Collecting Modern Rolex: Part 1

Collectors of luxury watches are discovering that the next frontier of collectible Rolex watches will be watches built from the 1980s to the present. These watches offer many qualities that watch collectors of all budgets seek; rarity, historical significance, reasonable prices, and excellent potential for appreciation. In that vein, two of the finest latter-day collectible options for Rolex enthusiasts include the GMT-Master II reference 16760 and the Day-Date Oysterquartz, reference 1901X. Part one of this series will discuss the GMT Master II, and part two will examine the Oysterquartz Day-Date

Too often, discussion of collectible and investment-grade Rolex watches turns to models already inflated by media attention, auction hype, and decades of historical literature. While these can be sound stores of value, many established Rolex collectibles exhibit prohibitive pricing, offer only incremental gains in value, and create incentive for counterfeiters. In other words, entry at the top of the Rolex market is an expensive and risky proposition.

The solution for enterprising and open-minded collectors is to seek Rolex watches of significance that are too new to be fully recognized as investments. This requires foresight and a leap of faith, but sound reasoning and an understanding one’s options can narrow the field of prospects. Vintage Rolex, generally considered to be those models built from the company’s 1905 inception through at least the late 1970s, here will be set aside; they have been discussed to exhaustion elsewhere.

For the purposes of this review, only Rolex watches built since the so-called Quartz Crisis will be considered. For reference, the Quartz Crisis was a period encompassing roughly the mid 1970s to early 1980s during which utilitarian Swiss mechanical watches were superseded by cheap quartz watches as mass-market timekeepers. The result of this transition was traumatic and damaging to Swiss industry that relied on mass-production of affordable mechanical watches to sustain itself. Watch brands that survived the “Crisis” emerged as lower-volume dealers of archaic luxury; the very labor-intensive and technically obsolete qualities that nearly killed mechanical watches were re-framed as hallmarks of exclusivity, enduring value, and prestige.

This choice is both arbitrary and logical. It is arbitrary since no strict definition of a “vintage Rolex” exists to provide this narrative a break within Rolex chronology. The choice is logical because Rolex watches built since the “Quartz Crisis” have been constructed in the era of the “luxury watch.”

Of the survivors of the “Crisis,” no brand emerged more transformed in public image than Rolex. Previously a builder of premium-priced utility watches, Rolex was re-cast as the watchmaker to mass-market luxury audiences (Patek Philippe, never a “tool watch” vendor to begin with, continued to serve its clientele at the apex of the luxury market).

In 1983, Rolex launched its first GMT-Master model with an independent second time zone, the reference 16760 “GMT-Master II.” For certain collectors, this may sound confusing. The original GMT-Master (ref. 6542) was a 1955 model-launch whose claim to history was the unique interaction of its 24-hour “GMT” hand and the bi-directional pilot’s bezel. But that watch and its GMT-Master progeny featured linked 12 and 24-hour hands; they could not be set to separate time zones, and the bezel was used to index GMT offsets when gauging local airport time. Even today, many watch buyers mistakenly purchase the discontinued GMT-Master models expecting to receive true dual-time watches.

The GMT-Master II changed this state of affairs. Rolex’s new caliber 3085 allowed the twin hour hands to indicate separate time zones according to the user’s choice. With the benefit of the traditional pilot’s bezel, the new reference 16760 could momentarily calculate a third time zone.

This reference bears several amusing nicknames including “Fat Lady” and “Sophia Loren” – both references to the additional case thickness born of the innovate dual-time movement. Substantively, the new caliber was matched by the GMT-Master family’s first employment of a sapphire crystal, first employment of a black/red (“Coke”) 24-hour bezel, and the first appearance of corrosion-proof white gold indices and hands on a GMT-Master. Unlike certain Rolex models from this period, the 16760 never was offered with the primitive “printed/matte” of the early 1980s.

Due to the uniformity of 16760 production, selection of an example for a watch collection should focus exclusively on condition, service records, and complete original box sets.

Metal and case definition are important factors when purchasing an older Rolex. The bevels of the lugs were partially hand-applied, and this is one of the first features to disappear when a watch is refinished poorly or excessively. Look for intact bevels on the lugs, and check the lugs for proper volume and width.

Among Rolex GMT-Master references built before the 2008, the “Oyster” three-link bracelet is most common, but the “Jubilee” five-link design is correct. In certain instances from Rolex U.S.A., the warranty card will feature an extended model reference number for the watch that will list the original reference of the bracelet that shipped with the watch from the factory. If this is the case, it can be used to reference whether the watch is presented as originally sold. Ideally, the certificate’s extended reference number will marry the watch to the type of bracelet currently fitted.

Bezel type and condition should be a consideration, but not an obsession. Any 16760 bearing a solid black or blue/red (“Pepsi”) bezel should be regarded with extreme skepticism. If an owner admits to swapping out the original bezel insert for one he liked better, request that the original bezel be included in the sale of the watch. If this isn’t possible, use the inauthentic bezel as a bargaining point, and price the cost of a correct Rolex bezel (likely several hundred dollars as a full bezel assembly in a factory service).

This model is neither so old nor so valuable that significant amounts of money hinge on the presence of a replacement bezel. While concerns of this nature can lead to shooting wars in the high-dollar world of established vintage Rolex, the 16760 requires only a factory-correct unit to be considered whole and correct. If this is how the watch is presented, excellent; if it can be corrected, simply price that into the final transaction.

Reference 16760 remains new enough that conventional servicing and parts remain possible through Rolex factory service (not universally true for true vintage Rolex). As a result, many watches will be offered for sale with recent Rolex factory service records – an excellent sign of authenticity and mechanical condition. Enough good examples of this 1983-1987 reference remain available that there is no need to consider vendors who try to pass off damage as “patina” and employ jargon used to excuse the condition of watches built in previous decades. Look to spend $7,500 to $10,500 for used Rolex watches ranging from daily drivers to museum pieces.