Rolex Watches Discontinued in the 1980s
The 1980s was so transformative for Rolex you could almost divide the company’s history into ‘pre’ and ‘post’ the decade.
Pre, their reputation had been slowly and patiently built up around a bevy of hardworking, stylish and extremely accurate tool watches—the kind of thing you could wear in just about any situation or during any activity, whether you were exploring deep underwater or climbing the world’s highest peaks.
Post, the brand was forced to flip their approach completely on its head by the arrival of the quartz crisis. No longer able to compete in terms of precision or cost with the tidal wave of disposable throwaways flooding in from Japan and America, Rolex reinvented itself as purveyors of the ultimate aspirational lifestyle accessory.
While the technical and engineering quality of their output increased more and more, so did the prices, a deliberate attempt to further establish that trait which has always marked a product as the height of luxury—exclusivity.
It worked in spades. Within a few short years, a Rolex was the easiest way for the wearer to display wealth, status and achievement.
Their efforts were helped along enormously by the arrival of a number of groundbreaking, modernized versions of some of their most popular, and not so popular, models.
But the 80s also saw the beginning of the vintage watch collecting phenomenon, and many of the pieces that made way for this latest generation would go on to become the object of obsession, lusted after and hunted down by devotees, sending their value skyrocketing.
Below, we take a look at some of the names Rolex retired in the 1980s.
The Rolex Daytona (1st generation)
There may well still be a vintage watch industry without the first iteration of Rolex’s legendary chronograph, but chances are it would look very different than it does today. It has been said many times it was the model which kicked the whole thing off, and the increasingly rare examples out there are now trading for incredible sums of money.
It is all the more extraordinary considering the reception the series received on its launch, which redefined the word lackluster.
Although Rolex had dabbled in chronos before the Daytona, they too had met with little success, but the brand’s association with speed merchants such as Sir Malcolm Campbell, considered the first ambassador for the company, linked them inextricably to motorsport.
They became official timekeeper at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway in 1962, and the following year, the ref. 6239 arrived—and the whole world shrugged its collective shoulders.
Although handsome and capable enough, with its tachymeter scale engraved on the bezel rather than taking up valuable dial space, and introducing Rolex’s first use of contrasting colors in its designs, there was no getting around its one massive failing. The first self-winding chronograph movement was still six long years away, and so the Daytona was given the best alternative available at the time, the Valjoux 72. Still recognized as one of the finest chronograph calibers ever made, the fact it was manually wound condemned the Daytona to a lifetime of shelf sitting.
For a watchmaker which had forged much of its reputation around their development of the Perpetual automatic movement, it seemed like a significant step backwards, and Rolex’s network of dealers struggled to so much as give them away.
It would go on to scrap its way through a total of seven different references, each one adding a little touch of utility to the perennial underachiever. It received screw down pushers in its second version, the ref. 6240 in 1965, endowing it with Oyster waterproofness, and upgraded its caliber in 1970 to the Valjoux 722, which brought the balance frequency to 21,600vph from the former 18,00vph.
But it seemed nothing could save it, not even the patronage of genuine Hollywood royalty. When movie legend and expert racing driver Paul Newman was pictured wearing his ‘exotic dial’ Daytona, with its three-color paint job and Art Deco font, it brought the watch a certain amount of attention, but it remained a poor seller.
Eventually, in 1988, Rolex pulled the plug on the four digit series, enlisting the help of Swiss neighbors Zenith to fit the second generation with its first self-winding caliber, the El Primero. Practically overnight, the Daytona became the most sought after watch in the world and, as speed of production was hampered by Rolex having to rely on a third-party to deliver their movements to them, waiting lists started to stretch on into years. Impatience turned collectors back to the archives and, well, now we have a vintage watch industry!
Those afterthoughts are today worth a minimum of $40,000 on the preowned market, with the ultra rare ‘Paul Newman’ versions starting at about five times that. The man’s own personal model recently became the most expensive wristwatch ever sold when the hammer came down at around $17m.
As a rags to riches story, there is nothing to top the Daytona in horology terms. It may have taken 25 years, but it has gone from sales pariah to currently still the hottest ticket in the business.
The Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16760
The 80s also brought the introduction and swift retirement of the first of the GMT-Master II series, although unusually, it didn’t see the withdrawal of the original GMT-Master range.
Rolex’s dual time zone masterpiece had started life way back in 1954, a collaboration with now-defunct transcontinental airline Pan-Am. The watch’s red and blue bidirectional bezel, engraved with a 24-hour scale, along with its additional hour hand, allowed pilots and crew to keep track of the time both at home and at their eventual destination simultaneously, which had been proven to limit some of the more debilitating effects of jetlag.
Unlike the Daytona, it had been a winner from the start, with fans attracted as much by the eye-catching color scheme, quickly dubbed the Pepsi, as the useful complication.
It went through a string of modernizations over its run, but one thing it always lacked was the ability to set the pair of hour hands independently of each other. The two remained linked, with the GMT indicator geared to run at half speed, and the bezel had to be manipulated so the arrow-tipped pointer displayed the correct hour for the second time zone on it.
In 1983, Rolex solved the problem with the Cal. 3085, which finally uncoupled the hands, and it was a big enough innovation for the brand to launch the watch as a separate series, the GMT-Master II.
Although the movement was a major step forward, it was also significantly larger than previous mechanisms, so the ref. 16760 was forced to grow a little thicker around the midsection to house it. In order to balance out the design, it was granted a wider bezel and bigger crown guards, leading to its more common nickname, the Fat Lady. Or, if you prefer, the Sophia Loren.
As well as its bonanza new internal feature, the Fat Lady also pioneered a few other improvements. It was the first in the GMT series to include a sapphire crystal and white gold around the indexes to stave off tarnishing. And it also debuted a new bezel makeup, the black and red pairing which, for obvious reasons, is now known as the Coke.
However, it was a short lived run. Just five years later in 1988, the ref. 16760 made way for the ref. 16710 (I know, I’ve no idea why the numbers ran backwards).
That was powered by the Cal. 3185, identical in function but smaller in size, allowing the GMT-Master II to return to its more svelte profile.
The Fat Lady then is more or less a transitional reference in the series, relatively few in number, and issued exclusively in steel, with only the one bezel option. It has led to it becoming a real favorite among collectors, particularly as the Coke coloring has been absent from the range for years now.
With a surprisingly realistic asking price on the preowned market, the Fat Lady is often seen as a gateway into vintage GMT ownership—a beauty of a watch and still the ultimate travel companion.
The Rolex Explorer ref. 1016
One of the longest uninterrupted runs of any single Rolex reference finally came to an end in 1989. The Explorer ref. 1016, the third iteration in the original series of what many consider to be the brand’s first tool watch, dated back to 1963 and had remained the epitome of minimalist styling in all that time.
Descended from the Oyster Perpetuals Hillary and Tensing wore as they conquered Everest, the Explorer has long been a second tier offering, perpetually overshadowed by its diving and travel-focused stable mates.
The ref. 1016 carried on from the ref. 6610, the model which had set many of the design markers we still associate with the Explorer range today—in particular its characteristic 3/6/9 hour indexes. With no date display (and therefore no Cyclops) messing up the symmetry, the dial is one of the most well balanced as well as supremely legible Rolex has ever produced.
It stuck at the traditional 36mm throughout its entire term, borrowing the case from the same period’s Datejust model, the ref. 1603, with the earliest examples issued with black gilt, or glossy, faces. By the late 60s, it had made the switch to matte dials with highly contrasting bright white detailing.
Initially driven by the Cal. 1560, from the brand’s first truly in-house family of movements, it was granted just one upgrade during its 26 years. In the early 70s it swapped to the Cal. 1570, which increased the frequency to 19,800vph from 18,00vph and brought the sheer self-indulgence of a hacking seconds function.
After that, and a shift to tritium lume from the highly radioactive radium, Rolex seemed to decide it had done enough and left the ref. 1016 well alone.
It quietly went about its business of being one of those watches bought for its ruggedness, dependability and timelessness rather than the status it could bestow right up until the end of the 80s. Always true to its roots, it never presented any sort of dial color, bezel, handset or bracelet options, and was available in stainless steel or nothing.
Today, with the idea of the tool watch diluted by 18k gold divers and platinum, gem-encrusted chronographs, the Explorer series, and the ref. 1016 especially, have gained a new audience. Purists consider it one of the last of the type of pieces on which Rolex built their name and have made it a highly sought after model.
However, for a watch so long in production, there is a surprising shortage up for grabs. The reasons are really two-fold. Firstly, as a long underappreciated creation, there were just fewer built to begin with. And secondly, the original owners were people simply looking for that one watch that would see them through the rest of their lives before being bequeathed down the line. In short, once you had bought an Explorer, you kept hold of it.
That scarcity has seen prices heading north on the market, but it is still possible to take possession for a relatively reasonable price. A later edition model on its original riveted Oyster bracelet can be had for the $13,000 to $15,000 range. The early gilt dial examples, as you would expect, go for significantly more.
The Explorer range, always the unsung hero of Rolex’s longest-serving creations, is now enjoying a touch of the limelight as collectors search for the increasingly obscure titles. Its rarity gives it that exclusivity we talked about earlier, more than all but the most eye-wateringly expensive Subs, GMTs or Daytonas.
The ref. 1016 is another model that had to wait patiently for the attention it deserves, but is now heading for all-time classic status.