A Movement in History: The Zenith-driven Rolex Daytona

In today’s watch world – new, pre-owned and vintage – one model is sure to get pulses racing like no other. Whatever its reference – from the Newmans to the Zeniths – the Daytona is the most lusted-after, the most coveted and the most commercially successful Rolex model around.

If you spend any time on Instagram or frequent the watch blogs, you will without doubt have come across the discussion that the Rolex Daytona has become a brand within a brand. There are Rolex collectors, and then there are Daytona collectors. Spearheaded by the Italians, the Daytona has become a power play like no other watch has ever really managed. As an illustration of this, the market is still reeling from the explosive result last October of “Newman’s Newman” becoming the most expensive wristwatch ever sold.

At the Zenith of Daytona

Even as the Daytona in its various flavours continues to clock new price milestones – MK1 Oyster “Paul Newman” Daytona, Oyster Sotto Newman, unique pieces and svelte plastic crystal 62xx references with their timeless 36mm cases and slender 19mm lug width – this article is devoted to that other branch of the family, the legendary Zenith-powered 165xx.

The first self-winding chronograph from Rolex is the Zenith-powered 165xx. The so-called Zenith Daytonas have long been of keen interest to collectors and they increased steeply in value when the latest version of the steel Daytona was released at Baselworld 2016. It’s an interesting pattern with Rolex watches – as new iterations of models are released, older versions steadily appreciate. The 165xx series watches have almost doubled in value over the past two or three years.

The story begins in 1988 at Baselworld when Rolex unveiled the newest incarnation, and most significant redesign of their flagship sports watch, the automatic Daytona. The 16520 Daytona heralded the introduction of a new 40mm case and a sapphire crystal. The previous 62xx Daytonas all had plexi crystals and so the introduction of the robust sapphire crystals on the new case meant that Rolex was able to guarantee the watches to a depth rating of 100m (330ft). This was Rolex’s first automatic winding chronograph, which is interesting as the cheeky younger sibling Tudor had boasted an automatic chronograph – the Big Block – in its line-up since 1976.

While the Tudor Big Block featured a modified Valjoux base calibre, Rolex’s new Daytona was powered by a heavily modified Zenith El Primero movement, the Calibre 400, which formed the basis for the new Rolex 4030 movement. Due to its very exacting standards, Rolex made in excess of 200 modifications to the base calibre. The movement had a 52-hour power reserve and featured 31 jewels, a free Breguet balance spring and most importantly the automatic rotor. This movement served Rolex well for 12 years until, in 2000, Rolex launched its own in-house movement, the Calibre 4130, which powered the next generation, new-millennium 1165xx line of watches.

It was this watch that began the Daytona mania that has never really died down. There is seemingly always a waiting list for newly released steel sports watches from Rolex, which often dies down once the initial clamour subsides a little. The Daytona seems to buck this trend and getting a new steel Daytona from an authorised dealer has always been something of a dark art. I was recently told that one dealer in the UK has a closed waiting list of 200 people. And how many of you remember seeing those public service announcements (PSA) on watch forums when a member spotted a steel Daytona in a dealer’s window? It is a sure-fire way to keep a watch hot: limit supply way short of demand. And so, following a watch that was, at best, a slow seller, the new 16520 Daytona was a mega hit and the beginning of the legendary waiting lists.

Like all Rolex wristwatches, the older the Zenith Daytonas become, the more interest grows amongst collectors. The steel 16520 is now three generations old, having been superceded twice by the 116520 in 2000 and the 116500 in 2016. And so, the Zenith-powered Daytona has developed a following. This is largely due to the fact that it is possibly one of the last production Rolex watches to feature a number of significant variations to the dial and bezels. Often, small differences that the lay person might not notice without it being pointed out. But to collectors, it’s the very life blood of their hobby – the minutiae. As Rolex has improved its production facilities, the evolution of dials is less frequent, but the 12-year run of the Zenith-powered Daytonas has a well-documented chronology of dial changes and variations.

By The Book

There have actually been a number of books written on the subjects of the Daytona. The book that started my love with the model was Rolex Daytona – A Legend is Born by Stefano Mazzariol.

I was given a copy by a friend a few years ago and I was fascinated by the way in which Mazzariol broke down the 16520 dials down into five versions – the MK1 to MK5.

This is a brief summary of his research:

MK1 (1988) – The so-called “floating Cosmograph”, so named due to the word “COSMOGRAPH” being spaced away from the other four lines of text. The “6”’ in the hour totaliser is upside down or inverted.

Mk 1 Rolex Daytona, reference 16520
Mk 1 Rolex Daytona, reference 16520

MK2 (1989-1990) – Like the MK1, this dial was made by Singer and retains the inverted 6. This variation, however, has the “OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED” text line missing and so collectors refer to this as the “4 Liner”.

MK3 (1991-1993) – Made by Rolex, this dial saw the reintroduction of “OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED” (not seen since the MK1 dial) but all five lines are evenly spaced together below the Rolex coronet. The ‘6’ at the hour counter is still inverted and there are still (as per the MK1 and MK2) four hash markers in each five-minute subsection of the minute register.

MK4 (1993-1998) – Again manufactured by Rolex, this dial continues to have the five lines of text. On this version, however, the 6 is now the correct way up and the font used in all three chronograph registers is flatter and wider. The dial still has tritium filling in the hour markers and, therefore, the dial is still marked “T SWISS MADE T” at the bottom between 4 and 7 0’clock.

MK5 (1998-2000) – The last of the 16520 dials is the MK5, which is very similar to the MK4. This version has very few serifs on the text, as per the MK4. The most obvious difference is the move from using tritium to Super-LumiNova for the filling of the hour markers, which is denoted in the lack of Ts in the signing at the bottom of the dial that now reads “SWISS MADE”.

The Details

The MK1 dial is the most sought after and, therefore, commands a significant premium over other versions. These dials were in the first series of watches from 1988 and the collectors’ preference is for watches whose serials have an “R” prefix, which were the very first 16520s. It is also worth noting here that the corresponding yellow-gold watches also featured a similar dial development.

Each of the dial versions can be placed to quite accurate serial number ranges and so collectors will always want to check the serial number of the watch to make sure the correct dial is fitted. It wouldn’t be unusual for Rolex to replace dials at service and so, as an example, a 1992 watch could have had a MK5 dial fitted at some point in its life at service. Remember, it’s all about the details!

The bezels on the 16520s were now all-steel and there were no longer any plastic inserts used as seen on the vintage 6263. There were three different bezel layouts employed in the 16520s run, that we will call the MK1-3. The first was the MK1, which was in essence a remake of the 62xx plexi watch bezels. Easily recognised by the presence of “UNITS PER HOUR” being at 3 o’clock on the bezel. This version featured a graduated scale from 50 to 200 as seen on the plexi 6265.

The MK2, introduced in late-1989, saw the “UNITS PER HOUR” text move to 1 o’clock on the bezel and the new graduated scale of 60 to 400 units. The MK2 featured the markings 200, 225 and 250 around 3 o’clock on the dial. The final version was introduced in 1990 and kept the “UNITS PER HOUR” text at 1 o’clock, albeit in a slightly thicker font. The biggest difference was the 200s markings – now just 200 and 240 on the scale.  It was this version that was used for the decade from 1990 to 2000.

It is amazing how manufacturing faults can work out well in the end… at least for some people. I say that because one man’s treasure is another man’s piece of junk – or maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Either way, some people love these accidents on Rolex dials and others see them as simply trash. A classic example of this is the “spider dial” – the nickname given by collectors to dials that have a cracked or crazed pattern in the glossy finish of dials.

With Zenith Daytonas, we have black dials with discoloured rings around the sub dials. It seems that the varnish used to protect the dial reacted with the silver rings around the three sub-dials on the black 16520 and caused a change in colour in unpredictable ways. This phenomenon was brought to prominence by author and Antiquorum founder Osvaldo Patrizzi and so it seems fitting that these dials have the nickname “Patrizzi dials”. It is most common to see this effect on watches manufactured between 1993 and 1995. They can age in any number of ways from light beige to deep chestnut. But beware, unscrupulous types have been known to paint the sub-dials with brown varnish.

Collectors love a full set and it is a key point with the Zenith-powered Daytonas. They are much more desirable if accompanied by the original guarantee papers and associated booklets and paraphernalia. This, of course, goes for all vintage watches. But the 165xx watches are not that old and although it is unusual to find a full set watch from the 1960s or 1970s, collectors expect more readily to be able to buy 1990s watches as complete as possible. These watches aren’t really vintage as such, but more transitional models. Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of them being cheap to pick up, however. As I mentioned at the beginning, we are seeing these watches take off in line with other vintage pieces. So, all I have left to say is, go out there and find yourself one.

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