The Most Popular Rolex Watches of the 1980s

A Decade of Redemption

Between the rise of the yuppie, the larger than life cultures in music and fashion, and the general ‘greed is good’ mentality of wanton excess, the 1980s can seem like the decade subtlety forgot. After the relative drabness and austerity that characterized the 70s, the 80s were all about color and capitalism. Leading up to the era of Rolex in the 80s, the ever present threat of mutually assured destruction set a hedonistic tone. This tone was — spend now and worry about it tomorrow…if there is one.

For Swiss watch manufacturers, however, it was a decade of redemption. The quartz crisis had taken the industry by the throat in the seventies and did not let go. As a result, it was reduced to a pitiful shadow of its former glory and threatened to annihilate it completely. It finally reached the final point of do or die in 1982.

Japan had already taken the crown as the world’s leading watch producer. They were exporting huge numbers and were sealing the fate of over a thousand Swiss brands. Also, employment in the sector reduced its peak of 90,000 in 1974 to just 28,000 at its lowest point. Clearly, something drastic had to be done.

In much the same way, at the end of the sixties several major Swiss firms came together to form a consortium. They held the sole purpose of saving the industry they had spent centuries creating. The newly-established organization, the SMH, merged two huge but struggling umbrella corporations comprising of the SSIH. These were made up of Omega and Tissot among others. Additionally, this included the ASUAG, a group that included the likes of Rado and Longines.

The Swatch

In 1983, the SMH launched the Swatch on an unsuspecting public. A cheap, mass produced Swiss watch, it took the world by storm, helped by innovative marketing and skillful promotion. Fun, fashionable and disposable, it sold in the countless millions. It also poured much needed funds back into Switzerland and salvaged the remains of their manufacturing base.

Two years later, the Plaza Accord effectively broke the back of the Japanese Yen while strengthening the U.S. Dollar and Swiss Franc, rebalancing the power and essentially ending the quartz crisis.

Rolex in the 80s

For Rolex, this was the decade that saw the company finally acknowledge their complete turnaround in USP. They continued going through the motions of producing quartz watches. But, it was obvious they viewed electronics with a certain amount of distaste.

Even so, they recognized that the highest precision mechanical calibers couldn’t possibly compare with the worst of the cheap Japanese quartz movements in terms of accuracy. And Rolex’s were among the best ever made

They had weathered the storm better than most, thanks to their streamlined production methods and unrivalled reputation. However, it became acutely evident they would have to find another way to compete if they were going to survive.

The Transformation

It was the eighties then that saw the start of the transformation of Rolex. Now they went from being the world’s finest tool watches to becoming the universally accepted symbol of wealth and achievement. Sports models that could withstand the kind of punishment that only professionals could dish out were now much more likely to be found around a boardroom table. No longer are they only behind the wheel of an endurance race car or on the wrists of explorers, both above ground and underwater.

To Luxurious Watch Collecting

Through the kind of marketing that inspires PhD theses by the score, the name Rolex became just a quicker way of saying luxurious and aspirational. Watch collecting became a phenomenon. Affluent new connoisseurs began scouring the current and back catalogs of the major Swiss players. They were looking for that exclusive rarity to set them apart in the corridors of power. It could have been a recipe for Rolex to consign the roles of modernization and functionality to afterthoughts in favor of simply manufacturing bigger and prettier pieces to appeal to their fresh, upwardly mobile audience.

In fact, the opposite was true. The company continued to pioneer breakthrough technologies. They made relentless upgrades to their unequaled collection. In effect, they cemented their rightful place at horology’s top table.

It was a decade that saw some of the most enduringly popular versions of a number of venerable classics. Below, we’ve highlighted a few of our favorites.

The Cosmograph Daytona ref. 16520

Rolex in the 80s - 1988-rolex-daytona-16520

Perhaps Rolex’s biggest success of the eighties emerged from one of its most uncharacteristic missteps. The Daytona had been born in 1963 to a reception that was overwhelming in its apathy. Examples languished unloved on dealer’s shelves for years. In fact, there are reports that Rolex gave some away as a free incentive with the purchase of more desirable models.

Even the patronage of genuine Hollywood royalty did little to boost its appeal. Also, t he so-called Paul Newman exotic dial Daytonas proved just as, if not more, difficult to shift.

Automatic Movement

That changed practically overnight with the release of the second generation of the chronograph. The 1988 launch of the ref. 16520 saw the watch gain its first automatic movement. This was a heavily modified caliber from legendry Swiss manufacturer Zenith, called the El Primero. Previous versions had been reliant on the Valjoux Cal. 72, a beautifully made and highly reliable mechanism, but with the insurmountable drawback of being manually wound. In the quartz age, winding your watch every day was as outdated as the Ark.

For the 16520, Rolex customized the El Primero almost beyond recognition. They retained fewer than half its original parts. Furthermore, they did away with the date function and fit it with a new escapement and balance spring with a Breguet overcoil. The 36,000 VPH frequency was dropped to 28,800 VPH to help increase the watch’s power reserve and accuracy and require less frequent servicing. It also ensured the distinctive Rolex sweep to the seconds hand.

Renamed the Cal. 4030, it was the catalyst for the Daytona to become one of the most sought after watches of the era. It’s a distinction it holds to this day. Because of the time burden of having to rely on a third-party manufacturer to provide the movement, demand soon outstripped supply, with waiting lists stretching off into years and huge premiums being put on new models for well-heeled fans who just couldn’t wait.

The Vintage Watch Market

Along with the convenience of a self-winding caliber, the Daytona also grew to a larger 40mm from the previous 37mm. The dials now had lacquer instead of matte or metallic. And the iconic sub dials ringed with a contrasting outer track. Protecting it all was a new scratch-resistant sapphire crystal.

The launch of the next generation model and the discontinuation of the last, saw the appeal for both reach epic proportions. Utlimately, it’s the Daytona that takes credit for starting the vintage watch market as we know it today. Possibly, it was possibly the most important sports watch ever made. No doubt, it was the eighties that saw it start its climb towards becoming the world’s favorite chronograph.

GMT Master II ref. 16760

Rolex in the 80s - 1983 Rolex GMT-Master II

By contrast, with the slow burn appeal of the Daytona, the GMT Master series was a hit from the very beginning. So much so, that when the first of the GMT Master II range launched in 1983, it ran concurrently with the triumphant original for a further 16 years.

The New Caliber 3085

That initial reference, while strikingly similar in design to its predecessor, contained a critical new caliber, the Cal. 3085. A long-awaited and logical addition to the archetypal traveler’s watch, it allowed, for the first time, wearers to uncouple the hour hand from the GMT hand. Although the Quickset date function had to be sacrificed, it meant setting the second time zone at a destination was now instantaneous, with the arrow-tipped 24-hour hand able to move independently. As a result, it was now even possible to track a third time zone by reading it off the rotating bezel.

With the new caliber came a thicker case. Its enhanced proportions garnered the 16760 the nickname the ‘Fat Lady’, along with a never before seen color scheme. Joining the blue and red of the Pepsi and the brown and gold of the Root Beer from previous incarnations, the first of the GMT Master II’s sported a black and red surround instantly labeled, naturally enough, the Coke.

The GMT Coke

As a two tone combination, the Coke made the most sense in relation to the GMT’s original purpose. Primarily intended as a way for international travelers, and pilots specifically, to tell at a glance what part of the day they would be flying into, the black half of the bezel representing the night and the red half for the daytime made the readout perfectly legible.

Along with its updated movement and unfamiliar colors, the Fat Lady also added a couple of other firsts for the GMT series. Its acrylic crystal was replaced with a sapphire for the first time. It used white gold to surround its hour markers. These two advances became standard issue on all subsequent releases.

Caliber 3185

Although it enjoyed a well-received outing, the 16760 only had a relatively short production run. It was replaced in 1988 by the ref 16710, powered by another new caliber, the Cal. 3185. While identical in functionality, the movement had a slimmer profile that allowed the return to a more slender case.

With a host of novel features, coupled with its ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ lifespan, the ref. 16760 has become one of the most desirable vintage Rolexes on the market. Only available in all-steel construction and always with the black and red two-tone bezel, the Fat Lady is an uncompromising beauty.

Submariner ref. 16610

Rolex in the 80s - 1984-rolex-submariner-16610

To end with, no review of the standout Rolexes of the 80s is complete without mentioning the most popular edition of the brand’s most popular model.

Just sneaking into the decade with a 1989 release date, the Submariner ref. 16610 has become the last of the non-ceramic Subs. Running all the way to 2010, its replacement was the first of the breed to feature a Cerachrom bezel—a cutting-edge material that not only resists fading and wear but also goes some way in solving the one dark side to the 16610’s success; forgeries.

Ruthless Perfectionism

The Rolex Submariner holds the dubious distinction as the most counterfeited luxury watch in the world. In fact, it’s estimated there are now more fakes than genuine articles on the pre-owned market.

So, while the latest example is more difficult to replicate, many fans of the brand point to the 16610 as the most versatile and aesthetically pleasing iteration of the 60-year old classic—the culmination of a lifetime of ruthless perfectionism.

From the very first Submariner released in 1954, it’s recognized as the professional tool watch that could get you in anywhere. Whether it was worn with a wetsuit or a tuxedo, there was nowhere the Sub couldn’t go and no outfit it couldn’t make better.

The 16610 took that concept to new heights, with lines even more graceful and refined than its predecessor, the 1680, along with the same sapphire crystal cover and subtle white gold upgrades to the hour markers as on the new GMT Master II. Still with a 300m-water resistance and, of course, that iconic unidirectional bezel, the 80s saw the ultimate dive watch become the only timepiece you would ever need.

The Vintage Market

Today, it’s the reference that represents something of a gateway into the world of vintage watch collecting. With its 21-year production run, there is no shortage of models on the market at attainable prices. The darling of the true blue aficionado, the 16610 is also first choice for those who want that one very special watch that can do everything.

For Rolex in the 80s, it was a decade that saw the first shoots of recovery for the Swiss watch industry after the mauling it had taken at the hands of the Japanese quartz phenomenon. With a cheap, throwaway fashion watch to thank for their salvation, along with a booming economy, the highest of the high-end manufacturers saw their artistry, tradition and craftsmanship find a new appreciative audience of people with money to burn.

Next week, we’ll delve into the nineties and the first new watch Rolex released in nearly 30 years.

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