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ROLEX BLOG

’80s Babies: The Best Rolex Watches from the 1980s

September 3, 2021

BY Paul Altieri

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Rolex watches produced during the 1980s are unique in that they haven’t quite been granted “vintage” status among the throngs of adoring Rolex fans. However, they are no longer considered modern either as watchmaking technologies continue to evolve. Because of this unique transition, Rolex watches produced during this era are widely sought-after among collectors in the know. They’re also more affordable than true vintage or modern Rolex models and boast an aesthetic often unique to the ‘80s that is sure to capture the attention of even the most experienced luxury watch enthusiasts.

With that said, you’re probably wondering, what are the best 1980s Rolex watches on the secondary market? If you ask us, many are cult favorites that tend to fly under the radar but are popular among Rolex enthusiasts. In this buying guide, we will shine a spotlight on our favorite unsung Rolex watches from the 1980s and explain just why we love them so much. Who knows, you might just find the perfect ‘80’s Rolex for your wrist.

Rolex Watches from the 1980s

Best Rolex Watches 1980s Two-Tone Submariner 16803 Black Dial

Why Collect 1980s Rolex Watches?

Let’s face it, the ‘80s weren’t a pretty time for watchmaking – or design in general for that matter. That said, Rolex was never one to try and reinvent the wheel or throw out past design codes. It also didn’t suffer nearly as badly through the decade either compared to most other Swiss watch brands. Many of these 1980s Rolex watches are not quite considered vintage yet, so they don’t carry the same cachet as pieces from the ‘60s and ‘70s, nor do they have the more modern charm of pieces from the late ‘90s through to the present day.

What does this mean for collectors? Well, among other things, it makes for an entire decade of watches that are still more attainable than their counterparts – even though they are destined for similar levels of long-term appreciation down the road. With that in mind, here’s a handful of Rolex models from the New Wave and Synth-Pop era of the 1980s.

Rolex Submariner 16800

Best Rolex Watches 1980s Submariner 16800

Submariner 16800 Key Features:

– Reference Number: 16800

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless Steel

– Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display

– Dial: Black w/ Luminous Hour Markers

– Bezel: Unidirectional, Black Aluminum Insert w/ 60-Minute Scale

– Crystal: Sapphire (Flat w/ Cyclops Lens)

– Movement: Rolex Caliber 3035

– Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet

Rolex Submariner 16800

We are going to start here because we find the low pricing for the Rolex Submariner ref. 16800 to be downright confusing. In many respects, it’s the best of both worlds for an ‘older’ Submariner. This is the model that updated the line to the quick-set cal. 3035, and that also added a sapphire crystal to the equation for the first time. Another first for the Submariner collection was the 300-meter depth rating, which debuted alongside the reference 16800.

The ref. 16800 Submariner also falls into the window of use of Tritium lume, which ages with its own lovely character, developing a rich and unique patina in the process. This combination of modern and retro makes for a great daily wearer, arguably more so than the more famous and collectible ref. 5513 in some respects, plus you can still scoop up a good example for just a bit over $10k on the pre-owned market.

Rolex GMT-Master II 16760

Best Rolex Watches 1980s GMT-Master II 16760

GMT-Master II 16760 Key Features:

– Reference Number: 16760

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless Steel

– Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display, GMT Functionality

– Dial: Black w/ Luminous Hour Markers

– Bezel: Bidirectional, Black and Red Aluminum Insert w/ 24-Hour Scale

– Crystal: Sapphire (Flat w/ Cyclops Lens)

– Movement: Rolex Caliber 3085

– Strap/Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee Bracelet

Rolex GMT-Master II 16760

This one is another obvious choice, as the Coke bezel GMT-Master II was one of the very few fantastic things to surface in the watch world during the 1980s. That’s right. This bad boy was launched in 1982 as the first of the GMT-Master II models featuring the then-new Caliber 3085 movement.

The ref. 16760 GMT-Master II was the dawn of Rolex’s independently adjustable hour hands and the reference that became known as the ‘Fat Lady’ or the ‘Sophia Loren’ because of the slightly thicker case needed to house the new, more-advanced caliber. It also introduced the GMT series to the sapphire crystal (upgraded from acrylic) and the red and black “Coke” bezel. This bezel option was, notably, the only colorway produced for the ref. 16760, and if that weren’t enough to win you over, you can add this piece of Rolex history to your watch box for around $14k.

Rolex Day-Date President 18078

Best Rolex Watches 1980s Day-Date President 18078

Day-Date 18078 Key Features:

– Reference Number: 18078

– Case Size: 36mm

– Materials: 18k Yellow Gold

– Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display, Day Display

– Dial: Stone Dial – Tiger’s Eye (Multiple Options Available)

– Bezel: Fixed, 18k Yellow Gold w/ Bark Texture

– Crystal: Sapphire (Flat w/ Cyclops Lens)

– Movement: Rolex Caliber 3055

– Strap/Bracelet: President Bracelet w/ Bark Texture Center Links

Rolex Day-Date 18078

Although big and gaudy gold things were really a product of the ‘70s, a big statement piece equally had its place during the 1980s. For this occasion, there’s no bigger statement than a solid gold Rolex Day-Date, especially one with a Presidential bracelet with bark textured center links, matching bark textured bezel, and a Tiger’s Eye dial. Examples like this one usually sell for around $20k, but you can get an example of this reference with a standard dial for closer to $15k pre-owned.

Like some other stone dials seen in the Rolex catalog, part of the appeal of this model is the simplicity of its dial, completely devoid of any indices other than the applied Rolex crown and printed text. While certainly not the only reference to use this dial, this particularly charming model dates to the middle of the 1980s and is instantly recognizable as an iconic “President’s Watch” with dual calendar apertures located at 12 and 3 o’clock.

Rolex Datejust 16234

Best Rolex Watches 1980s Datejust 16234

Datejust 16234 Key Features:

– Reference Number: 16234

– Case Size: 36mm

– Materials: Stainless Steel & 18k White Gold

– Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display

– Dial: Multiple Options Available

– Bezel: Fixed, 18k White Gold w/ Fluted Texture

– Crystal: Sapphire (Flat w/ Cyclops Lens)

– Movement: Rolex Caliber 3135

– Strap/Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee Bracelet

Rolex Datejust 16234

On the much more modest side of things, a classic Rolex Datejust is another timeless choice and it is a watch that will always be able to occupy a meaningful place in your collection. One of the older 36mm models is a prime example of a watch that someone newer to the collecting hobby could pick up for themselves as a perfect “first Rolex” without breaking the bank.

Often seen around the $5k or $6k mark, these ‘80s Datejust watches are clean, robust, and can sometimes be found with textured dial surfaces such as those with linen and tapestry patterns. Measuring 36mm across, they aren’t quite as compact as the vintage Air-King references that also represent significant bargains these days. However, they are still a versatile size that works perfectly on almost any wrist. Featuring a stainless steel case and bracelet with an 18k white gold fluted bezel, the Datejust 16234 is also the perfect opportunity to invest in a Rolex watch with gold elements for an affordable price that is negligibly higher than the all-steel models.

Rolex Submariner 16803

Best Rolex Watches 1980s Submariner 16803 Blue Dial

Submariner 16803 Key Features:

– Reference Number: 16803

– Case Size: 40mm

– Materials: Stainless Steel & 18k Yellow Gold

– Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds, Date Display

– Dial: Black or Blue w/ Luminous Hour Markers

– Bezel: Unidirectional, Black or Blue Aluminum Insert w/ 60-Minute Scale

– Crystal: Sapphire (Flat w/ Cyclops Lens)

– Movement: Rolex Caliber 3035

– Strap/Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet

Rolex Submariner 16803

We couldn’t talk about the 1980s without mentioning two-tone watches, could we? Technically speaking, the two-tone trend’s roots go all the way back to the 1930s, but it was in the ‘80s when the recession hit, budgets tightened, and the idea of more ‘affordable’ luxury goods really took hold in watchmaking. Those wanting a bit of flash for a bit less cash quickly took a shine to the two-tone trend, and Rolex was happy to deliver.

The Submariner was one of many models to land in the two-tone pile, which was a bit surprising given how much the brand loved leveraging its tool watch roots. In many respects, this move set the tone for presenting the Submariner as more of a status symbol than just a piece of diving equipment. In some respects, that makes the ref. 16803 the dawn of a new era for the Submariner, and available for around $10k on the pre-owned market, it also represents a real bargain compared to its full-steel counterparts.

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One Response to “’80s Babies: The Best Rolex Watches from the 1980s”

  1. ermanno magnanini says:

    lovely watches,on my wish list

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