Review: The Rolex Datejust ref. 1603

The core group of Rolex watches, those which have been around since the 1950s or even earlier, are renowned for just how little their designs have changed over time.

Of them all it is perhaps the two dress pieces, the Datejust and Day-Date, which have altered the least throughout their respective generations.

Any visual improvements tended to happen in a relatively turbulent period right at the start of their production runs. Rolex would nail down all the most important details in the initial few years and then stick with them for the long haul, with just the occasional tweak where necessary.

That is certainly the case with the ref. 16XX family of the Datejust, which debuted in 1959. It was the first in the perennial series to enjoy any kind of longevity, lasting all the way up to about 1981.

Hold an example up to a current reference and it is obvious the two are very much of the same breed.

However there are some differences; subtle distinctions that identify the vintage piece if you know what to look for, and it is especially true with the ref. 1603.

Rolex Datejust ref. 1603 Metals and Bezels

Unlike some of the reference numbers used for the ref. 16XX series, which could cover a number of different configurations, the ref. 1603 describes a 36mm steel watch case topped with an engine turned bezel, again in stainless steel.

Of course, these watches were made long before the days when Rolex, almost exclusively, switched to 904L steel and so they are forged from the more usual 316L. That is more than tough enough to be an everyday wear though, as the Datejust is certainly designed to be.

The bezel, with its decorative milled pattern, is one of those features that identifies the ref. 1603 as being from the old school. An interesting alternative to the typical smooth or fluted surrounds that have always been an option, the engine turned examples weren’t produced in as great a number as the other two, leaving the reference as among the rarer of the vintage Datejusts. Strangely however, that fact doesn’t seem to add much of a premium on the preowned market.

Rolex stopped producing them for the Datejust in the mid 2000’s when the ref. 16220 came to an end. These days though, there are no watches in the current lineup fitted with an engine turned bezel.

Rolex Datejust ref. 1603 Movements

As is standard operating procedure over at Rolex HQ, a new reference number is much more likely to be introduced because of a movement upgrade rather than because of some radical aesthetic departure.

Such is the case with the ref. 16XX series. Looks-wise there is not much to choose between them and the outgoing ref. 66XX range. But inside, where the earlier models were powered by the Cal. 1065, now they were fitted with the second generation of Rolex’s famous Cal. 1500 family of calibers.

Rolex Caliber 1575

Starting in 1959, the first of the ref. 1603s contained the Cal. 1565, and it would hang onto it until the mid sixties. Like the previous movement, it had an 18,000vph frequency, traditional stone lever escapement and Breguet overcoil on its free sprung balance wheel. But the main improvement came with the introduction of the cam and jewel system, still in use today, that causes the instantaneous date switch at midnight. Before, with the older caliber, that changeover could take several hours.

Major progression though that was, the movement was itself superseded in 1965 when the Datejust received the Cal. 1575, which upped the rate to 19,800vph, so ensuring a little more stability and timekeeping precision.

Then, in 1972, the new engine was fine-tuned again with the inclusion of a hacking function, which stopped the seconds hand once the winding crown was pulled out, making it easier to accurately set the time.

However, neither of the ref. 1603’s calibers had the convenience of a Quickset feature, the mechanism that allows the date to be forwarded via the crown—wearers would have to wait until the late 1970’s and the release of the five-digit Datejusts, with the Cal. 3035 inside, for that.

Rolex Datejust ref. 1603 Dials

The ref. 1603 was released with what is, for a Datejust, a fairly limited selection of dials. You are far more likely to find the more neutral shades of white, silver and grey than anything outlandishly vibrant as you would on gold or Rolesor models.

That being said, it is not unusual to see dials professionally refinished in order to give them some real eye-catching allure. Custom colors are often added—bright reds, purples and turquoises that make the model really stand out. They can be a lot of fun if they are to your taste, but you have to be aware that Rolex will probably refuse to service the watch when the time comes and you will need to find a third party to take care of it. (There are plenty of these centers about, BeckerTime being one, so it’s no big deal; just something to keep in mind).

There are also some rarer dial variations of the ref. 1603 on the market, usually picking up a nickname or two along the way.

The ‘Wide Boy’ is one with hands and applied hour markers which are thicker than the standard size, something that suits this particular watch very well. The ‘Buckley’ dial, named after vintage Rolex watch collector and dealer John Buckley, has large painted Roman numerals which, again, look beautiful on the classic Datejust shape. You may also find, although they will take some searching, Tiffany dials. These are models sold through the famous jewelers Tiffany & Co., one of the very few establishments Rolex allowed to include their name on one of their watches—not something they go in for anymore.

On all dial types, the luminescent material, if there is any, will be tritium. This is in the days before the brand made the switch to Luminova. It is used very sparingly on the Datejust, normally restricted to a small stripe on the baton hands and a dot above the indexes.

In the 1970s, Rolex started using 18k gold for the hour markers and handset on their watches, and for a few years added a tiny Greek letter Sigma to their dials to indicate it. A pair of (σ) symbols flanked the ‘T SWISS T’ (signifying tritium) text at the very bottom of the dial, more often than not on the steel versions of the watch, such as the ref. 1603.

Otherwise known as the APRIOR marks, for Association pour la Promotion Industrielle de l’Or (the Association for the Industrial Promotion of Gold) these ‘Sigma dials’ are especially rare and can command a slight increase in price.

And finally, covering the dials was another symbol of vintage models, a Plexiglass acrylic crystal, complete with its Cyclops magnifying lens.

Rolex Datejust ref. 1603 Bracelets

As it should be, you will find most examples of the ref. 1603 on Rolex’s buttery smooth Jubilee bracelet, the one designed and made for the original Datejust in 1945. The supple five semi-circular link creation is generally thought of as the brand’s most comfortable, conforming effortlessly to the shape of the wrist.

Elsewhere you will find examples on the venerable Oyster, a band that dates back even longer and which has served on practically every Rolex model at one point or another. Another extremely easy wear, it gives a more sporty aspect to the watch, in keeping with its all-steel construction.

With such a long production run, the links on the ref. 1603’s bracelets can be either riveted, folded, oval or D-link, depending on when it was made, each of them with hollow center links.

And the final telltale vintage sign; the ref. 1603 had lug holes, making changing the bracelets that much easier.

The ref. 1603 is one of the less common references of Rolex’s all-time classic, a mix of utilitarian steel construction with a dash of extravagance to its ornate engine turned bezel. But even though it wasn’t produced on quite the same scale as its precious metal-enhanced compatriots, preowned rates are still extremely reasonable. Prices for this wonderfully versatile watch start at a little over $3,000, an ideal gateway into Rolex ownership.