Review: The Rolex Datejust ref. 16220
Rolex’s ref. 162XX series of Datejust watches first emerged in 1988, a replacement for the relatively short-lived ref. 160XX range. As you might imagine, considering the brand’s unwavering dedication to their own designs, the aesthetic differences between the two were minimal, if not non-existent, and the new reference number was issued to denote the use of an updated caliber and crystal—something which has been standard practice at Rolex for a generation.
However, in the case of the ref. 162XX, even the revised movement was very similar to the retiring one, and proved such a successful mechanism that it is still in use in the contemporary portfolio more than 30 years later.
The ref. 16220 was introduced the following year in 1989, a straight swap for the previous ref. 16030 which had served since the end of the 1970s.
Like its predecessor, it was fitted with a specific bezel type which is no longer in use by Rolex and it was, in fact, the last Datejust model to have it.
Beyond the change in mechanism though, all was business as usual with the ref. 16220. Arguably the Datejust exemplifies the spirit of the brand more than anything else in the portfolio, treading that fine line between all-out dress piece and something robust and versatile enough to be worn everyday. For many people in the market for that one good watch to last them a lifetime and be handed down to do the same for a son or daughter, it is often the first and last stop in the search.
The ref. 16220 is the perfect compromise for those who appreciate the looks of vintage Rolex but who want all the reassurance and convenience of modern-day engineering.
Below we take a look at this fascinating model in a bit more detail.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16220 Metals and Bezels
After 1988, Rolex’s reference numbers started to offer a bit more in the way of information on bezel design, denoted by the fourth numeral.
So with the ref. 16220, the second 2 designated that the watch had what is known as an engine-turned surround. Fairly close in looks to the widely-used fluted type (which may be one reason they are no longer an option in the current lineup) engine-turned bezels feature a series of decorative grooves etched around the circumference.
One big difference between the engine-turned and fluted styles lay in the metals each was forged from. The latter is only made in gold, whether yellow, rose or white, and fitted to either solid gold cases or else steel watches to form the mix of metals Rolex call Rolesor.
As for the engine-turned examples, they were exclusively stainless steel additions to the “all steel” Datejust models, offering a little more in the way of eye-catching flourishes than the traditional polished, smooth type.
The ref. 16220 was the reference to take the embellished surround up to its retirement in the mid-2000s, and was also the final Datejust to be made from 316L steel. After that, Rolex made the switch to the even stronger 904L (now called Oystersteel) and also thickened up the lugs to add a little more wrist presence.
That means, between its sleeker silhouette and no longer available bezel, the ref. 16220 has the sort of retro charm Rolex collectors yearn for—but with the same level of faultless performance as something straight off the production line.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16220 Movements
Inside the ref. 162XX series, including the ref. 16220, sits the Cal. 3135, which superseded the previous Cal. 3035. It was the older caliber that finally brought the high beat 28,800vph balance frequency to the men’s Datejust range, the speed at which all modern Rolex watches tick and that gives the silky smooth sweep to the seconds hand.
Although the Cal. 3035 was a fine movement in itself, the brand clearly felt it could be improved upon, but the changes they made to achieve it were subtle to say the least.
The balance cock was discarded in favor of a full balance bridge and the jewel count increased from 27 to 31. The power reserve was also lengthened to 50 hours and a larger balance wheel was installed.
Other than that, not much else needed doing, and it was really just a case of improving on what was already an industry-leading caliber to ensure it stayed industry-leading.
Rolex’s own Microstella regulating system, an assembly of four timing screws on the inside of the balance wheel which could be adjusted to control the wheel’s inertia and therefore its rate, was retained, first introduced in 1959 and still in use today.
The Quickset also stayed (another feature introduced with the Cal. 3035) which allowed for independent control over the date function without having to spin the hour hands round continually. One slight difference on the Cal. 3135 was that a full rotation of the crown was enough to advance the date by three numerals, as opposed to just one beforehand. And strangely, to set the time with the new movement, that crown had to be wound clockwise while on the Cal. 3035 it was counterclockwise for some reason. Not the biggest hardship in the great scheme of things.
During the Cal. 3135’s exhaustive run, and it has been providing incredible service for more than three decades now, it has continued to be updated—most notably in 2000 when the hairspring was given a major overhaul.
The Nivarox spring of earlier pieces was surpassed by one of Rolex’s own making, a product of five years of exhaustive research and development by the company’s army of metallurgists, physicists and micro-engineers.
Called the Parachrom, it is constructed from an alloy of niobium and zirconium, which together make the component completely antimagnetic, practically impervious to temperature changes and with 10 times the shock resistance than before—three factors that are the biggest killers of timekeeping accuracy. Later, in 2005, the hairspring’s oxide coating was thickened, causing it to react with the air and change color, leading to it being rechristened the Parachrom Bleu.
A major breakthrough for the brand, and one which satisfied their obsession with making everything that goes into their watches themselves, it has since become a standard part across the entire catalog.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16220 Dials
With its unorthodox engine-turned bezel, the ref. 16220 represented the top of the line of the all steel Datejusts. Even so, the selection of dials with which it was issued was less comprehensive than for the gold and Rolesor examples from the same series.
Rolex watches in stainless steel are generally seen as the more understated option than the precious metal alternatives and favored by those happy to be low-key, so you will see most fitted with the conventional range of dials.
That gives plenty with faces of black, white, silver and grey, all of which match particularly well with the neutrality of the case.
Elsewhere, more vibrant options can found with sunburst blue or a feminine rose color, marking the 36mm Datejust’s transition from a purely men’s watch to a unisex piece.
There are also some rarer but extremely attractive versions, such as the tapestry dials. These have a beautiful three dimensional texture rather than the standard flat surface, and are another option no longer available with the contemporary range.
Hour markers were similarly on the conservative side, the usual suspects of plain sticks or else Arabic, Roman numerals or diamonds. There are numerous models available with aftermarket additions of gemstones on both the markers and around the bezel. These can be a great purchase, giving a lot more watch for your money, but you have to be aware that Rolex do not consider these watches genuine once any third party work has been carried out on them and will refuse to service them. As a result you will need to find an independent watchmaker to carry out any maintenance—again, not a big deal by any means, and usually less expensive than using official Rolex technicians.
As for luminescence, the ref. 162XX series actually had three different types during its tenure. The first run models were still using tritium, a radioactive material, but one at such a low level as to be completely harmless. Watches with this substance can be identified by the wording ‘T Swiss T’ or ‘Swiss T<25’ on the dial below the six o’clock index.
Around 1998 it switched to Luminova, a completely non-radioactive photoluminescent constituent. These dials are marked simply ‘SWISS’. A couple of years later it changed again to Superluminova, basically the same thing but manufactured by a Swiss company, whereas Luminova was from Japan. These last examples were given the ‘SWISS MADE’ tag.
Covering the dial on all versions is a sapphire crystal, a far tougher and more scratchproof substitute for the acrylic crystals which had been phased in during the previous series’ run.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16220 Bracelets
Like all Datejust references, the ref. 16220 was given the choice of the Jubilee or Oyster bracelet.
Each one gave the watch a character all its own, with the five-link Jubilee the more intricate and dressy, and the three-link Oyster the sporty, tool-like option.
Both consisted of solid outer and hollow center links, and finished with flip clasps.
Also, just as the luminescence and movement altered during production, so did the ref. 162XX’s case. Lug holes, beloved by vintage collectors, were still a feature up until the mid-90s.
The Rolex Datejust ref. 16220 was the last of the range to have the engine-turned bezel, although the slightly smaller Date continued with it for an extra couple of years.
The watch therefore has a definite air of nostalgia to it, and it is a real favorite among classic aficionados.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.