Rolex Developments, Introductions, and Innovations in the 1980s
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.