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The Rolex Submariner Evolution 1680, 16800, and 168000

April 3, 2018

BY Paul Altieri


Though the history of the Rolex Submariner stretches even further back, the 1680 and subsequent models that followed remain highly desirable for those looking for something a little more daily-wear friendly. Generally on offer in the ballpark of $7,000 – $15,000 (with the exception of the Red Sub, but more on that later), the 168xxx models have yet to start skyrocketing in the same way we’ve seen the 5513 Submariners take off, though as with everything vintage these days we can’t help but think that it’s only a matter of time. Regardless of this, each iteration of the model has its pros and cons for those wanting a daily-wear Submariner that isn’t fresh out of HQ, so we thought we would take a moment to examine the key difference that separates one generation from the next.

Submariner Evolution

We have three Submariners the (from left to right): 1680, 16800, 168000.

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Submariner Evolution: Rolex Submariner 1680

Tracking the date of the first Rolex 1680 is a bit of a pain in the butt, though it’s generally agreed that the first of its kind appeared in the late 1960’s. Of the key distinguishing features separating it from its predecessor, the Rolex Submariner 5513, the addition of a date window and a magnifying lens to its acrylic crystal are by far the most notable. A design cue that has lasted in the model range ever since, and one that caused a fair bit of controversy when it was added to the updated Sea Dweller in 2017, this practical update also meant an update to its caliber. The new caliber 1575 by all accounts is a near twin to its sibling the 1570, though with the addition of a date wheel. The Rolex Submariner 1680 is an amazing vintage watch and add to your collection.

Early examples, known as the “Red Submariner” (produced through until 1973), are by far the most collectible. In total seven dial variations of the Rolex Red Submariner 1680 were produced with subtle differences in typeface, the positioning of meters versus feet of depth rating, and other intricacies, but across the board that rare and subtle touch of red on the dial makes these variants much more desirable amongst collectors. On the flip side, a more “average” 1680 can be had at a much lower cost of entry if you’d prefer an early Sub that you don’t need to be afraid to wear daily. The fact that it uses an acrylic crystal means it’s a touch less “rough and tumble” than the models that followed, which is something to keep in mind depending on your wearing habits.

Submariner Evolution

The Submariner 16800 is a stunning watch and is sure to increase in value as time comes.

Rolex Submariner 16800

In many ways, the 16800 is considered the best of both worlds as far as striking a balance of vintage charm and modern wearability. Known as the “transitional Sub” in most circles, the new model arrived in 1978 to replace its aforementioned sibling. The 16800 retains the matte dial and painted indices of its predecessors, paired with desired modern accouterments, including a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal and an updated caliber. With the arrival of the Rolex caliber 3035, the operating frequency of the balance was increased to a modern 4Hz, or 28,800 vibrations per hour, and also marked the introduction of a quick-set date function for the first time. Its power reserve also increased to 50 hours, however when it comes to the core mechanics of the caliber the 3035 remains quite similar to the 1575 it replaced. By this time Rolex was more than aware of the level of reliability and accuracy they had created, and wisely decided not to attempt to reinvent the wheel as they evolved the caliber.

So far prices of the 16800 reference Submariners have stayed reasonably approachable compared to the older subs on the market, and with roughly a decade in production (ending in 1988) they are fairly easy to come by in reasonable shape. What’s particularly appealing about hunting for your own 16800 is the broad range of aging seen on the many examples on the market. While some examples can be found in very fresh and near mint condition, their bezels were also occasionally prone to premature fading, leading to the much-loved “ghost bezel” look (as seen on the wrist of Bob’s Watches owner Paul Altieri, among others).

Submariner Evolution

Which of these Submariners do you like the most?

Rolex Submariner 168000

At a cursory glance, spotting the differences between a 16800 and the 168000 (or “triple zero”) is no easy task. The rare and glossy-dialed Subs were only produced from mid-1988 through into 1989, and at the end of the day their only real differentiating factor is that their release marked Rolex’s integration of 904L stainless steel rather than the more conventional 316L they had used previously—a steel that is still used to this day by 99% of other watch brands in the marketplace. By the tail end of production of its double zero sibling, Rolex had already began using the gloss dials and raised indices you see here on the 168000. It’s safe to speculate that this limited-production scarcity will see values of the triple zero rise in the years to come, however for the time being it’s a rock-solid example of a classic Submariner that’s engineered at its core to be a practical, wearable, and above all durable timepiece.




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