Review: The Rolex Datejust ref. 16234
By 1988, the year Rolex released the ref. 162XX series of their all-conquering Datejust, the model had been in production for more than 40-years.
During that time it had gone from brand flagship to being viewed as something of the venerable statesman in the portfolio.
Its tonneau-shaped Oyster case had become an iconic part of the horology landscape and its date complication, a revolutionary world-first on its launch in 1945, was now as emblematic as the coronet logo.
The new series took over where the relatively fleeting ref. 160XX range left off, with practically nothing altered aesthetically between them and the majority of changes confined to the inside. The Perpetual caliber was given some small but significant upgrades, more a subtle evolution than anything too groundbreaking, all in the name of perfecting what was arguably the best engine of its type from any manufacturer.
The ref. 16234 was one of the more important references in the range, bridging that gap between everyday wear and dress piece, a trick that has long been the Datejust’s calling card. If the Day-Date President is Rolex’s elite offering, its older sibling is very much a watch of the people.
Today, it is among the most versatile visuals in the model’s extremely long chronicle; as classic a silhouette as watchmaking offers, but powered by modern technology and with nearly every convenience present in the contemporary range.
Best of all, with the Datejust’s enduring popularity, it was built in vast numbers meaning there are some real bargains on the preowned market within easy reach.
Below we examine this beautiful example of an all-time great.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16234 Metals and Bezels
Earlier in Rolex’s history, the allocation of reference numbers was not quite as regimented as it is today, with some being shared by several styles of watch that differed in metal or bezel makeup.
Post-80s however, the brand had tightened things up considerably, and by the time the ref. 162XX series hit the shelves, the numerals told you all you really needed to know about the model.
So 162 indicated that this was a Datejust fitted with the then-new Cal. 3135, while the fifth digit specified the case was made from stainless steel. This would actually be the last of the DJ family to be forged in 316L grade steel, before Rolex made the difficult and extremely expensive switch to 904L—and they are still just about the only manufacture to do it.
In the real world the variances between the two are negligible, both are highly robust metals, and 316L may in fact be a better option for those with more sensitive skin due to its lower nickel content.
The fourth digit, 3, signified the design of bezel, in this case Rolex’s trademark fluted style. The decorative surround has been a fixture since the very earliest days and adds a real touch of formality. Unlike some of the other Datejust bezel options, such as smooth and engine-turned, the fluted type is exclusively cast in gold—on the ref. 16234, it is a white gold addition.
Other references in the ref. 162XX range granted the watch their own characteristics, with the DJ created to appeal to as many diverse tastes as it could. The ref. 16238, for example, was perhaps the most dressy of them all in solid 18k yellow gold, again with a fluted bezel. Or for a real unorthodox option, the ref. 16263 was a Rolesor model (Rolex’s own name for their mix of steel and gold), topped with a Turn-O-Graph rotatable surround, a version no longer in production.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16234 Movements
The outgoing ref. 160XX series was released in 1977 to introduce the men’s Datejust’s first high beat movement, the Cal. 3035. The 28,800vph frequency of that caliber is now the standard speed across the whole Rolex line, and it gives the signature eights-ticks-per-second sweep to the seconds hand for which the brand is well known.
The ref. 162XX series debuting in 1988 contained the next generation mechanism, called the Cal. 3135. With far more similarities than differences, it was really brought in to keep the movement right at the cutting edge of what was possible, modernizing several components in order to future proof its performance.
So where the older caliber relied on a balance cock, it was replaced with a full balance bridge on the Cal. 3135 to increase its steadiness. A larger balance wheel was also installed, jewel count increased from 27 to 31 and the power reserve was likewise upped to 50 hours over the previous 42.
Beyond that, there is little to choose between them. The dimensions of both are identical, at 28.5mm in diameter and 6mm in height, leaving it fairly large by modern standards and making it particularly robust.
The Quickset feature, which the Cal. 3035 was the first to use, was retained, allowing for the date to be forwarded independently via the crown rather than by having to wind the main hands through 24-hours. Weirdly, the direction the crown needed to be turned had reversed between the two, with the Cal. 3035 being rotated counterclockwise and the Cal. 3135 clockwise. In addition, one full revolution of the crown on the old caliber advanced the date a single digit, whereas it now jumped three on the new movement.
Other elements carried over were the use of Glucydur for the balance wheel, an alloy of beryllium, copper and bronze iron that is antimagnetic and keeps its shape through temperature variations. And Rolex’s own Microstella regulating system stayed too, a well proven arrangement of four timing nuts on the inside rim of the balance wheel that can be finely tuned to adjust the speed and range of its travel.
In 2000, towards the end of the ref. 162XX’s run, which finished around 2006, Rolex perfected their own hairspring alloy, which they named Parachrom. A blend of niobium and zirconium, it is also paramagnetic and impervious to temperature change, while granting around 10 times the shock resistance than the Nivarox spring the brand had been using previously. In 2005 the alloy was given a thicker oxide coating to help its stability which had the added effect of changing color when it reacted with the air. It was then renamed the Parachrom Bleu.
Seemingly minor though the changes made to the Cal. 3135 were, they were enough to keep the movement in use for more than 30-years. It has become Rolex’s most widely-employed and longest-serving caliber ever, and it is still ticking away inside both the modern day Submariner and 34mm Date models.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16234 Dials
One reason for the Datejust’s unparalleled success is the sheer scale of its range of options.
Over the years, there has been an uncountable variety of combinations of metal, bezel type, dial color and bracelets—all designed to entice as broad a cross section of the watch buying public as possible.
Like all steel models of the watch, the ref. 16234 was given a relatively conventional selection of dial colors to choose from, with the more lurid and eye-catching reserved for the precious metal versions.
The traditional shades of black, white, silver and grey are abundant on the preowned market, along with a rich blue which has always been a popular choice.
In 1985, the Datejust reached its 40th anniversary, and to celebrate Rolex issued the Jubilee dial. These feature a repeated ROLEX monogram across the entire surface, adding an attractive three-dimensional texture as well as leaving no one in any doubt over which brand of watch you have.
The 80s was also the decade which saw the start of the trend for ever larger models, for both men and women. The 36mm Datejust became just as popular with women as it had traditionally been with men and, recognizing this, Rolex brought in dials in more feminine colors. You will find watches in salmon pink, burgundy and even some with floral patterns.
Diamonds were also a formal option on the ref. 16234. There are also many customized examples which have been modified to include them on the bezel, the hour markers, or blanketing the whole dial. These can be great value for money, but are not considered genuine by Rolex themselves, so you will have to find an independent center to maintain the watch when it comes time to send it away for a service.
And finally, the luminescence changed twice during the ref. 16234’s tenure. The initial batch were still using tritium which, like the radium of the 50s and 60s, was radioactive. However, it was at such a low level that it is considered totally safe. The tritium pieces can be easily identified by the “T Swiss T” or “T Swiss Made T” script below the six o’clock index.
At the end of the 90s, Rolex switched to using Luminova, a photoluminescent material that is completely non-radioactive. These are marked ‘SWISS’ on the dial. Then in 2000, it changed again to Superluminova, which is basically the same thing but made by a different company. Dials with this substance are designated with ‘SWISS MADE’.
Rolex Datejust ref. 16234 Bracelets
The ref. 16234 was released with a choice of two bracelets. The first, the three-link Oyster, is the oldest of Rolex’s trio of metal bands, dating back to the late 30s. More tool-like in its makeup, it has been used on nearly all the brand’s watches at some point or another and gives the Datejust a sporty, informal appearance.
The other option, the Jubilee, was the one created specifically for the launch of the original Datejust reference back in 1945. Generally considered the most comfortable bracelet Rolex make, its five links add a touch more elegance that matches well with the fluted bezel of the ref. 16234.
Both are finished with flip clasps and consist of hollow center links, while the outer links are solid.
The watch’s case evolved throughout the series’ run, with the early pieces still having retro-looking lug holes, which were slowly phased out from the mid-90s on.
The Rolex Datejust ref. 16234 symbolizes something of the best of both worlds, in that it features the affordability of a steel case with the luxury of a fluted white gold bezel.
Best of all, it benefits from practically the entire legacy of Rolex’s engineering prowess, its movement considered one of the very best ever made.
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— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.