Review: The Rolex Datejust ref. 116200
If there was ever an ‘all things to all people’ watch, it is the Rolex Datejust.
From its debut way back in 1945, a revolutionary launch that put the brand firmly on the map, it has remained at the top of the company’s bestseller list for three quarters of a century.
It is an extraordinary achievement, made possible by Rolex releasing the piece in so many different configurations of dial, bezel, bracelet and metal combinations that it appeals to any taste, wrapped up in an overall design that can match any occasion.
Like many of Rolex’s catalog mainstays, standing an early Datejust up next to a modern era example lets you see nothing but a fairly gentle aesthetic evolution at work. The styling was more or less nailed from the outset, leaving not much else to do with it except upgrade materials and movements as needed.
But although the visuals may be steeped in tradition, the mechanics and engineering remain right at the cutting edge. The Datejust has long been used by the brand as the proving ground for new and progressive innovations, testing out their latest technological advances before they are rolled out across the rest of the portfolio.
In 2004, the first of the six-digit watches appeared, taking over from the previous ref. 162XX range, and brought the series right up until 2019 when the current version took over. Curiously, while Rolex typically unveils a new reference collection to introduce a modernized caliber, the mechanism inside the ref. 1162XX was the same as in the previous models, but would receive periodic improvements throughout its run.
True to form however, the ref. 1162XX Datejusts were released in a mindboggling array of different guises, from the overtly grandstanding to the subtly unassuming.
The ref. 116200 is very much in the latter camp, a wonderfully discreet, minimalist piece that does what the Datejust has always done best; look neither over or underdressed no matter where you are or what you are doing.
Below, we take a look in a bit more detail.
Rolex Datejust ref. 116200 Metals and Bezels
One of the biggest changes Rolex has made to their production base in recent years is their switch from 316L stainless steel to 904L.
Virtually the only luxury watch manufacturer with the financial clout to be able to do it, Rolex made the change after noticing some of their earlier 316L dive watches were experiencing pitting around the case back screw threads, caused not only by exposure to seawater, but also simply sweat from the wearer’s wrist.
While there is little difference between the two alloys in terms of strength and hardness, 904L’s biggest advantage is the higher percentage of nickel and chromium, along with added copper, which makes it significantly more resistant to acid corrosion, particularly from chloride. That made it an excellent choice for their range of hardworking tool models.
An additional bonus was its ability to hold a polish like no other, something that gave Rolex’s pieces a distinctive look all their own.
The brand actually released a 904L watch back in 1985, when the Sea-Dweller made a completely apt test run. But it wouldn’t be until 2005 when the company committed itself fully, retooling their entire manufacturing facility at enormous expense. The ref. 1162XX series were the first Datejusts cast in the new metal.
The ref. 116200 is made entirely of steel, including bracelet and bezel which, on this example, is the polished, smooth type. It is Rolex’s cleanest design of surround, and the ideal complement to such an under-the-radar watch.
There was an extensive selection of other styles in the ref. 1162XX range announced at the same time, all 36mm.
The ref. 116201 and ref. 116203 were the Rolesor editions with smooth bezels, (Rolesor being Rolex’s own name for their two-tone steel and gold watches), in this case Everose and yellow gold respectively. The 116208 was forged in all yellow gold.
Those with fluted bezels are designated with a 3 as the fifth reference number digit. For example, the ref. 116234 has a steel case topped with a white gold surround. And the top of the line model, the ref. 116243, was granted the luxury of a diamond-encrusted bezel, often with matching hour markers on the dial.
Rolex Datejust ref. 116200 Movements
The previous generation of Datejusts, along with every other time-and-date Rolex from 1988 onwards, had been powered by a movement which has since become legendary in the industry; the Cal. 3135.
It is one of the brand’s longest-serving and most widely used calibers, and is still, incredibly, driving the current Submariner, some 30+ years later.
A big, strong and, most of all, massively reliable mechanism, the Cal. 3135 was the result of decades of constant fine-tuning at the hands of the manufacture’s technicians and had shown itself to be a faultless engine since its introduction.
It had also acted as the base for most of the rest of Rolex’s movements of the era, with extra functionality either added (for example, with the Cal. 3185 and its dual time module for the GMT-Master II, or the Cal. 3155 inside the Day-Date with its second calendar complication) or taken out (on the time-only Cal. 3130 for the Oyster Perpetuals).
So when the five-digit DJs were superseded by the ref. 1162XX collection, there was very little need to start messing with a well proven formula.
It retained all the basic elements which had been in play for many years by then—the 28,800vph balance frequency, responsible for the smooth glide of all modern Rolex seconds hands, the Microstella regulator, with its arrangement of four adjustable timing screws on the inner rim of the free sprung balance wheel, as well as the Teflon coating on the gear wheels of the bidirectional winding system.
By the time the ref. 1162XX was brought out, the Cal. 3135 had already graduated to using an all-new alloy for the hairspring. Known as the Parachrom Bleu, the minute component is formed from niobium and zirconium, rendering it completely paramagnetic and around 10-times more resistant to shocks than the Nivarox spring used formerly. A Breguet overcoil completed the setup, ensuring the timekeeping stays consistent regardless of the tension on the mainspring.
The one other big change occurred towards the end of the ref. 1162XX’s tenure when Rolex announced their own standards for precision beyond those of the COSC, the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute.
The governing body for the industry, every manufacturer’s calibers have to pass the COSC’s strict tests before they can formally be called a chronometer, retaining an accuracy of between -4/+6 seconds a day, across a range of different positions and temperatures.
Almost everything Rolex has built since 1951 has been deemed worthy of the ‘Officially Certified Chronometer’ label, and from 1957 the brand has used ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’ on their dials to indicate that they not only meet the COSC criteria, but exceeded them.
In 2015, they went far beyond even that when they announced their own, more stringent testing measures, now requiring their movements to remain accurate down to -2/+2 seconds a day. What’s more, the calibers would be tested twice; once by the COSC as a separate unit, and again at Rolex once they were in place inside the watch cases.
At the same time, the brand increased the length of their warranties on all aspects of their watches from two to five years, the longest in the business.
It was just one more example of the never-ending progress being made inside Rolex HQ, and the reason for their unparalleled reputation.
Rolex Datejust ref. 116200 Dials
Although the Datejust started out as Rolex’s flagship offering in the 1940s, originally only cast in all gold, it was quickly usurped by the Day-Date the following decade. After that it was repositioned in the market to be something of a bridge between the dress and tool watch collections, and was released in so many different styles there was literally no one who wouldn’t be able to find their perfect choice.
Over the years there have been an almost uncountable variety of dial colors made available, along with a host of strange and exotic materials employed for the watch’s face.
As the entry level model in the range, the ref. 116200 was issued with a massively diverse array, the neutrality of the case metal allowing it to work with just about any shade you can imagine.
A search of the preowned market will turn up black, white, silver and blue as the most plentiful examples, before delving into the more unusual, striking and sometimes downright outlandish.
Greens, purples and reds all work well and, interestingly, you will also see far more feminine colors on offer. By this time in the Datejust’s story, a 36mm watch was viewed as very much a unisex size, so much so that, in 2009, Rolex launched the Datejust II, a 41mm version of the piece intended for an exclusively male audience (since replaced by the Datejust 41).
Almost as many women as men had taken to wearing the 36mm model, and as a result, dials in pink and salmon were circulated, some even with floral designs, along with mother-of-pearl, with each example a one-off.
As for hour markers, they ran from the simplicity of stick batons to either Roman or Arabic numerals. Diamonds were not an official option, but plenty of pieces have been customized to include gems on the indexes and also around the bezel. The work is carried out by third party watchmakers, meaning Rolex themselves don’t consider the watch authentic anymore and will likely refuse to service it when the time comes. By no means a deal breaker, it just entails finding an independent center to maintain it, and there are plenty to choose from.
The lume Rolex used had finally settled on Superluminova, having changed three times in about 20-years beforehand. A photoluminescent substance, it has to be ‘charged’ by light before it will glow, but it is completely harmless, unlike the radioactive materials of the past, radium and tritium.
And finally, all examples are protected by scratchproof sapphire crystals, an upgrade on the acrylic found on vintage models.
Rolex Datejust ref. 116200 Bracelets
Strangely, perhaps the biggest difference between this generation of the Datejust and the preceding one can be found in the bracelets.
The brand had long been criticized for the perceived flimsiness of their older style, hollow link bands, and so had worked hard on beefing them up.
The ref. 1162XX series were given bracelets with all solid links, along with solid end links (SEL), the one that connects to the case.
It gives the watch as a whole a far more noticeable weight, as well as being substantially stronger and resistant to stretching over the years.
The range was launched with a choice of two of Rolex’s three metal bracelet options, the more formal five-link Jubilee (the band created especially for the Datejust in 1945) and the sporty three-link Oyster.
Each one imparts its own personality on the watch as a whole, yet another way it is possible to personalize one of the most chameleonic watches on the market.
The ref. 116200 is a thoroughly modern version of a timepiece that dates back to the end of the Second World War. The Datejust has enjoyed the longest unbroken production run in Rolex’s history, through its timeless design and a near constant process of improvement.
With its impossibly tough housing (forged from a metal which is practically unique amongst the watchmaking fraternity), its iconic and everlasting movement and its t-shirt to tuxedo versatility, the ref. 116200 really could be the only watch you ever realistically need.
Best of all, like all steel Datejusts, it was made in significant quantities, meaning preowned examples are not only easily found, they are also affordable.
Head over to our online store for a selection of some of the best on the market.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.