Rolex Watches Discontinued in the 1970s
Although Rolex withstood the quartz crisis of the 1970s better than any of its compatriots, the decade still stands as perhaps the darkest days the traditional watch industry has ever had to face.
With André Heiniger at the helm, only the second CEO in the company’s history following the death of founder Hans Wilsdorf, they were able to weather the onslaught of cheap but incredibly accurate timepieces flooding in from the east, while all around them watchmakers with centuries of heritage dropped like flies.
Heiniger’s opinion was that the new technology was little more than a gimmick set to suffer the same fate as the transistor radio. Though not entirely correct, quartz watches are still going strong today after all, he was right in his gamble that the public would quickly tire of electronics and seek a return to the luxury of a painstakingly crafted mechanical caliber that only Switzerland could provide.
While he waited for that to happen, Rolex made a show of engaging with the fad, producing two quartz models of their own based around the Day-Date and Datejust. They actually proved extremely popular, despite the manufacture’s decidedly lackluster promotion efforts—with all the unassailable quality for which the company’s name had become a byword but far less expensive and around ten times more precise than even their industry-leading conventional movements.
Yet it couldn’t have been more obvious that their heart belonged to the world of gears and springs and the 1970s also saw the comings and goings of some iconic mechanical references.
In addition, it was the time when Rolex introduced the first of an entirely new family of calibers, replacing the revered Cal.1500 series with the Cal. 3000 range. These brought the high beat 28,800vph frequency which is still the mainstay of their movements today, bringing the company into the modern era.
Below, we explore the watches Rolex discontinued in the 1970s.
The Double Red Sea-Dweller ref. 1665
This might seem like a bit of a cheat, seeing as how the ref. 1665, the first Sea-Dweller put into full-scale production, continued on until 1983. However, the earliest pieces are so well known by their nickname of Double Red, for the two lines of red text on the dial, that when they were replaced by the so-called Great White in 1977 (identical save for all the writing now in white), they are considered separately.
The DRSDs started life in 1967, a collaboration between Rolex and French saturation diving specialists COMEX. They were looking for a watch that could go far beyond the abilities of anything available at the time, one able to withstand a descent to crushing depths and, crucially, the ascent back to the surface.
COMEX’s crews were required to live for extended periods in deep underwater habitats, breathing a carefully controlled mixture of gases, including a proportion of helium to offset the detrimental effects of nitrogen when put under great pressure. With helium having one of the smallest molecules of any gas, it could easily seep inside the divers’ watches. As the pressure was reduced on the rise back to sea level, the helium bubbles would expand, blowing out the crystals on the watches and destroying them.
Rolex’s solution was to simply fit a small one way valve into the case, allowing the gas to seep back out safely and preserving the integrity of the piece.
Trialed on a retrofit Submariner, it proved perfectly effective and the HEV, or Helium Escape Valve, became a constant feature of the Sea-Dweller, starting with the Double Red ref. 1665.
Those initial models have become legend in both the dive watch and vintage Rolex communities, with collectors fighting over the increasingly rare specimens. With seven different ‘Marks’ issued over its 10-year run, each with the usual small but significant distinctions, there is too much detail and information to go into here. But as you would expect, the very first examples remain the most highly prized.
These were launched after Rolex had applied for the copyright on the HEV but before it had been approved, leading to the manufacture engraving ‘Patent Pending’ on the case back. Now incredibly scarce, these models (actually known as the Patent Pending DRSDs) can change hands for upwards of $100,000.
The Sea-Dweller as an entity has gone onto become one of the most well-loved in the whole of the Rolex canon. Up until very recently it has retained its no-nonsense workmanlike aura, gradually getting tougher and more resilient, while sticking to that timeless design.
The two-tone Rolesor release at Baselworld 2019 was a massive departure for the brand and is likely to send purists back to scouring the archives for the practical, down-to-earth original. The Double Reds are many collectors’ grail piece, and their value is only going to go north from here.
The Rolex Submariner ref. 5512
The 1970s, 1978 to be exact, also saw the end of the line for one of the all time great references of the Sea-Dweller’s forerunner; the archetypal dive watch, the Submariner ref. 5512.
Launched in 1959, it was the model which cemented the true final look of the Sub, introducing the last of the elements that have remained with it until today.
Previous references had become standard issue to the British Royal Navy, and it was that military influence which prompted Rolex to include crown guards for the first time, protecting the most notoriously weak spot of any watch subject to hard usage. In addition, the bezel was given the now familiar coin-style edging to make it easier to grip, and the dimensions increased a hair, up to just under 40mm from the original 38mm.
Still a simple three-hander with no date function, it went through three different movements during its 20-year run.
The first, the Cal. 1530, is still recognized as one of the best movements Rolex ever produced. But it was never granted, or more likely, never submitted for, COSC certification. That means the earliest ref. 5512s were not eligible to include the ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially certified’ text on their dial. Those particularly rare examples only feature the Rolex signature along with ‘Oyster Perpetual’ and the watch’s depth rating, at that time ‘200m-660ft’, and are known in collectors’ vernacular as the 2-line models. When the caliber was upgraded to the Cal. 1560 a few years into its run, and later the Cal. 1570, both COSC rated, the rest of the wording was incorporated and gave us the more common 4-line pieces.
‘More common’ is all relative of course. In 1962, the ref. 5513 was released to run alongside the 5512, ostensibly the same watch but one that was only ever fitted with non-chronometer movements (the Cal. 1520 and Cal. 1530). As such, it was significantly cheaper than its counterpart and was therefore produced and sold in far greater numbers. The difference in price between the two on the vintage market today is fairly extreme.
As well as the movements, the crown guards also evolved over the years. Most valuable of all are the 100 units or so of the initial models fitted with square guards, quickly discarded when it was found they made it too difficult to unscrew the crown, especially wearing diving gloves. (Bonus fact: those cases Rolex had already made were shipped across to sister company Tudor for their own Submariner model, the ref. 7928—which is the rarest reference of that watch now too).
Those crown guards changed to a pointed style after that, generally known as ‘El Cornino’ today for their resemblance to a pair of horns. Finally, in the mid-sixties, they settled on the rounded shape we have become accustomed to.
Whatever configuration it appeared in, the ref. 5512 can legitimately lay claim to being perhaps the coolest vintage Rolex (a lot of) money can buy. A bold statement certainly, but backed up by the fact it was Steve McQueen’s watch of choice for the last 20 years of his life—rather than the ref. 1655 Explorer II nicknamed after him.
Certainly not a cheap addition to the collection, but one well worth hunting down.
The Four-Digit Day-Date
1977 saw the introduction of the Cal. 3035, replacing the Cal. 1575 and ushering in a raft of new and improved, and faster, automatic movements.
Its basic architecture established a foundation which could be built on with extra complications as required; even Rolex’s two quartz calibers, the Cal. 5035 and Cal. 5055, shared most of the same underpinnings—the entire drive mechanism, bridge, gear train and pallet assembly stayed in place—powered by electronics rather than springs.
The new Cal. 3035 found its first home in that perennial Rolex test bed, the Datejust and, with an extra calendar module bolted on (to become the Cal. 3055), the Day-Date. Both watches entered a new five-digit generation with the ref. 160XX and ref. 180XX ranges.
However, while the older version of the Datejust ran simultaneously with the new for a few years until the start of the 80s, The President made the switch over completely in 1978. That meant the previous iterations were no more, models which had been around since the end of the 50s.
Styling-wise there was little to choose between the two series. The outgoing four digit pieces were equipped with so-called ‘pie pan’ dials, where the outer circumference of the face was slightly recessed all the way round, while the newer models all had flat dials. Other than that, the two had the same 36mm dimensions, the same acrylic crystals, and there was the usual exhaustive selection of different types of metal, color, bracelet and bezel arrangements.
Internally, the Cal. 3055 brought the first Quickset function to Rolex, allowing the date to be forwarded directly via the crown. The older models required the wearer to wind the main hands through 24-hours to achieve the same thing. Known as a single Quickset, in that it could only advance the day of the month, wearers would have to wait until the upgraded Cal. 3155 arrived in 1988 before the double Quickset arrived, allowing them to alter the weekday too.
Beyond those minor differences, the post-1977 Day-Date remained as familiar and indomitable as the pre-1977 models—one of the most ubiquitous and ageless timepieces from any manufacturer ever.
Once at the absolute cutting-edge, now the grand old statesmen, it is an essential in any watch lover’s collection.
Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.