'Transitional' Rolex: A Primer

With vintage Rolex prices continuing to skyrocket and showing no signs of slowing down, collectors have been looking for other places to invest their money. Most notably, this has meant an increased recognition of the importance of historic brands like Movado or Universal Geneve as collectors have come to appreciate the impact these companies had on the entire watch industry. But, it has also meant collectors are increasingly looking toward more modern Rolex references for the “next big thing.” Words like “transitional” and “neo-vintage” have become almost as common in collector parlance as “exotic” and “tropical” dial descriptions. But what do these terms actually mean, and what does a collector need to know if he or she is venturing into “transitional” Rolex?

I recently looked back at John Mayer’s 2014 article “5 Best Vintage Rolex Picks for under $8,000”. Consider this article something of a 2019 update of those recommendations, as most of John’s picks from 2014 will today set you back well over $8,000.

Defining “Transitional”

First, to define some terms. At any given time, when categorized by period, there are four categories of watches:

  • Antique

  • Vintage

  • Transitional

  • Modern

An original Cartier Tank, comfortably an “antique” by most standards.

An original Cartier Tank, comfortably an “antique” by most standards.

It’s that weird “transitional” segment that we’ve always had trouble defining. Antiques are roughly one hundred years old, or artifacts of the pre-World War II era. For example, I’d be comfortable calling an earlier Cartier Tank an “antique”.

As a term, “vintage” is perhaps slightly more difficult to nail down than antique, but we can get within the ballpark. Take cars as an example. For vehicles, U.S. Customs has something referred to as the “25-year import rule” — cars imported that were manufactured more than 25 years ago do not have to comply with modern regulatory standards. So, anything in the car world manufactured before 1994 is considered “vintage”, at least from a customs perspective.

That doesn’t feel quite right for watches. But, since much of the watch enthusiast and collecting community is driven by interest in Rolex (specifically stainless steel sports watches), let’s look to the Crown for guidance on how to define vintage, and its subsequent era, “transitional”.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Rolex developed a number of now iconic models that established a certain design language that the brand continues to draw on to this day. During this era, Rolex released the first Daytona, Explorer, Explorer II, GMT-Master, and Submariner.

These mid-century Rolex sports watches had a number of characteristics across models, including:

  • Gilt, and then matte dials

  • Domed, acrylic crystal

  • Painted radium, and then tritium lume plots (with no metal surroundings)

  • Less advanced movements (e.g. lower beat rate, no quickset date)

While drawing on the design language established in this prior era, modern Rolex models instead have:

  • Glossy dials

  • Flat, sapphire crystal

  • Applied indices with Luminova (or Super Luminova) or Chromalight (with metal surroundings)

  • More robust movements (e.g. quickset date, separately set GMT hand)

Transitional references bridge the gap between these two eras, allowing Rolex to use remaining parts from previous references while also introducing new technologies. For example, Rolex might have introduced a new movement into a model that otherwise remained the same as a previous model.

As we’ll detail with specific references below, this occurred with Rolex’s iconic models throughout the 1980s as it transitioned from building tool watches to becoming a full-fledged luxury brand. This can also be seen as a response to the quartz crisis set in motion after the introduction of the first quartz watch in 1969. With uber-cheap, electronic watches eating up the low-end and middle of the watch market, Rolex moved up market, confidently asserting itself as a luxury brand.

Throughout this time, Rolex also mechanized and automated more of its processes, meaning more watches were being pumped out, and those watches had less variation between examples (no more Bart Simpson crowns). The small dial details and other variations that vintage Rolex collectors obsess over are not as present in transitional references.

During this transitional time, Rolex also began moving from four-digit to five-digit reference numbers. Modern Rolex models have six-digit references (though they often hearken back to earlier references).

So while not a specific date range, the “transitional” period for Rolex roughly encompasses the 1980s, with models during this period blending the hallmarks of vintage and modern Rolex.

Note that throughout history, other Rolex references have been dubbed “transitional” because they are the first to introduce a specific trait, or the last to include a certain trait. This article is discussing the broader “transitional” period for Rolex as an entire brand and the watches made during this era.

An ad from the 1980s that captures the transitional spirit of Rolex. It features William Seawell, a man who served and flew planes during World War II and went on to become the CEO of Pan Am. Rolex similarly made the transition from tool to the boardroom.

An ad from the 1980s that captures the transitional spirit of Rolex. It features William Seawell, a man who served and flew planes during World War II and went on to become the CEO of Pan Am. Rolex similarly made the transition from tool to the boardroom.


Transitional Rolex: The Models

Now that we’ve roughly defined transitional Rolex as encompassing models produced during the 1980s as the brand moved from vintage tool watch manufacturer to luxury goods company, let’s take a look at the key Rolex transitional references you’ll need to know if you’re looking to collect transitional Rolex.

Explorer II Reference 16550

First up, the Rolex Explorer II Reference 16550, first released in 1985. It was offered in both a glossy black dial and white dial version, but the white dial (“polar”) is now particularly sought after by collectors. A defect in the paint has caused the dials to take on a creamy patina over time. With the Ref. 16550, Rolex bumped the case size from the vintage Ref. 1655 up to 40mm, changed to a sapphire crystal, and added the new caliber 3085, which allows the 24-hour hand to be independently adjusted. Compared to other transitional references, the Ref. 16550’s design diverged substantially from its vintage counterpart — most obviously, it left behind the large orange 24-hour hand for a long, thin hand, more akin to that used on the GMT-Master.

Also be on the lookout for rarer “rail dials” where the “C” in “Chronometer” aligns perfectly with the “C” in “Certified” directly below it.

The Reference 16550 was in production for just four years, being discontinued in 1989 for the Reference 16570 (see more below). You can expect to pay anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 for a Ref. 16550 in clean condition, though a nicely aged polar dial will set you back a significant multiple of that.

Production: 1985 — 1988

A creamy Explorer II Ref. 16550 with “Rail Dial” |  HQMilton

A creamy Explorer II Ref. 16550 with “Rail Dial” | HQMilton

 

GMT-Master Reference 16750

A matte dial Ref. 16750 GMT-Master |  Hodinkee Shop

A matte dial Ref. 16750 GMT-Master | Hodinkee Shop

In 1981, Rolex introduced the new GMT-Master Reference 16750 to replace the iconic Reference 1675. Early in its production, the Ref. 16750 was fitted with a matte dial and painted luminous hour markers that had no gold surroundings. Later examples feature glossy black dials with white gold surrounds. Truly a transitional reference. Both examples also feature an increased water resistance of 100m and a sapphire crystal. The matte dial examples command a significant premium and are increasingly difficult to find in clean, original condition.

In the Ref. 16750, Rolex also upgraded to the new caliber 3075 movement, which featured a quickset date and a faster beat rate of 28,800 bph. You’ll mostly see the ref. 16750 fitted with the classic red-and-blue “Pepsi” bezel, though it was also offered with a black bezel. In 1988, the Ref. 16750 was replaced by the Reference 16700, which was produced alongside the GMT-Master II Reference 16710.

Production: 1981—1988

Submariner Reference 16800

Rolex Reference 16800 | Instagram @ 1mrsla

Rolex Reference 16800 | Instagram @1mrsla

The Submariner Reference 16800 began to replace the iconic Ref. 1680 in the late 1970s and remained in production for a full decade. It was replaced by the Ref. 168000 (“triple zero”), a model that Rolex produced for just one year.

The Ref. 16800 underwent a series of modern upgrades: it was fitted with a sapphire crystal, the caliber 3035 (featuring a quickset date and increasing beats per hour), and upped the water resistance to 300m.

But, for the first few years of its production, the Ref. 16800 continued to use the same case and dial from the Ref. 1680. This means that earlier examples of the model feature a matte dial with luminous paint applied. By the early 1980s, Rolex had transitioned to glossy black dials with lume plots and white gold surroundings.

By 1981, the Submariner also became equipped with a uni-directional rotating bezel. Blancpain had held a patent on the mechanism, but Blancpain hadn’t weathered the quartz crisis as well as Rolex so was no longer a competitive concern.

Production: 1978 — 1987


The next references don’t quite as comfortably fit in the transitional category as those discussed above. However, there’s been a substantial increase in interest in these models over the past few years, with the accompanying pop in secondary market prices. They’re still less expensive than many vintage Rolex models, and are worthy entry points into collecting Rolex. Perhaps these references, along with the more clearly transitional references above make up a new superset called “neo-vintage.”

Daytona Reference 16520

Rolex Reference 16520 “Zenith” Daytona

Rolex Reference 16520 “Zenith” Daytona

 

In 1988, Rolex finally introduced a new Daytona, its first automatically-wound chronograph. The new caliber was powered by a heavily modified Zenith El Primero movement, the caliber 400. Rolex made over 200 modifications, including lowering the frequency from 36,000 to 28,800 bph, to arrive at the final product, the Rolex caliber 4030. The Crown would go on to use this movement until 2000, when it introduced its own in-house chronograph movement, the caliber 4130.

As I mentioned, this reference isn’t really transitional, as most of the other changes are pure, modern Rolex. The case diameter was bumped up to 40mm from 37mm. The dial was a glossy black or metallic silver and adorned with lume that had metal surroundings. Rolex finished it off with a sapphire crystal. Nowadays, this reference is sometimes referred to as the “Zenith Daytona”.

Production: 1988 — 2000

Explorer Reference 14270

Rolex Explorer Reference 14270 |  Reddit

Rolex Explorer Reference 14270 | Reddit

 

I’ve dug more in-depth on the entire history of the Rolex Explorer before. In 1989, Rolex discontinued the legendary Explorer Reference 1016 and replaced it with the more modern Reference 14270. The new reference brought an updated glossy black dial and added white gold surrounds to the applied indices. The Ref. 14270 did stay true to the original Explorer’s 36mm diameter, albeit with a new caliber 3000 movement inside. Rolex also swapped out the acrylic crystal for sapphire.

While the 14270 isn’t sought after by collectors the way a 1016 might be, there is one exception: the Explorer Blackout. Produced for a short amount of time in the early 1990s, the Rolex Explorer Blackout had black Arabic numerals instead of white. If you’re searching for one (good luck), look for a serial number in the E (or perhaps early X) range. In the more common version with white indices, the indices were filled with tritium, until 1997-1998, when Rolex began using Super Luminova as luminous material. You can tell the difference by looking at the dial: if tritium was used, the dial will say “T Swiss - T < 25” below the 6 o’clock marker. To many, the Ref. 14270 is the perfect blend of form and function: it hadn’t yet fully evolved into a completely modern fashion piece and stayed true to the classic Explorer look, while still adding details that elevated the Ref. 1016: white gold surrounding the indices and a new modern movement among them. The Ref. 14270 was replaced by the Ref. 114270 in 2001.

Production: 1989 — 2000

Explorer II Reference 16570

Rolex quickly replaced the Explorer II Reference 16550 (see above) with the Reference 16570 in 1989. But unlike the previous model, this one stuck: the Ref. 16570 stayed in production for 22 years, until 2011. As such, there are a number of variations within this one reference.

Like the Ref. 16550, the Ref. 16570 was offered in both a white (“polar”) and black variant. But, with the Ref. 16570, Rolex again introduced a new movement, the caliber 3185 (updated to the caliber 3186 in 2007). While the dial and hands stayed pretty much the same as the Ref. 16550, the ref. 16570 uses black outlines on the hour markers instead of white gold — particularly noticeable on the white dial.

Because of its long production run, Rolex changed the lume of the Reference 16570 a few times. The earlier years saw tritium (with the dial reading SWISS T < 25 under 6 o’clock). In the late 90s, Rolex switched to Luminova (the dial reading “SWISS” at 6 o’clock), and then finally switching to SuperLuminova in the 2000s (the dial reading “SWISS MADE”). Some tritium examples on the market are starting to show a nice patina on the lume.

Production: 1989 — 2011

GMT-Master II Reference 16760

GMT-Master Reference 16760 |  Hodinkee Shop

GMT-Master Reference 16760 | Hodinkee Shop

Perhaps more modern the the truly transitional Ref. 16750 above, the GMT-Master II was introduced in 1983 and remained in production until 1988. It was the first GMT-Master II, and only ever offered in the black and red bezel (“Coke”). It also used a slightly more updated movement that the Ref. 16750, the caliber 3085 which was notable for featuring a separately adjustable GMT hand (huge!).

It also had a thicker case, wider bezel, and some thick crown guards, earning this GMT-Master II the nickname “Fat Lady.”

Production: 1983 — 1988