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The Crossroads of Vintage and Contemporary: The 16800 Submariner

Since its initial introduction in 1953, the Submariner has been in a continuous state of evolution as Rolex works to refine and improve the design of their iconic and legendary dive watch. However, updates and changes do not occur instantaneously, and the evolution of the Rolex Submariner has been an ongoing process, with each new reference building upon the design of the previous generation.

Over the years, certain references have come to represent turning points in the Submariner’s history. These “transitional” models combine traits of earlier watches with characteristics of the subsequent generation of Submariner timepieces. These transitional references serve as the connection between old and new, and help to paint a picture of the evolution of one of Rolex’s most successful and widely recognizable timepieces. Throughout the Submariner’s long and illustrious history, few watches embody the “transitional reference” designation better than the reference 16800.

First introduced in 1979, the reference 16800 Submariner replaced the reference 1680 and ushered in a new generation of Submariner dive watches. The reference 1680 was the first Rolex Submariner to ever feature a date complication; however it was still a decidedly vintage timepiece. The reference 16800 took the general date-displaying design of the reference 1680, and paired it with a new movement and a re-designed case and bezel to create a modern and technically advanced dive watch that still shared a familiar design language with its already well-established predecessors.

The reference 16800 marks the introduction of sapphire crystals and unidirectional, ratcheting bezels to the Submariner line. All previous iterations of the Submariner were fitted with acrylic crystals and bidirectional, friction-fitted bezels; however the changes that were first introduced on the reference 16800, have now become standard features on Rolex’s contemporary Submariner dive watches. Along with the updated crystal material and bezel design came an increased depth rating – from 660 feet (200 meters) to 1,000 feet (300 meters) – the exact same depth rating of a modern Rolex Submariner.

1982 reference 16800 Featuring matte dial and tritium hour markers.

On the inside, the reference 16800 also got an update in the form of a completely new generation of in-house movement. While the reference 1680 lacked a quickset function for its date complication, the updated caliber 3035 that was fitted inside the reference 16800 Submariner added the convenience of a quickset date, and also benefitted from an increased frequency of 28,800 bph – the same rate as a contemporary Rolex movement.

Despite its sapphire crystal, updated bezel design, increased depth rating, and entirely new generation of movement, Rolex still fitted the reference 16800 Submariner with a matte black dial with painted tritium hour markers for roughly the first half of its almost decade-long production run. Although the text on the dial reflected the improved depth rating of the reference 16800, its overall appearance was far more similar to that of a reference 1680 dial than anything that Rolex fitted to later generations of their date-displaying Submariner watches.

1987 reference 16800 Featuring glossy dial and white gold lume plot surrounds.

During the last several years of its production, Rolex started fitting the reference 16800 Submariner with a gloss black dial that featured white text and applied, white gold hour markers – similar to the style of dial that can be found on modern Submariner watches. Additionally, it is a standard practice at Rolex service centers to replace any damaged matte dials with later-era gloss dials on reference 16800 watches whenever they come in for repairs and regularly scheduled maintenance. Consequently, a fair number of reference 16800 Submariner watches that originally left the factory with matte dials now have gloss dials and more closely resemble later-era iterations of the Submariner, such as the reference 168000 and the reference 16610.

The combination of a matte dial with painted tritium hour markers and a synthetic sapphire crystal makes for a perfect blend of vintage and modern aesthetics. A matte black dial is emblematic of older Rolex sport watches and provides the reference 16800 with an unmistakably vintage and utilitarian appearance. However, the significantly harder crystal material and increased depth rating of the reference 16800 allow it to better stand up to the rigors and wear-and-tear of everyday use.

While the “transitional reference” designation is often attached to a number of different Rolex timepieces, few watches truly embody the “transitional” definition better than the reference 16800 Submariner. Positioned after the implementation of synthetic sapphire crystals, but before the widespread adoption of 904L stainless steel, the reference 16800 is a perfect blend of old-meets-new that has come to represent a pivotal turning point in the Submariner’s long and storied history.

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