The Beckertime Comparison Series: The Men’s Yacht-Master Vs. the Ladies Yacht-Master of the 1990s
In this latest article in our comparison series, we are going to concentrate on one of the newer models in the Rolex lineup; the Yacht-Master.
If you look at the brand’s roster today, you will see most of the watches there can trace their origins back to the 1950s, or even earlier.
The Yacht-Master, on the other hand, was unveiled in 1992. However, it was very clearly based on another piece, one which was also first produced in middle part of the 20th century—the Submariner.
One unsubstantiated story over just how the YM came to be was that it was actually created to replace the Sub entirely. By all accounts, at some point in the 1980s there was a move afoot at Rolex HQ to shake things up in a big way—something the manufacture had studiously avoided doing for generations. One (thankfully short-lived) idea was to turn the Submariner into the sort of Day-Date of dive watches, crafting it only in precious metals and ramping up the opulence factor with gemstone-enhanced dials and hour markers.
Mercifully, cooler heads prevailed before the plan was put into action. But Rolex’s designers had by that time already produced the blueprints for the potential new watch, and it was one deemed good enough to be granted a release in its own right.
The Yacht-Master in the 1990s: Men’s Vs. Women’s
Over its history, the Yacht-Master has clocked up a number of firsts. It was the model that introduced Rolex’s patented Rolesium concoction; a steel case with a platinum bezel. It was also the watch chosen to debut the brand’s initial attempt at a rubber strap, the Oysterflex.
Before all that though, it became the first sports model Rolex had ever made to be offered in three sizes.
The original was released as a 40mm (ref. 16628), and that was then followed by both a 35mm mid-size (ref. 68628) and a 29mm ladies piece (ref. 69628) a couple of years later in 1994.
All three were available with either a blue or white dial (plus mother-of-pearl for the 40mm) and each was forged in 18k yellow gold, just to underline their luxurious pretentions. But their resemblance to the world’s favorite dive watch was unmistakable.
For a start, the hands and indexes were identical, with the trademark Mercedes handset and the usual mix of triangles, dots and batons for the hour markers. Except rubies, sapphires or black onyx could be specified for these to up the opulence factor even more.
The rotating bezel was marked to 60-minutes, as with the Sub, but the Yacht-Master’s surround turned in both directions and its numerals were embossed and raised from the surface rather than engraved.
And the cases, too, were practically duplicates. The 1990s was a pre-Super Case era, so the Submariner still had its elegant sweeping lines of old. The Yacht-Master softened the contours even further, and because it only needed to be waterproof to 100m rather than 300m, the back was flatter as well, leading to it being a more comfortable all day wear.
Similarly, as befit a sports model, albeit a unapologetically lavish one, all the original Yacht-Master trio sat on the three-link Oyster bracelet, the most utilitarian of Rolex’s metal bands.
With the Yacht-Masters’ only complication being a humble date display, each of the three versions could be powered by one of Rolex’s general purpose workhorse engines.
For the 40mm men’s model, that was the legendary Cal. 3135, a caliber which had driven nearly all the full size time-and-date watches in the stable since its introduction in 1988. Recognized today as one of the finest mass-produced mechanisms ever made, the Cal. 3135 offered a 48-hour reserve and a 28,800vph frequency. It was also a relatively large movement physically, lending it an inherent strength and shock resistance.
As for the 29mm and 35mm, they were given the Cal. 2135 which, although somewhat overshadowed by its bigger brother, was in many ways even more impressive. While it and its no-date counterpart, the Cal. 2130, were obviously smaller than the Cal. 3135, they were so expertly engineered they took the record for highest first time pass rate for accuracy at the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute.
As well as that, they contained all the same ingredients, simply scaled down. So the Glucydur balance wheel was present and correct, as was the Nivarox hairspring (which would be phased out by the Parachrom Bleu starting in 2000). And the Cal. 2135 was the first ‘ladies’ caliber Rolex had made to feature a Quickset function, allowing for the date to be adjusted independently of the main hands.
The only real difference between the Cal. 3135 and Cal. 2135 apart from their dimensions was a small decrease in power reserve for the latter, down to 42-hours. Other than that, both did what Rolex movements have always done; kept ticking on and on forever, with incredible reliability and precision.
In 1996, the brand launched both the lady’s and mid-size Yacht-Master models in yellow Rolesor, a combination of a steel case with 18k yellow gold bezel, crown and central bracelet links. The ref. 69623 (29mm) and ref. 68623 (35mm) both added a silver and a champagne option to the dial selection, to run alongside the blue and white.
The 40mm, though, wouldn’t get a Rolesor version until 2005. However, it did get something else, and it was the first watch in the Rolex lineup to do so.
1997 saw the debut of the patented Rolesium blend, a term Rolex had coined way back in 1932 but never used. The ref. 16622 also had a steel body, but its surround was crafted from 950 platinum. It gave the whole watch a neutral aspect, particularly with the sandblasted platinum dial. The only splash of color was the bright red seconds hand and the watch became a real statement of stealth wealth.
The 29mm and 35mm Rolesium models just snuck in before the end of the decade too, both released in 1999.
That was also the year which saw the retirement of the two-tone ladies ref. 69623 and mid-size ref. 68623, replaced with the six-digit ref. 168623 and ref. 169623.
The reason for the change, as is so often the case at Rolex, was a new movement. The Cal. 2235 took over from the Cal. 2135, although there were, in truth, far more similarities than differences. Beyond a minutely thicker mainspring, which granted a little more stability, and a jump from 29 jewels to 31, there was virtually nothing to choose between them. Yet, while the Cal. 2135 had the COSC’s highest first time pass rate, the Cal. 2235 is still the most consistently accurate caliber the Institute has ever tested.
So that was the Yacht-Master roster of the 1990s. It is one which would change wildly over the subsequent years, probably more than any other Rolex collection has, not just in metals but in sizes as well. The 35mm and 29mm models no longer exist; the smallest is now 37mm, and 40mm isn’t the largest anymore, since the introduction of the 42mm white gold piece in 2019. There are also no yellow gold versions, only white and Everose. Additionally, Cerachrom bezels are used extensively and Rolesium is still a key part of the lineup.
Those original watches are relatively rare now, and in the smaller sizes especially. A solid gold Ladies Yacht-Master can be had for around $11,000 and a mid-size for not much more. As they are now just creeping into vintage territory, they could well make a savvy investment as well as being simply elegantly beautiful timepieces.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.