6,000m space was given over to jewelry and clocks. This was at a period when the wristwatch was having its image transformed from very much a lady’s adornment, and was becoming more acceptable for men to wear—helped on by the returning soldiers of WWI.
While the area provided for the new fad was modest, with only 29 different manufacturers, it proved a huge success and many believe it was this event that acted as the catalyst for popularizing the wristwatch as an essential male accessory. Among those handful of brands exhibiting were names still going strong today, with the likes of Tissot, Longines, Ulysse Nardin and Thommen (now Revue Thommen) all attending.
Yet it would take until 1926 before the watch industry had grown large enough to be granted its own halls in the show, and from there its impact began to dominate, leading to its first dedicated pavilion under the name ‘Swiss Watch Fair’, in 1931. It was at this point the Baselworld we know today really started.
Rolex at the Show
By the time Rolex gained access to the exposition, it was already becoming the biggest event of the year, renowned for showcasing all the momentous innovations of the day. John Harwood had demonstrated the original automatic movement here in 1924, eventually selling the rights to Fortis who would go on, the following year, to bring out the first ever serially produced self-winding wristwatch.
Rolex’s pair of groundbreaking innovations, the waterproof Oyster case and their own take on the automatic caliber, the Perpetual, came about prior to their initial showing at Basel. When they eventually entered the fray in 1939, there were upwards of 50 watch manufacturers in attendance, and Hans Wilsdorf’s company took up just 30 square meters of the exhibition space, joining other such luminaries as Heuer, Jaeger LeCoultre and Patek Philippe.
The yearly watch fair continued to grow steadily in both size and influence and additional halls were being built to house the increasing number of attendees.
By the 50s, the scale of the exhibition took on a vital significance for Rolex during the launch of the now iconic Submariner. Released in 1954, it was lauded as being the first of a new breed—the modern dive watch. But in reality, Blancpain had brought out their Fifty Fathoms the year before, a piece now considered the actual holder of that title. Blancpain, however, did not attend the Basel Fair and as a result, Rolex displayed their creation in front of a far larger audience and gained worldwide acclaim.
The continuing success of the show led to still greater expansion, with more and more brands flaunting their wares, and it became the only place to be for all Swiss heavyweights every April.
Some of the industry’s biggest advances made their debut here. In 1957, for example, Bulova showed off their Accutron movement, the immediate forerunner to the quartz watches that would, ironically, decimate so much of Switzerland’s traditional maisons. And in 1969, two automatic chronograph calibers were displayed, from two separate manufacturers, each vying for the title of first of its kind. In one corner, the Caliber 11 from a conglomerate comprising Heuer, Breitling, Buren and Dubois Dépraz. And in the other, the El Primero from Zenith, later to go on to find lasting acclaim inside Rolex’s legendary Daytona.
Home From Home
For its first 55 years, the Basel Fair had been an exclusively Swiss brand only event. It wasn’t until 1972 that they slackened the reins just a little and let in companies from France, Italy, Germany and the U.K., calling that year’s show ‘Europe’s Meeting Place’. In 1973, the rest of the EU was invited to attend.
In 1983 the expo was given a rebrand, from the Swiss Watch Show to simply BASEL 83 and kept that format, with the number denoting the year, until 1995 when it was renamed again as BASEL 95—The World Watch, Clock and Jewelry Show. The event had become truly international in 1986 when it opened up to watchmakers from all corners of the world. (It was retitled once more to the slightly more concise Baselworld, The Watch and Jewelry Show in 2003).
As for Rolex, with its status rising with each passing year, so did its position at the fair. From their lowly 30 square meters in 1939, they continued to acquire bigger and bigger spaces inside the main hall until eventually they occupied a huge swathe of prime real estate right at the show’s entrance.
Their dominance, however, was not appreciated by everyone. By the 90s, they had taken over so much space, and the show itself had become so all-inclusive, that several of the other major brands decided to break away and set up their own invite-only trade show.
This splinter group, comprised of Cartier, Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, denouncing what they thought of as bias towards Rolex at Basel, established the SIHH, or the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. It is now seen as a far more exclusive affair compared to Baselworld’s come-one-come-all philosophy.
The recent problems suffered by the Baselworld event are well documented. At its height in the early years of the 2010s, the exhibition spread across more than 1,500,000 square feet and housed some 2,000 attendees, catering to over 100,000 guests.
Rolex brought its largest ever display to the show’s centenary in 2017, when it spread itself across three stories and took up some 13,000 square feet.
But through a combination of the downturn in mechanical watch sales brought on by the Smartwatch invasion, and what some are calling arrogance and mismanagement by the show’s organizers, the latest events have been dramatically scaled back.
Most condemning of all was the withdrawal of the Swatch Group from this year, taking with them 18 of the biggest brands in the business, among them Omega, Longines, Blancpain and Hamilton. They join such big names as A. Lange & Söhne, IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre who all departed in 2001.
As well as a huge drop in numbers, the show has shortened in duration by two days in recent years.
For Rolex though, the event is as crucial as ever, if not more so. It continues to be the place to go to see the world’s most successful watchmaker announce its latest creations, and fans flock in their thousands. In fact, the company has declared in the last few weeks they will take additional space in 2020, expanding into the area held by sister group Tudor, which will be given its own stand in Hall 1.0 for the first time.
What will happen to Baselworld as an event in the long run is up in the air at the moment, but it remains the most important show in the industry for the time being.
The 1990s seemed almost like a decade where Rolex had to stop to catch its breath. After the explosion in their popularity in the 80s, prefaced by the arrival of the first self-winding Daytona, and before the revolutionary charges waiting in the wings for the new millennium (among them, the second self-winding Daytona), it was a time to batten down the hatches and take stock.
The core family were more than established and had become household names, with models such as the Submariner, the GMT-Master and the Datejust recognizable to anyone whether they had the faintest interest in horology or not.
Rolex the maker of fine tool watches was becoming Rolex the luxury lifestyle brand and the switch brought in a new type of customer. No longer those who needed a hardy and trustworthy companion for life’s adventures, now those who wanted to be seen wearing an aspirational timepiece to elevate their status.
In response, the brand launched an ‘all new’ creation—a more opulent take on the venerable Sub, with softer lines and flashier metals.
The first of the Yacht-Masters emerged in 1992 and by the end of the decade, two versions had been discontinued to make way for an upgrade. More momentously, the 90s also saw us bid farewell to a true Rolex giant, a watch that had helped put them on the map and secured their reputation as one of the most innovative manufacturers of all time.
Read on below to see which models retired in the 1990s.
The Rolex Yacht-Master ref. 68623 and 69623
When the first of the Yacht-Master range appeared, it was virtually greeted with a sigh of relief. Rumors had been circulating that Rolex were in the act of drastically reinventing the Submariner, altering perhaps the most famous shape in watchmaking beyond all recognition. That may, in fact, have been the case behind the scenes at HQ, but cooler heads apparently put the kibosh on those plans at some point, marking the world’s favorite dive watch safe for the foreseeable future.
However, the work which had already been carried out on the Submariner 2.0 was deemed too good to simply abandon, and so it was rebranded as a watch for those who were no stranger to the odd regatta.
The Yacht-Master debuted with the full-scale 40mm ref. 16628 in 18k yellow gold, looking for all the world like a Sub in a pretty frock. The lines were a little more graceful and, only required to be waterproof to 100m rather than 300m, it was granted a flatter underbelly that made it a more comfortable all day wear. In addition, the bezel was bidirectional and had embossed numerals as opposed to the Sub’s engraved, but other than that, there was little to choose between them. They even shared a movement, the legendary Cal. 3135.
While its much higher price point meant it didn’t sell in quite the same numbers as the diver, it was still enough of a success for Rolex to release, a couple of years later in 1994, two further versions; a 29mm ladies model (ref. 69628) and a 35mm mid-size (ref. 68628). Both powered by the Cal. 2135, a much scaled down variant of the caliber found in the full-size watch, it was built specifically for the range of women’s models.
It made the Yacht-Master the first sports watch from the brand to be available in three sizes.
Two years after that, the pair of smaller YMs were issued in Rolesor versions, Rolex’s proprietary blend of stainless steel and yellow gold.
In 1999, the upgrade to the Cal. 2135 was completed called, you will be surprised to hear, the Cal. 2235. Although the differences between the two movements were extremely superficial (basically a thicker mainspring that lent a greater stability and shock resistance), it was enough for Rolex to issue new versions of the 29mm and 35mm models.
The early two-tone pieces, the ref. 69623 and ref. 68623, were quietly retired to clear the way for the six digit references which went on sale in 2000.
Today, there isn’t a ladies Yacht-Master and the mid-size has grown to 37mm. Yellow gold also plays no part in the contemporary range, not even in a Rolesor version, which is now exclusively Everose-based.
Those looking for one of the smaller examples of the watch then have to take a look through the preowned options, where first generation pieces have become surprisingly affordable. A 29mm in good condition can be had for less than $5,000, with the 35mm middle child barely much more.
Diminutive in stature or not, it is a lot of Rolex for not a huge amount of money, especially as they are powered by one of the most impressive movements the brand has ever made. The tiny calibers, which shave a full 8mm off the dimensions of the base Cal. 3130, hold the record for the highest first time pass rate of any mechanism tested by the COSC.
As the trend for bigger and bigger watches comes to a halt, and yellow gold comes back into fashion, now could be a great time to secure one of these elegantly sophisticated models.
The Rolex GMT-Master ref. 16700
The saga of Rolex’s first dual time zone watch, the iconic GMT-Master, is a long and fairly confusing one.
Starting out in 1954 at the request of Pan Am, who were looking for a way for their pilots and crew to be able to read two time zones at once to help stave off jetlag, the original GMT-Master series actually lasted right up until 1999. However its successor, entitled the GMT-Master II for obvious reasons, was actually introduced in 1983, and the two almost identical (outwardly at least) ranges ran concurrently for a number of years.
The last of the first, as it were, of the GMT-Master references, the ref. 16700, was issued in 1988. It proved to be a popular swansong for the piece, its aesthetics nearly indistinguishable from its eventual replacement, but with a more palatable effect on the wallet.
The discrepancy in price was all down to the internal gubbins. The GMT-Master II series had come into being because Rolex had finally cracked the problem of decoupling the main hour hand from the GMT hand, enabling the two to be set independently. The caliber that allowed it, the Cal. 3085, was put to work inside the ref. 16760, also known as the Fat Lady.
The ref. 16700 had the Cal. 3175, a fine movement and itself an upgrade on the previous iteration of the watch, bringing with it a hacking seconds function and Quickset date, but lacking that extra utility.
Customers didn’t really seem to care though, and it proved a great seller even though it was produced in much smaller quantities than the sequel.
But it was clear Rolex were preparing to throw in the towel, with the watch exclusively produced in stainless steel while the GMT-Master II added white and yellow gold versions.
It was also only available with either a blue and red Pepsi bezel, the initial color scheme that had set the model down the road to stardom in the first place, or else in all black. The off-shoot series came in a never-before-seen livery of black and red, dubbed the Coke, was eventually given a Pepsi of its own, and added the brown and gold Root Beer as well.
Nevertheless, the 45-year run of the GMT-Master had been an unqualified success, rivaled only by the Submariner, and today the ref. 16700 continues to be one of the first ports of call for collectors.
You can take possession of one of the all time greats from Rolex for as little as $8,000, a remarkably attainable sum for such a symbolic chapter in the story, and one likely to only increase in value.
It is far from an exaggeration to say that no other manufacturer has done more to popularize the men’s wristwatch than Rolex.
Founded in 1905 as Wilsdorf & Davis, their early breakthroughs of the Oyster case, the first workable waterproof housing, and the Perpetual movement, the first commercially-produced self-winding mechanism, offered never-before-seen levels of both convenience and resilience. Together they completely transformed the image of a timepiece worn on the wrist—no longer items of fragile jewelry owned exclusively by women, now essential accessories for men from all walks of life, from the smartest business leaders to the toughest soldiers.
The steady progression built on the foundations of those two pioneering developments have brought us many of the most iconic, recognizable and sought after watches of the last century, and it is a process that is very much ongoing. Rolex still leads the industry, constantly innovating new materials and evolving improved technologies.
Today, they are so far ahead of the competition in terms of worldwide renown that their name has become a byword for notions of luxury, ambition and achievement.
The Early Triumphs
The middle of the 20thcentury was by far the most important period for Rolex as a manufacturer. They celebrated their 40thyear in operation in 1945 with the release of the Datejust, a revolutionary timepiece that represented the very first waterproof, automatically winding watch ever made with a date function.
It was the model to put the brand on the map, and it marked the start of a period of incredible inventiveness that is still yet to be equaled.
The brand began forging its identity as the maker of watches that were at once hardy enough to be worn in the most demanding conditions, yet so elegantly designed there was no outfit or environment where they looked out of place.
In the space of three or four years of the 1950s, they gave us the Explorer, based on the Oyster models that had accompanied the first ascent of Everest; the Submariner, the legendary blueprint for every dive watch that followed; the GMT-Master, even today the world’s most recognized traveler’s timepiece; the Day-Date, the ultimate in aspirational indulgence; and the Milgauss, made for scientists leading the way in the new Atomic Age.
In doing so, Rolex invented the concept of the modern tool watch—pieces with functions and features devised to help wearers carry out their occupations, whatever they may be.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the brand had built a portfolio of some of the most important names in horology. It is a core family that remains at the pinnacle of watchmaking to this day, all still very much identifiable as from the same DNA as those introduced some six decades ago.
The Middle Years
The 1960s and 1970s saw the lineup swell with several more vital additions. Specifically, the Daytona, Rolex’s first serious attempt at a chronograph, a piece which has since gone on to rewrite the rules for all sports watches; the Sea-Dweller, another groundbreaking watch that proved a match for the extraordinary demands of the professional saturation diver; and the Explorer II, perhaps their toughest and most no-nonsense creation to date.
Alongside these new models, the established pieces were subjected to a constant and unremitting series of revisions and updates intended to keep them at the forefront of their chosen specialties.
However by the end of the 70s, the quartz crisis had taken a heavy toll on the mechanical watch business and Rolex was forced to move away from the persona it had so carefully cultivated for itself and adapt to a completely new landscape.
Although Rolex had engaged with quartz technology to a certain degree, bringing out battery-powered versions of the Datejust and Day-Date in 1977, they did so with no great enthusiasm. Their hearts belonged first and foremost to the artistry of classic watchmaking and its centuries of heritage and tradition.
What’s more, they were prepared to gamble on the public’s love affair with the hyper accurate and extremely cheap quartz watches coming in from Japan and America waning too, bringing discerning customers back to the world of gears and springs.
It was a gamble that paid off. By repositioning their offerings as the product of sublime craftsmanship and refinement, they became the definitive lifestyle brand. Rolex watches were now something to strive for, a reward for having succeeded reaching a major milestone, and something to hand down to future generations. As such, pieces that had once been made to withstand the roughest treatment began emerging cast in precious metals and set with diamonds and other gemstones on their dials and bezels.
Correspondingly, prices began to rise too, creating the inherent exclusivity that is essential to all luxury goods.
At the center of this transformation was the Daytona, a model which had suffered lackluster sales for the first 25-years of its existence. Frustrated by its manually-winding movement, customers had left it languishing on dealers’ shelves, with those wanting a chronograph well served elsewhere.
But in 1988, it was fitted with its first automatic caliber, a heavily-reworked version of Zenith’s El Primero. Coinciding with a more decadent era and the beginning of the watch collecting phenomenon as a whole, demand for the Daytona exploded.
However, supply was restricted by Rolex’s reliance on a third party for its caliber and it sent impatient would-be buyers back into the archives for the very models they had ignored for so long. Soon, first generation examples started changing hands for large sums, giving birth to the vintage and preowned market which has boomed ever since.
With the Rolex name now synonymous with thoughts of affluence and success, the brand started reflecting their fresh persona in their output. The early nineties saw the release of the Yacht-Master, a more sumptuously appointed nautical watch based very much on the venerable Submariner.
Similarly, in the following decades they began to address the one perceived shortcoming of their range with the introduction of a pair of highly complicated pieces. Where their reputation had been built on creating the last word in simple, three-hand models, with perhaps a GMT function or a very occasional chronograph, the new millennium brought with it the Yacht-Master II, an incredibly complex countdown timer with a mechanical memory aimed at regatta competitors, and the Sky-Dweller, an entirely different take on the dual time zone watch coupled with the only annual calendar ever to emerge from the Geneva compound.
The innovations continued in the rest of the range as well, with calibers constantly improved, and with the Daytona finally receiving the brand’s own Cal. 4130, every one of the company’s engines was now produced in-house.
Today, Rolex is beyond question the most famous watchmaker in the world, and their collection of timepieces contains a gallery of some of the most illustrious and coveted watches ever made.
Rolex Men’s Watches Milestones
Hans Wilsdorf partners with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis and sets up shop in London’s Hatton Garden district. Wilsdorf & Davis start out assembling watches by installing imported Swiss movements into high quality cases and supplying them to jewelers to sell under their own names.
Having renamed the business Rolex in 1915 and moved operations to Geneva five years later, the company’s first major invention came in 1926 with the creation of the waterproof and dustproof Oyster case, a hermetically sealed housing that protected the watch’s delicate inner workings. The following year, Wilsdorf hits on the concept of the Rolex testimonee when he gives young British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze an Oyster watch to wear during her attempt to cross the English Channel. After 10 hours submerged, the timepiece is in perfect working order.
The second radical innovation from Rolex comes when they perfect the Perpetual movement, a self-winding caliber powered by the motion of the wearer’s arm. Together with the Oyster case, they form the backbone of the brand’s offerings until the present day.
Rolex commemorate 40 years in the business with the release of the Datejust, the first self-winding, waterproof wristwatch in the world with a date function.
The Rolex Explorer makes its debut to celebrate the successful ascent of Mount Everest by Hillary and Tensing. The same year, the Rolex Submariner, the first dive watch waterproof to 100m, also surfaces. It will go on to become the most famous diver of all time.
At the request of, and in cooperation with, Pan Am, Rolex launches the GMT-Master. Its two-tone bezel and additional hour hand enables wearers to keep track of a second time zone and so help combat the sensation of jetlag brought on by the new transatlantic routes.
The Day-Date emerges, the first wristwatch to display both the date and the day of the week spelled out in full. It takes over flagship duties from the Datejust. Another new addition, the Milgauss, joins the lineup—able to withstand huge electromagnetic fields due to its soft iron Faraday cage inside the main case.
After several lukewarm attempts at a chronograph, Rolex release the Daytona into full-scale production. Although highly capable, it too fails to capture the imagination due to its manually-wound movement.
Teaming up with French commercial diving specialists COMEX, Rolex develop the Sea-Dweller. Waterproof to an incredible 610m, its mainadvantage over the Submariner is the Helium Escape Valve, or HEV. The small one-way regulator allows for tiny helium bubbles which had built up inside the case during deep dives to seep back out before they could expand and damage the watch.
The Explorer II, a model aimed at polar explorers and speleologists, is brought out. Featuring a distinctive orange 24-hour hand, it lets adventurers keep track of day and night in the most demanding of environments.
Rolex introduce the Oysterquartz models, based on the Day-Date and Datejust. Although highly popular, they are produced in limited numbers of just 1,000 units per year.
The Sea-Dweller 4000 takes over from the original, doubling the already formidable depth rating.
The underperforming Daytona has its fortunes completely revolutionized by receiving its first automatic movement. Almost overnight it goes from the perpetual also-ran to the hottest ticket in horology.
The Yacht-Master, a more luxurious take on the Submariner blueprint, arrives, the first Rolex sports watch to be available in three sizes; a 40mm, a mid-size 35mm and a ladies 29mm.
The Daytona is given a Rolex-made caliber, the Cal. 4130, completing the collection as the last watch to receive an all in-house movement.
The follow-up to the Yacht-Master, the Yacht-Master II, marks an entirely new direction for the manufacturer. Far and away the most complicated Rolex watch to date, the regatta chronograph features the world’s first programmable countdown with mechanical memory.
Underlining their domination of the luxury dive watch market, Rolex unleash the Sea-Dweller Deepsea, a massive watch capable of surviving a plunge to 3,900m, more than 100 times the depth any human could survive.
The Sky-Dweller becomes the brand’s standard-bearer as the ultimate traveler’s watch, with its dual time zone capability and the first and only annual calendar complication Rolex has ever built into one of their models.
Although not as old as some traditional watchmakers, Rolex has been around for well over a century. Founded in 1905, it started life in a very different, far less enlightened time than today.
It was a period when only men were permitted to hold any position of power, and it was men who were the leaders in business and the military.
As a result, the vast majority of watches Rolex made were targeted at a male audience, because they were the only ones with the financial clout to be able to afford them.
However, the brand in their earliest days did still produce a small number of ladies models, extremely delicate pieces which were little more than ornamental bracelets with a tiny watch set into them. You can still find these for sale today if you look hard enough, beautiful items of jewelry with strong Art Deco influences.
Over the years, Rolex has developed a wider range, although if you look at the ‘Women’s Watches’ section of their current website, it is obvious that it still trails a significant distance behind the men’s collection.
Essentially, it is made up of smaller versions of some very well known names—pieces originally created full size scaled down for a slimmer wrist, more often than not with some kind of gemstone enhancement, either fairly restrained or else drenched head to toe.
But whether one of the daintiest 26mm dress watches, all the way through to the 44mm giants of more recent times, the same fierce commitment to quality permeates throughout the entire Rolex portfolio. The brand is still at the forefront of engineering and technological progress, producing the most recognizable, coveted and impressive timepieces available today.
A Question of Size
Back when Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf was setting up his fledgling business, men’s watches were at a size we would now consider strictly for women. Barely getting above 32mm, they were conspicuously small by modern standards.
In fact as a concept, the wristwatch itself was mainly for the ladies; men more usually wore pocket watches, as they had done for hundreds of years.
It would take two world wars before the usefulness of a watch worn on the arm proved definitive, providing a much quicker way to assess the time than fishing around inside a tunic and then having to open a case.
But from 1945 onwards, the year Rolex introduced the revolutionary Datejust, the image of the wristwatch as a fundamental male accessory was sealed. That model started life at 36mm, fairly sizeable for the time, and certainly much bigger than any woman of the era would wear. With the men’s version enjoying unparalleled success, Rolex released the first Lady-Datejust in 1957, benefitting from identical groundbreaking features, i.e. the date function, automatic winding and waterproof case, but shaving a full 10mm off the dimensions to give a more elegant profile.
It has since gone on to become the all-time bestselling watch Rolex has ever made, for either gender, outperforming even icons like the Submariner and the Daytona.
The Lady-Datejust has been in continuous production ever since its launch, given a similarly huge number of different metal, dial and bezel configurations as the men’s model until you have to wonder what the likelihood is of ever seeing two the same.
In 2015 it went the same way as much of the rest of Rolex’s contemporary output and grew in size, up to 28mm for the first time. Interestingly, although it is now one of five sizes of the watch, it is only the 28mm which is officially called the Lady-Datejust, even though you will find the 31mm, 34mm (known simply as the Date) andthe 36mm all listed on the ‘Women’s’ page of Rolex’s site. It is just a representation of how much tastes have changed in regard to the sizes of women’s watches.
Currently, the smallest model Rolex makes is the 26mm Oyster Perpetual. Commonly regarded as the entry level piece, it is a series which has been in existence even longer than the Datejust and it too comes in five versions. All but the largest 39mm are included on the ladies watch page.
In the last couple of decades, the demand across both sexes has been for ever bigger watches. That has led, out of necessity, to more women wearing models from the Rolex catalog which were originally designed solely for men, as there was simply nothing in the ladies collection in a sufficiently large size.
These days, seeing a Daytona or a GMT-Master on a female arm is nothing unusual.
Back at the start of the nineties however, the brand started addressing the issue with two new series, the Yacht-Master and the Pearlmaster.
The former was a more well-appointed take on the Submariner, and became the first Rolex sports watch available in three sizes; the full 40mm, a mid-size 35mm aimed at both women and men with smaller wrists, and a genuine ladies version at 29mm.
The Pearlmaster range was, and is, part of the Datejust family, made exclusively as a ladies watch, in one of the three flavors of gold and with plentiful helpings of gemstones upping the luxurious quotient. They arrived originally in two sizes, 29mm, a full three millimeters larger than the smallest Lady-Datejust of the time, and a 34mm.
Since then, and in keeping with the general trend, both have gone through some changes. The whole Yacht-Master range has shifted up a notch; the 29mm is no more, the mid-size has become the ladies version in all but name and increased to 37mm, and 2019 saw the release of a 42mm at the top end.
And the Pearlmaster, in a real sign of the times, has welcomed a 39mm model to head the series.
In total, there are just four different models aimed at women in the modern lineup; the Datejust, the Oyster Perpetual and the Yacht-Master, all three of which have larger equivalents for men, as well as the Pearlmaster, which is wholly a ladies series. But with the fashion for larger pieces now being shared by both sexes, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if Rolex introduced more ranges entirely for their female devotees at any time.
Rolex Ladies Watches Milestones
Rolex starts life as Wilsdorf & Davis in London, fitting imported Swiss movements into cases and selling them through a network of high end jewelers. At the time, the majority of wristwatches are worn by women.
1920s and 1930s
Now officially called Rolex, the company produces a number of ladies timepieces highly influenced by the Art Deco school of design. But with their invention of both the waterproof Oyster case and the automatically winding Perpetual movement, the image of the wristwatch is completely transforming, and Rolex starts concentrating its efforts on making especially resilient and robust watches for men. Yet there is still a healthy number of Oyster Perpetual models made in diminutive sizes, some as small as 24mm.
The incredible success of the radical Datejust in 1945 leads Rolex to produce a women’s version, the Lady-Datejust. It will go on to become the highest selling watch the brand has ever produced.
Both the Yacht-Master and the Pearlmaster range debut this year. The Pearlmaster is targeted entirely at women, and the smallest of each series is 29mm. In addition, the Yacht-Master has a 35mm and a 40mm, while the Pearlmaster is given a 34mm.
The smallest of the Oyster Perpetual watches also increases in size, up to 26mm.
The Oyster Perpetual is issued in five variants; 26mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm and 39mm. Although all but the largest are featured on the Women’s Watches page of Rolex’s website, the same year also sees a 39mm Pearlmaster introduced, with that size now more than accepted as suitable for a ladies watch.
The Lady-Datejust grows from 26mm to 28mm and continues to be the quintessential Rolex for women.
The 1980s was so transformative for Rolex you could almost divide the company’s history into ‘pre’ and ‘post’ the decade.
Pre, their reputation had been slowly and patiently built up around a bevy of hardworking, stylish and extremely accurate tool watches—the kind of thing you could wear in just about any situation or during any activity, whether you were exploring deep underwater or climbing the world’s highest peaks.
Post, the brand was forced to flip their approach completely on its head by the arrival of the quartz crisis. No longer able to compete in terms of precision or cost with the tidal wave of disposable throwaways flooding in from Japan and America, Rolex reinvented itself as purveyors of the ultimate aspirational lifestyle accessory.
While the technical and engineering quality of their output increased more and more, so did the prices, a deliberate attempt to further establish that trait which has always marked a product as the height of luxury—exclusivity.
It worked in spades. Within a few short years, a Rolex was the easiest way for the wearer to display wealth, status and achievement.
Their efforts were helped along enormously by the arrival of a number of groundbreaking, modernized versions of some of their most popular, and not so popular, models.
But the 80s also saw the beginning of the vintage watch collecting phenomenon, and many of the pieces that made way for this latest generation would go on to become the object of obsession, lusted after and hunted down by devotees, sending their value skyrocketing.
Below, we take a look at some of the names Rolex retired in the 1980s.
The Rolex Daytona (1st generation)
There may well still be a vintage watch industry without the first iteration of Rolex’s legendary chronograph, but chances are it would look very different than it does today. It has been said many times it was the model which kicked the whole thing off, and the increasingly rare examples out there are now trading for incredible sums of money.
It is all the more extraordinary considering the reception the series received on its launch, which redefined the word lackluster.
Although Rolex had dabbled in chronos before the Daytona, they too had met with little success, but the brand’s association with speed merchants such as Sir Malcolm Campbell, considered the first ambassador for the company, linked them inextricably to motorsport.
They became official timekeeper at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway in 1962, and the following year, the ref. 6239 arrived—and the whole world shrugged its collective shoulders.
Although handsome and capable enough, with its tachymeter scale engraved on the bezel rather than taking up valuable dial space, and introducing Rolex’s first use of contrasting colors in its designs, there was no getting around its one massive failing. The first self-winding chronograph movement was still six long years away, and so the Daytona was given the best alternative available at the time, the Valjoux 72. Still recognized as one of the finest chronograph calibers ever made, the fact it was manually wound condemned the Daytona to a lifetime of shelf sitting.
For a watchmaker which had forged much of its reputation around their development of the Perpetual automatic movement, it seemed like a significant step backwards, and Rolex’s network of dealers struggled to so much as give them away.
It would go on to scrap its way through a total of seven different references, each one adding a little touch of utility to the perennial underachiever. It received screw down pushers in its second version, the ref. 6240 in 1965, endowing it with Oyster waterproofness, and upgraded its caliber in 1970 to the Valjoux 722, which brought the balance frequency to 21,600vph from the former 18,00vph.
But it seemed nothing could save it, not even the patronage of genuine Hollywood royalty. When movie legend and expert racing driver Paul Newman was pictured wearing his ‘exotic dial’ Daytona, with its three-color paint job and Art Deco font, it brought the watch a certain amount of attention, but it remained a poor seller.
Eventually, in 1988, Rolex pulled the plug on the four digit series, enlisting the help of Swiss neighbors Zenith to fit the second generation with its first self-winding caliber, the El Primero. Practically overnight, the Daytona became the most sought after watch in the world and, as speed of production was hampered by Rolex having to rely on a third-party to deliver their movements to them, waiting lists started to stretch on into years. Impatience turned collectors back to the archives and, well, now we have a vintage watch industry!
Those afterthoughts are today worth a minimum of $40,000 on the preowned market, with the ultra rare ‘Paul Newman’ versions starting at about five times that. The man’s own personal model recently became the most expensive wristwatch ever sold when the hammer came down at around $17m.
As a rags to riches story, there is nothing to top the Daytona in horology terms. It may have taken 25 years, but it has gone from sales pariah to currently still the hottest ticket in the business.
The Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16760
The 80s also brought the introduction and swift retirement of the first of the GMT-Master II series, although unusually, it didn’t see the withdrawal of the original GMT-Master range.
Rolex’s dual time zone masterpiece had started life way back in 1954, a collaboration with now-defunct transcontinental airline Pan-Am. The watch’s red and blue bidirectional bezel, engraved with a 24-hour scale, along with its additional hour hand, allowed pilots and crew to keep track of the time both at home and at their eventual destination simultaneously, which had been proven to limit some of the more debilitating effects of jetlag.
Unlike the Daytona, it had been a winner from the start, with fans attracted as much by the eye-catching color scheme, quickly dubbed the Pepsi, as the useful complication.
It went through a string of modernizations over its run, but one thing it always lacked was the ability to set the pair of hour hands independently of each other. The two remained linked, with the GMT indicator geared to run at half speed, and the bezel had to be manipulated so the arrow-tipped pointer displayed the correct hour for the second time zone on it.
In 1983, Rolex solved the problem with the Cal. 3085, which finally uncoupled the hands, and it was a big enough innovation for the brand to launch the watch as a separate series, the GMT-Master II.
Although the movement was a major step forward, it was also significantly larger than previous mechanisms, so the ref. 16760 was forced to grow a little thicker around the midsection to house it. In order to balance out the design, it was granted a wider bezel and bigger crown guards, leading to its more common nickname, the Fat Lady. Or, if you prefer, the Sophia Loren.
As well as its bonanza new internal feature, the Fat Lady also pioneered a few other improvements. It was the first in the GMT series to include a sapphire crystal and white gold around the indexes to stave off tarnishing. And it also debuted a new bezel makeup, the black and red pairing which, for obvious reasons, is now known as the Coke.
However, it was a short lived run. Just five years later in 1988, the ref. 16760 made way for the ref. 16710 (I know, I’ve no idea why the numbers ran backwards).
That was powered by the Cal. 3185, identical in function but smaller in size, allowing the GMT-Master II to return to its more svelte profile.
The Fat Lady then is more or less a transitional reference in the series, relatively few in number, and issued exclusively in steel, with only the one bezel option. It has led to it becoming a real favorite among collectors, particularly as the Coke coloring has been absent from the range for years now.
With a surprisingly realistic asking price on the preowned market, the Fat Lady is often seen as a gateway into vintage GMT ownership—a beauty of a watch and still the ultimate travel companion.
The Rolex Explorer ref. 1016
One of the longest uninterrupted runs of any single Rolex reference finally came to an end in 1989. The Explorer ref. 1016, the third iteration in the original series of what many consider to be the brand’s first tool watch, dated back to 1963 and had remained the epitome of minimalist styling in all that time.
Descended from the Oyster Perpetuals Hillary and Tensing wore as they conquered Everest, the Explorer has long been a second tier offering, perpetually overshadowed by its diving and travel-focused stable mates.
The ref. 1016 carried on from the ref. 6610, the model which had set many of the design markers we still associate with the Explorer range today—in particular its characteristic 3/6/9 hour indexes. With no date display (and therefore no Cyclops) messing up the symmetry, the dial is one of the most well balanced as well as supremely legible Rolex has ever produced.
It stuck at the traditional 36mm throughout its entire term, borrowing the case from the same period’s Datejust model, the ref. 1603, with the earliest examples issued with black gilt, or glossy, faces. By the late 60s, it had made the switch to matte dials with highly contrasting bright white detailing.
Initially driven by the Cal. 1560, from the brand’s first truly in-house family of movements, it was granted just one upgrade during its 26 years. In the early 70s it swapped to the Cal. 1570, which increased the frequency to 19,800vph from 18,00vph and brought the sheer self-indulgence of a hacking seconds function.
After that, and a shift to tritium lume from the highly radioactive radium, Rolex seemed to decide it had done enough and left the ref. 1016 well alone.
It quietly went about its business of being one of those watches bought for its ruggedness, dependability and timelessness rather than the status it could bestow right up until the end of the 80s. Always true to its roots, it never presented any sort of dial color, bezel, handset or bracelet options, and was available in stainless steel or nothing.
Today, with the idea of the tool watch diluted by 18k gold divers and platinum, gem-encrusted chronographs, the Explorer series, and the ref. 1016 especially, have gained a new audience. Purists consider it one of the last of the type of pieces on which Rolex built their name and have made it a highly sought after model.
However, for a watch so long in production, there is a surprising shortage up for grabs. The reasons are really two-fold. Firstly, as a long underappreciated creation, there were just fewer built to begin with. And secondly, the original owners were people simply looking for that one watch that would see them through the rest of their lives before being bequeathed down the line. In short, once you had bought an Explorer, you kept hold of it.
That scarcity has seen prices heading north on the market, but it is still possible to take possession for a relatively reasonable price. A later edition model on its original riveted Oyster bracelet can be had for the $13,000 to $15,000 range. The early gilt dial examples, as you would expect, go for significantly more.
The Explorer range, always the unsung hero of Rolex’s longest-serving creations, is now enjoying a touch of the limelight as collectors search for the increasingly obscure titles. Its rarity gives it that exclusivity we talked about earlier, more than all but the most eye-wateringly expensive Subs, GMTs or Daytonas.
The ref. 1016 is another model that had to wait patiently for the attention it deserves, but is now heading for all-time classic status.
The Sky-Dweller series is the most recent all-new release from Rolex. Launched in 2012, it marked a continuation of the brand’s move into watches with additional complications which started with the Yacht-Master II a few years before.
But where that model had a somewhat restricted audience, aimed at a small group who competed in sailing regattas, the Sky-Dweller’s remit was far more universal. A novel approach to the dual time zone feature, coupled with the first annual calendar Rolex has ever produced, made it the ultimate luxury travel watch.
Although its functionality would put the Sky-Dweller in the sports collection, its minimalist profile and precious metal casings landed it in among the dress watches, and it was described in some corners as a GMT-equipped Day-Date.
Yet while its dial design has left opinions split since its arrival, all are agreed that it is a technical and engineering powerhouse.
The Original Trio
The name of the new model was announced long before any other details were released, leading to the customary Rolex rumor mill going into frenzies over just what a ‘Sky-Dweller’ might consist of. Understandably, most assumed a more robust version of the GMT-Master, a piece aimed squarely at the professional aviator, in the same way a Sea-Dweller is the more capable big brother of the Submariner.
When it was unveiled at Baselworld 2012, it was immediately obvious the hunches were way off. With a traditional fluted bezel and lack of any supplementary pushers on the case, it was clearly made to line up next to the President and the Datejust.
Yet it was full of eccentricities. At 42mm, it was fairly large by Rolex standards, although not by anyone else’s. But it was the challenging face that caused the most bewilderment.
The brand’s typically austere aesthetic, one that prized legibility above everything else, had been replaced by an information-heavy dial, at first glance particularly convoluted and with a strange off-centered sub counter that sliced the lower hour markers in two.
In addition, it was available only in Rolex’s three gold alloys, the yellow and white both on Oyster bracelets and the Everose on a leather strap, ranking them as some of the most expensive pieces in the entire portfolio.
Between its unorthodox appearance and its hefty price tag, the Sky-Dweller didn’t exactly hit the ground running. But when the virtuosity of its complications was laid bare, things started to look up.
How it Works
Of all the features it is possible to build into a mechanical wristwatch, an annual calendar and a dual time zone function are two of the most useful on a day to day basis. The Sky-Dweller was created around both.
Rolex are no stranger to the latter, already having the iconic GMT-Master and the cult favorite Explorer II in the stable. But the new watch represented the first time the brand had ever attempted the former, and it required a level of technical prowess that was impressive even by their standards.
Christening their system SAROS, after the astronomical term used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, Rolex’s mechanism is visually simple yet required their most intricate and complex movement to date. The purpose-built caliber, the Cal. 9001, is made up of 380 separate components and is protected by seven patents. It drives not only the GMT display but also ensures the annual calendar compensates for the differing number of days in various months, meaning wearers only need to manually adjust their watch once every year, at the end of February.
So, how is it read? On the dial, there is a small aperture above the hour indexes. Each one tallies to its corresponding month, i.e. the eight o’clock denotes August, nine o’clock is September, etc. The SAROS simply fills in one of the windows in a different color to indicate which is the current month.
As for the dual time zone feature, that too is a completely new way of doing things. Whereas Rolex’s other pair of GMT models use a fourth hand to point out the correct time on an engraved bezel, the Sky-Dweller has its controversial disc, printed with a 24-hour scale. An inverted triangle at the top indicates the hour back home, while the local time is read normally.
Setting the Sky-Dweller
Key to all the functionality, and possibly the most impressive element of the whole watch, is the second generation of Rolex’s Ring Command Bezel, originally introduced on the Yacht-Master II.
On that model it essentially worked as an on/off switch. On the Sky-Dweller, it is taken to the next level.
Linked directly to the winding crown, each quarter turn of the fluted surround unlocks a different action. From the start position, the first counter-clockwise position lets you adjust the date, in its customary place at the three o’clock. Another turn gives control of the main hour hand. And the final position allows you to set the reference time on the GMT disc.
The crown itself, notoriously the weakest part of any mechanical watch, has only one position, lending the Sky-Dweller an inherent strength.
The revolutionary bezel and caliber combination means there is no need for any extra buttons on the side of the case which would spoil its dress watch credentials; an incredible achievement for a piece with so much going on.
Unquestionably the flagship in Rolex’s travel collection, the Sky-Dweller proved to doubters that the brand was more than accomplished enough to produce an extremely complicated model. And in doing so, they have created something capable of displaying a huge amount of information in the most elegant and sophisticated way possible.
Rolex Sky-Dweller Milestones
The original trio of Sky-Dweller models debut at Baselworld. Available only in 18k gold, the yellow and white versions sit on Oyster bracelets while the Everose piece is given a brown alligator leather strap. The 42mm watch debuts Rolex’s first ever annual calendar complication, powered by an in-house manufactured caliber, the Cal. 9001.
A further three versions are released. This time, there is an Oyster for the pink gold model, and the yellow and white are on leather. In addition, there is slightly more variety on offer.
Where the initial releases had dials that matched the color of their cases, now the white gold watch has a black satin face with contrasting GMT disc, the yellow gold is fitted with a silver dial, while the Everose retains the same deep chocolate as before.
To everyone’s relief, the first hints of stainless steel make their way onto the Sky-Dweller when Rolex announces a pair of Rolesor variants. Bringing the price down steeply, the steel/yellow gold and steel/white gold two-tone models make the luxury globetrotter’s watch more accessible across a wider audience.
It is also given a subtle facelift, with baton indexes replacing the former Arabic numerals and the center hands slightly lengthened to improve readability.
The Pearlmaster is one of the more recent additions to the Rolex fleet, first appearing in 1992, the same year that saw the launch of the original Yacht-Master.
And just as that nautically flavored watch is essentially a Submariner in a more luxurious getup, underneath the Pearlmaster’s regal finery is one of the brand’s longest-running and most universally adored creations, the Datejust.
However, while that model, and the Lady-Datejust range especially, never lacked for precious stone enhancements, the Pearlmaster has taken it to an altogether different level. Sometimes known colloquially as the Masterpiece series, there is no hint of anything except the most opulent materials used in the construction. Cases are exclusively cast in 18k yellow, white or Everose gold, and the decoration is provided by diamonds, rubies and sapphires—either a conservative sprinkling or lashed across every surface.
In addition, a unique golden bracelet was crafted for the collection. Typified by five softly rounded links, some are also augmented with scores of flawless diamonds, and all are secured with a concealed Crownlock clasp.
The Pearlmaster is Rolex at its most creatively flamboyant, and the family also represents some of the most expensive pieces in the entire portfolio. They are at the pinnacle of both the watchmaker’s and gem-setter’s art, the epitome of chic elegance.
The Start of the Collection
The first of the Pearlmasters arrived in two sizes; 34mm and a 29mm model which was three millimeters larger than the smallest Lady-Datejust of the period.
Immediately drawing admiration for their immaculate aesthetics, they marked an overdue addition to Rolex’s range of watches aimed solely at a female audience, a demographic that has always lacked for any great variety in the past.
Far from being just eye-catching pieces of jewelry, the Pearlmaster collection also benefitted from the same industry-defining engineering prowess that has long been Rolex’s calling card.
Those original pieces were driven by the in-house Cal. 2135, a scaled down version of the base Cal. 3135. That legendary workhorse can be found in most of the brand’s three-hand and date men’s watches since 1988. The smaller movements inside the Pearlmasters had the distinction of the highest first time pass rates for accuracy and reliability at the COSC, the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute. In fact, they held the record until Rolex’s own replacement showed up, the Cal. 2235, in 1999.
The initial generation of the Pearlmaster featured yellow and white gold cases and the vast majority used only diamonds as ornamentation, most commonly set into the bezel and used for hour indexes. Dials were available in a variety of colors, although not as comprehensive a selection as the standard Datejust range. Mother-of-pearl models were, predictably, a great favorite, making each one a unique specimen.
At the end of the decade, with the upgrade in movement, the collection became even more lavish. Rolex’s legions of gemologists were given free rein to create highly extravagant examples, such as the ref. 80359 with a double ring of diamonds on the surround and lugs, or the ref. 80339, which had the option of adding a full pavé dial as well.
In 2005, the brand introduced their proprietary pink gold alloy, known as Everose, to the range. Like all the other metals the brand uses, it is forged in their own foundry.
The Modern Pearlmaster
In 2015, in keeping with the general direction of the rest of Rolex’s output, the Pearlmaster was given an increase in size options. Joining the lineup came a 39mm trio, with a choice of either a red grape, olive green or cognac sunburst dial. Far more than that though, the bezels were set with a ring of trapezoidal sapphires graduating through a range of colors to perfectly match the watch face.
Inside, it was the model to debut an all-new movement, the Cal. 3235, with Rolex’s revolutionary Chronergy escapement, granting an increase in efficiency of around 15%.
The following year, the remarkable ref. 86409RBR launched, the most sumptuous piece to date, a model drenched head to foot in so many diamonds that barely a trace of the white gold case or bracelet is visible. At around $200,000, it is currently one of the most expensive Rolex watches money can buy.
Around the same time, the 29mm version was quietly retired, leaving just the two larger pieces in the contemporary lineup.
Today, the Pearlmaster is a highly exclusive collection of extraordinary watches, aimed at the privileged few who can afford the very finest things in life.
Rolex Pearlmaster Milestones
Rolex releases the Pearlmaster range in both 29mm and 34mm versions. An offshoot of the Datejust family, they are unashamedly glamorous, featuring yellow and white gold cases and come festooned with diamonds. They are presented on their own eponymous bracelet, from where the series takes its name, and Rolex dubs them their ‘crowning jewelry watch’.
The series is given a new engine, the Cal. 2235, replacing the original Cal. 2135. It is the third generation of movement developed specifically for Rolex’s ladies collection of watches, and becomes the most consistently accurate caliber ever tested by the COSC.
Everose, or pink, gold becomes an option in the range for the first time.
Rolex releases the first of the 39mm Pearlmasters. The series contains two yellow gold and one white gold model, with a choice of dial, and sapphire bezels which graduate in color to match.
The ref. 86409RBR is released, another addition to the 39mm collection, entirely covered in diamonds, including the dial and the whole of the bracelet.
Following the developments in the prior two decades, the 1970s saw plenty of experimentation and innovation from Rolex with a handful of new calibers making their debut. These new movements paved the way for fresh Rolex models and reference families. Jump aboard our Wayback Machine to examine what Rolex models and notable Rolex references joined the company catalog in the 1970s.
New Rolex Models Introduced in the 1970s
The watch world was all about the new quartz technology in the 1970s and Rolex was no different. Along with new quartz models, Rolex also introduced a brand new mechanical tool watch in the 1970s.
Rolex Launched the Quartz 5100 in 1970
In the 1960s, a consortium of high-end Swiss watch brands including Rolex, Patek Philipe, Omega, and many others joined forces to create a Swiss quartz movement that could power their watches. The result of the group’s efforts was Beta 21 quartz caliber and Rolex launched the Rolex Quartz ref. 5100 in 1970 to house it.
The Beta 21 was a large movement, therefore the Rolex 5100 had to include a large case to accommodate it. The Rolex ref. 5100 features a big and chunky 40 mm case, fluted bezel, and integrated bracelet—and because of its bold style, it quickly picked up the nickname “The Texan.” It also includes a date window at 3 o’clock, along with the ubiquitous Cyclops magnification lens on the crystal.
Rolex only produced the ref. 5100 for two years in very limited quantities—some estimate as low as 1,000 units were ever made.
Rolex Launched The Explorer II in 1971
In 1971, Rolex added a new tool watch to its lineup called the Explorer II. Although it shares its name with the 1950’s Explorer, the Explorer II is an entirely different Rolex watch model.
As with all Rolex Professional watches, the Explorer II was built with a specific audience in mind and this time, the brand looked to serve the caving community, also known as spelunkers. This meant developing a watch that could not only aid the wearer to differentiate between daytime and nighttime even whilst in the midst of dark caves but also one that could withstand harsh environments.
As such, the Explorer II ref. 1655 sported a 39 mm stainless steel case, a fixed 24-hour bezel, and a steel Oyster bracelet. The black dial of the Explorer II 1655 included plenty of lume for legibility in the dark and a large arrow-tipped 24-hour hand in orange that functioned as an A.M./P.M. indicator.
Rolex Launched the Oysterquartz in 1977
When Rolex abandoned the quartz consortium in 1972, the brand sought to create its own in-house quartz calibers. Five years later, Rolex introduced two new quartz models called the Oysterquartz Day-Date and the Oysterquartz Datejust powered by the in-house Caliber 5055 and Caliber 5035, respectively.
As their name implies, these watches were essentially the quartz equivalents of Rolex’s signature Day-Date and Datejust dress watches. Style-wise, the Oysterquartz watches included angular cases and integrated bracelets akin the Rolex 5100. However, their smaller 36 mm cases were much slimmer and the overall execution of the watches was much more elegant.
Similar to their mechanical counterparts, Rolex only made the Oysterquartz Day-Date models in precious metals—white gold (ref. 19019) or yellow gold (ref. 19018)—and fitted them with President style bracelets, although integrated into the case. There were also some ultra-luxurious versions paved with diamonds and pyramids. Dials, of course, included the signature duo of calendars to indicate the day and the date.
Likewise, the Oysterquartz Datejust watches were identical in function to their automatic versions, and Rolex made them available in full steel (ref. 17000), steel with a white gold bezel (ref. 17014), and two-tone steel and gold (ref. 17013). The full steel Oysterquartz Datejust came with an Oyster style integrated bracelet while the other two versions had Jubilee style integrated bracelets.
New Rolex References Introduced in the 1970s
With the introduction of new calibers in the 1970s, Rolex released a whole host of new references to their dress watch lineup during the decade. Plus, Rolex also released some new models to key sports watch collections.
New Rolex Date Reference Launched in the 1970s
As we mentioned above, there was a five-year period between the discontinuation of the Rolex Quartz ref. 5100 and the release of the Oysterquartz watches while the company worked on perfecting the in-house calibers. However, during this time, Rolex already had some cases and bracelets ready to be fitted with the new quartz movements.
So rather than letting them sit and gather dust, Rolex took the distinct angular 36 mm Oyster case and integrated steel Oyster bracelet (of what would eventually become the Oysterquartz Datejust) and fitted them with the automatic Cal. 1570 to give us the Date 1530. Rolex only manufactured the Date 1530 for a few years until the debut of the Oysterquartz.
New Rolex Day-Date Reference Launched in the 1970s
In 1977, Rolex unveiled a new automatic movement for the Day-Date collection. The movement was the Caliber 3055 and the new Day-Date watches carried the 180xx reference numbers. In addition to operating at a higher frequency (28,800 beats per hour) Cal. 3035 also offered the quickset date function—meaning that the date window in the Day-Date watches could be set independently from the hour and minute hands.
Accordingly, this particular 180xx generation of Rolex President watches is sometimes referred to as the “Single Quickset Day-Date.” Design remained the same with 36 mm Oyster cases, two calendar windows on the dials, and President bracelets.
In terms of material choices, there are the yellow gold Day-Date ref. 18038 with a fluted bezel, the yellow gold Day-Date ref. 18078 with a bark-style bezel, and the white gold Day-Date ref. 18039 with a fluted bezel. There’s also an intriguing Tridor version of Rolex President, which includes a white gold case with a yellow gold bezel and white gold President bracelet with center links that bring together three shades of gold.
New Rolex Datejust References Launched in the 1970s
Along with the new time/day/date caliber, Rolex also introduced the new time/date Caliber 3035 automatic movement, complete with the quickset date function. Subsequently, a new generation of Datejust watches arrived with the 160xx reference numbers.
As always, these then-new Datejust watches sported 36 mm Oyster cases, a Cyclops magnification lens on the crystals above the date window on the dial, and a choice of Oyster or Jubilee bracelets. Style and material options included the steel Datejust ref. 16000 (smooth steel bezel), ref. 16014 (white gold fluted bezel), ref. 16030 (engine-turned steel bezel), along with the two-tone Datejust ref. 16003 (smooth yellow gold bezel) and ref. 16013 (fluted yellow gold bezel).
Not to be forgotten are the Datejust “Thunderbird” ref. 1625x models of the era (steel Datejust ref. 16250 and two-tone Datejust ref. 16253), complete with the rotating Turn-O-Graph bezels.
New Rolex Cosmograph Daytona References Launched in the 1970s
The 1970s also welcomed two new Daytona models: the Daytona ref. 6263 with a metal bezel and the Daytona ref. 6265 with a black acrylic bezel insert.
These Daytona watches feature screw-down chronograph pushers on their 38 mm cases (something we already saw on the prototype ref. 6240) making them true Oyster cases with amped up water resistance. Similar to previous Daytona references, Rolex made the 6263 and the 6265 available in steel or yellow gold and always fitted them with Oyster bracelets. This generation of Rolex Daytona chronographs continued to be manual-wound, powered by the Valjoux-based Caliber 727 movement.
New Rolex Submariner References Launched in the 1970s
There were two new Submariner references that Rolex launched in the 1970s. The first, the Submariner ref. 5514, was in fact, not a model for public consumption, but a batch of special-ordered Submariners for the French diving company, Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises.
Built for saturation diving, the Submariner ref. 5514 “COMEX” models are fitted with Helium Escape Valves (identical to the Sea-Dweller) to prevent the crystals from popping off during decompression periods. The dials of the Submariner 5514 include the COMEX logo and were produced in extremely small quantities from 1972 until 1978.
The other new reference that joined the collection was the Submariner Date ref. 16800, which was indeed offered to the general public and is regarded as a transitional model. Exclusively available in stainless steel, the Submariner ref. 16800 was the first Rolex Sub to include a sapphire crystal (instead of acrylic) on its 40 mm Oyster case, the first Sub to house the newly developed Caliber 3035, and the first Sub to boast a water resistance rating of 300 meters. In addition to the steel Submariner Date 16800 with the black dial and bezel, there’s also the yellow gold Submariner Date ref. 16808 with a choice of a black dial and bezel colorway or a blue dial and bezel combo.
Production of the Submariner Date 168xx generation continued until 1988.
New Rolex Sea-Dweller Reference Launched in the 1970s
In 1978, Rolex released the new Sea-Dweller ref. 16660, also known by its “Triple Six” nickname. Rolex officially named this model the Sea-Dweller 4000 to emphasize its impressive water depth rating of 4,000 feet (1,220 meters)—double that of the preceding Sea-Dweller ref. 1665.
Also a transitional model like the Submariner Date we outlined above, the Sea-Dweller ref. 16660 was the first Sea-Dweller to have a sapphire crystal, a unidirectional bezel (rather than a bi-directional on top of its 40 mm case, and the Caliber 3035 inside the watch. The Sea-Dweller 4000 “Triple Six” was in production for around ten years.
That concludes our look back at 1970’s Rolex. Stay tuned for the next chapter where we will be delving into new Rolex models, material options, and references introduced in the 1980s.