Review: The Rolex Submariner ref. 16610
If you read enough watch reviews, you will notice the word ‘iconic’ gets used an awful lot, and mostly about models that don’t really deserve it.
And then there’s the Rolex Submariner.
Pretty much from the get-go, and it first arrived way back in 1954, the Sub has been the ultimate in luxury dive watches; the one all others would be compared against, the one that would become the most trusted, copied, emulated and downright counterfeited in the world.
Its design was so successful that, from the start of the 1960s, the outward aesthetics really didn’t change for the next 50 years, and it is only with the introduction of the latest series in 2010, the ref. 116610, that the classic, sweeping profile has been beefed up and given a touch more bulk.
The reference before that was the ref. 16610, originating in 1989, and is considered by many fans as the ‘last of the best’.
It sits at that fortunate junction between being truly vintage and brand new, meaning it has all, or the majority, of the modern functionality but is still one of the most affordable examples on the preowned market, for now at least. Recent years have seen prices for Submariners of all ages, and steel pieces especially, spike dramatically.
In terms of innovation, the differences between the ref. 16610 and its predecessor, the ref. 168000, are mostly internal. It was the first Sub to be given the Cal. 3135, incredibly, still the movement used in the most recent generation some three decades later.
But it was also the final reference to have several elements. As well as the classic 40mm case shape, it was the last time the watch would have an aluminum bezel or a non-Maxi dial. The contemporary model has Rolex’s patented Cerachrom ceramic surround, with hour markers and hands that are significantly fatter than before.
The ref. 16610 therefore is a well-loved example of one of the most famous models of all time—a perfect everyday tool watch, but one stylish enough to match just about any occasion.
Below we look in a bit more detail.
Rolex Submariner ref. 16610 Metals and Bezels
The Sub which preceded the ref. 16610 was produced only for a very short time. The ref. 168000 (or the Triple Zero) ran from mid-1988 to mid-1989 and differed from its own forerunner, the ref. 16800, only in the metal from which it was forged. It was the model which brought 904L steel to the range, replacing the 316L used previously by Rolex, and still used today by just about every other watchmaker. So, why the change?
Stainless steel, although an excellent choice for a dive watch, is still susceptible to the effects of corrosion. At some point, the brand noticed the chloride in saltwater was eating into the case back threads on their 316L cast watches, and in the most extreme instances, causing rusting and pitting to occur. 904L steel, employed mainly in the aerospace and chemical engineering industries, contains higher amounts of chromium, molybdenum, nickel and copper, making it not only a much harder metal but also more resistant to deterioration. As a happy side effect, it has a unique luster when polished, giving Rolex watches a distinct look over their rivals, and also making the imitator’s job trickier.
All this came at a price though. 904L is notoriously difficult to work with, and the manufacture was forced to completely abandon their previous production equipment and replace it with tooling designed and built themselves, at enormous expense. In addition, the extra nickel content in the metal has been known to irritate the skin of those with a sensitivity to it. Overall though, it has been a massive success for Rolex, another triumph for a brand which has pioneered so much in the way of dive watch innovation.
As for the bezel, it too was carried over from references past. It is unidirectional, in that it only turns one way which, surprisingly, was something only brought in in 1983. Before then, the surround would spin in either direction, with the patent for unidirectional bezels still held by Blancpain for their Fifty Fathoms, considered the first true dive watch. An important safety feature, it meant that if knocked while underwater, the bezel would show an overestimation of the time spent submerged, causing the wearer to surface sooner rather than later. Engraved with a 60-minute scale, with hash marks from 1-15, it rotates with 120 clicks and, on the ref. 16610, it is still has an aluminum insert, the last one before the introduction of Cerachrom.
Rolex Submariner ref. 16610 Movements
Par for the course at Rolex, this next generation of Submariner was launched mainly because of the development of a new caliber. Yet, even for a brand with so many industry-leading movements as Rolex, the Cal. 3135 inside the ref. 16610 was something very special.
A continuation of the 3000 series, the Cal. 3135 evolved out of the Cal. 3035, the engine which had finally increased the balance frequency in the men’s range to the now-standard 28,800vph. It also housed their first Quickset function, allowing for the date to be advanced using just the winding crown in its second position.
The updated caliber retained both of these elements, along with plenty of others. The Microstella regulation arrangement, the Glucydur balance wheel and, in earlier examples, the Nivarox hairspring with Breguet overcoil.
However, throughout its extraordinarily long life, Rolex has continued to fine-tune the Cal. 3135, most notably in 2000 with their in-house Parachrom. This revolutionary type of hairspring is made from niobium and zirconium, with an oxide coating, an alloy which leaves it completely antimagnetic and around 10 times more resistant to shocks than the previous component. In 2005, the brand thickened the oxide layer, causing the spring to change color when it reacted with the air, and it was rechristened the Parachrom Bleu.
Other than that, and the adoption of a full balance bridge over the Cal. 3035’s balance cock, the Cal. 3135 was simply a way of making a very good movement even better. The fact that it became the longest serving and most widely utilized of all Rolex’s calibers, so good that it is still being used, proved that it worked.
The COSC-rated, no-nonsense, robust and highly reliable mechanism has long been acknowledged as one of the finest ever made, and continues to impress even today.
Rolex Submariner ref. 16610 Dials
It may have been a good few years since any Submariner was actually used for its original purpose, but the ref. 16610 was still set up to at least look like a dive watch.
As such, a black gloss dial with white indexes and hands was fitted, a high contrast look which would remain legible should anyone ever venture underwater with it.
The gloss dials were first introduced in the mid-80s, taking over from the former matt variety much loved by vintage fans.
The extremely short lived ref. 168000 was responsible for one other modernism beyond the change to 904L steel, and that was its adoption of 18k white gold for the dial detailing. Rather than being just an added touch of luxury, having the hour markers and handset ringed in the precious metal meant they were not going to tarnish over the years as steel had in the past. It has been used across the range ever since.
As for luminescence, because the ref. 16610 was so long in production (1989 to 2010) it went through four different types. Until 1998, Rolex was still using tritium—far safer than the radium of the 50s and 60s but nevertheless, still radioactive. These dials are marked ‘T Swiss T’ or ‘Swiss T<25’ under the six o’clock index.
Between 1998 and 2000, they switched to Luminova, a radiation-free photoluminescent paint that was completely harmless. Dials with this substance are marked ‘SWISS’.
2000 to 2008 saw another shift, this time to SuperLuminova, almost the same except made by a company in Switzerland. The text on these reads ‘SWISS MADE’.
And finally, from 2008 (and still the standard today) Rolex’s own concoction, called Chromalight. Also marked ‘SWISS MADE’, watches with this lume glow blue rather than the green of older models, something the manufacture claims make it easier to read in dim conditions.
And one last small but important detail—in 2007 Rolex started engraving their name around the rehaut of the Submariner (the inner bezel ring surrounding the dial) in an attempt to foil the counterfeiters.
Rolex Submariner ref. 16610 Bracelets
As it should be on the dive watch to end all dive watches, the Submariner is finished off with the ubiquitous three-flat link Oyster bracelet. Omnipresent since the original reference in 1954, it is the ideal accessory for the watch—a meeting of understated elegance and robust utility.
Forged from the same incredibly tough 904L steel as the rest of the watch, from 2000 onwards, the bracelet was given all solid links, adding a significant weight over the previously used type, which had folded outer links.
The Oysterlock safety clasp gained the Easylink system in 1996, allowing for the bracelet to be extended by up to 5mm without the need for tools. But the double extension Glidelock wouldn’t be included until 2012, after the ref. 16610 had been superseded by the current model.
Finally, the case lost its lug holes around 2003, making swapping bracelets a bit more involved.
The Rolex Submariner is now just about the most revered sports watch ever made, helped along by its ageless design and its place in popular culture. The timepiece of choice for everyone from Steve McQueen, to Robert Redford to Burt Lancaster and, of course, the big screen James Bond, there is simply nothing else out there can match its coolness factor.
The ref. 16610 is a true classic, the last time we would see those lines before the Sub headed to the gym to add some meat to its shoulders. And it remains one of the most affordable examples on the preowned market. A well set-up piece can be had for around $7,000. An ideal gateway into both Submariner and Rolex ownership, it deserves a place in any collection.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.