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1988, A Breakthrough Year: The New Rolex Oyster (For The First Time) Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona

Naomi Ornstein
Fabio Santinelli

There is a kind of magic with some objects that makes them stand out, which governs its fortune and stardom with the public, and even more with consumers all over the world. It is a magic mixture of marketing, product, coincidence and destiny that can modify the nature of what we buy or use, making it unique. This is what happened to a timepiece which over a 50-year life span has transformed its own essence: in the beginning it was a chronograph, today it is unquestionably ‘the Daytona’.

Intuition is the spark that divides the world into two parts: ‘the great majority’, who will never experience such a gift; and the ‘minority’, who – if for only once in their lives – will be lucky enough to experience its power. In the mid Eighties, intuition was the closest ally of Role, which at the time fully ‘grasped’ the will and need to change. With that in mind, Rolex  decided to carry out a ‘make-over’ on the chronograph production.

Born as a manual winding sports chronograph, subject for the first twenty years of its life to continuous re-thinks on its commercial position, the Daytona has been lucky enough to change its appeal at exactly the same time the wristwatch changed from being merely a teller of time to a legendary, iconic status symbol.


Perpetual for the First Time 

According to tradition, in 1988, Rolex introduced the self-winding Reference 16520 at the Spring Basel Watch Fair. By this time, the production of the Rolex chronographs had undergone a deeply radical aesthetic and technical re-vamp. As a matter of fact, this Daytona model was created to meet the market demands of a horology renaissance which bloomed in mid Eighties.

Compared to the previous models, it presented a totally new look. The most ‘historical’ change is the switch from the former manual winding movement to the new automatic mechanism as well as the introduction of the sapphire crystal. The case was always crafted in three separate parts, but it sported a bigger diameter and the bezel carried the engraved 1.000 base tachymeter scale – the 1st series featured a 200 graduated scale, whilst the 2nd series a 400 graduated scale. The water resistance of both the Triplock winding crown and pushers was ensured by means of a screw down system.

The dial was available in two versions: a white field with white subsidiary registers framed by black chapter rings, and in black with black subsidiary registers featuring white outer tracks. In both colour versions, the subsidiary registers are ringed with a metallic edge. The stick hour indexes and the hands were skeleton-made and luminescent – originally tritium-filled and subsequently replaced by SuperLuminova.

The watch came along in three versions: the 16520 steel reference, the 16523 reference dressed in gold and steel, and the 16528 reference cased in 18k gold. All the versions sported bracelets matching the same metals – although the gold 16518 reference was subsequently fitted with a leather strap.

Here above, the Ref. 16528 cased in 18k gold – 2nd Series, ‘Quattro-Scritte’ Champagne Dial with stones, characterised by a soleil finish, applied diamond hour markers and the rare intermediate 225 unit, a typical feature of models dated 1989; the Ref. 16253 dressed in gold and steel – 1st Series, ‘Tiffany Daytona Porcelain Dial’ with suspended logo, exhibiting the Tiffany & Co. signature; and the Stainless Steel Ref. 16520 1st Series, ‘Nero’ dial with suspended logo, one of the early versions released on the market.

However, as usually happened with other models throughout Rolex’s production, the history of this timepiece has undergone constant developments. Aesthetically speaking, the need to ‘test’ changes is demonstrated by the amazing concept timepiece here below.

Stainless Steel Ref. 16520 – The ‘Get With It’ Daytona showcasing a totally flat soleil finished silver field displaying black enamel serifed graphics and incorporating subdsidiary registers with white graphics.  

The new automatic movement was matched-up by a dial still linked to the past featuring designed hour markers, contrasting subsidiary registers and the traditional five-pointed crown logo. However, as confirmation of the dial’s concept design, the subsidiary registers do not present neither any finishing nor the usual splay.

Here above, the ultra-rare Stainless Steel Ref. 16520 – ‘Wedgwood Daytona’, termed by collectors ‘the Porcelain dial’.  

Some of the hand winding models occasionally reveal a toned down brown colour. A similar thing occurred in a few automatic versions. The chromatic morphing of the self-winding Daytonas involved the white chapter ring that surrounds the counters. The colour change ranged from sand to chocolate.

A gorgeous Stainless Steel Ref. 16520 – ‘Nero’ Dial incorporating chocolate subsidiary registers. Notice the number ‘6’ in the hour totalizer is not inverted as was regularly seen before.


One of the technical features introduced during the shift from the hand-wound Daytonas to the automatic models, was the diameter of the watch case. The ‘new’ version sported a 40mm case granting a better readability of the dial. The ensemble of the 16528 reference here below is further enhanced by a blue soleil dial fitting a chronograph being part of a very limited edition known to have only released nearly 10 pieces.

Here above, the dazzling 18k Gold Ref. 16528 – ‘Big Blue’ 


The Automatic Caliber 4030

The automatic mechanical movement named Calibre 4030 was based on the Zenith Calibre 400 El Primero ebauches – originally released in 1969, and discontinued for several years until its production was restarted in 1986. The mechanism was totally re-designed and modified by Rolex, featuring more than two hundred modifications, mostly functional.

Here above, an overall view of the Calibre 4030.

The most important technical feature concerned the oscillations, which were reduced from 36.000 to 28.800 beats per hour, achieved by means of the original Glucydur balance equipped with four peripheral adjustable-inertia gold weights, so as to regulate the motion of the timepiece from +/- 1 to +/- 150 seconds a day. To achieve such regulation the escape wheel was replaced and a Breguet spiral was introduced.As a result, Rolex provided an incredibly accurate and resistant chronographic movement.

Here below is a concept dial fitted into the Stainless Steel Ref. 16520 – ‘Back to the Future’, an extraordinarily rare timepiece described and illustrated in the Ultimate Rolex Daytona tome.  It belongs to the latest production period and displays some of the elements that will become successively standard from the following 116520 reference, setting the layouts that will be chosen for the graphic configurations of future models.

The launch of the Ref. 16520 chronograph started two singular chain reactions. To begin with, collectors continued the quest to find previous hand winding timepieces. Out of this was triggered the most unprecedented commercial issue ever seen before. From the very start demands were so high that only a minimal number of consignments were met. At that moment, due to a supply shortage from Zenith, and also due to this evaluation error on the actual market demand for the new model, the dealers found themselves with unexpected endless waiting lists, an increased market value and quotations higher than its retail price. It was truly a big hit. Clearly, the market was ready and waiting for what was to become a new legend.


Stay tuned for the follow-up article, dedicated to the Daytonas powered by Rolex’s in-house chronograph mechanism Calibre 4130.



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