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Watch Spotlight: Rolex Daytona ref. 16520

Watch Spotlight: Rolex Daytona ref. 16520


The Rolex Daytona ref. 16520 (Also known as the Rolex Daytona Zenith) is a very special watch in Rolex’s long history and diverse offerings over the years. Its distinctive contrasting dial and subsidiary dial colors, screw-down chronograph pushers, and the word “Daytona” in red above the 6 o’clock subdial, surrounded by a finely finished stainless steel case make it stand out among other watches in Rolex’s catalog. The Daytona is an extremely popular watch to this day and has not changed its look much since the ref. 16520 in 1988. The new ceramic bezel Daytona watches are especially in-demand. Many dealers have a waitlist on new Daytonas that can be years long, but buyers can usually find a Daytona in pre-owned or used condition without much hassle. 


The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona started from a line of chronograph watches from Rolex starting in 1939. In 1964, the “Daytona” signature was added, signifying the sponsorship of the 24 Hours of Daytona Race. This line of watches has been referred to as simply the “Daytona” since. The next year, screw down chronograph pushers were added to increase water resistance. After this, the design remained mostly unchanged until the spotlighted watch, the reference 16520.

The Rolex Daytona ref. 16520, introduced in 1988, became Rolex’s first automatic winding chronograph and became a collector’s piece on release. The watch’s movement in particular, caliber 4030, is special because it was not 100% made in-house, different than any other watch made by Rolex at this time. The movement was produced by Zenith, a highly regarded Swiss watch manufacturer known for the El Primero chronograph, and the only company producing a movement that met the high standards of Rolex.


Although Rolex’s caliber 4030 is based off of a Zenith caliber 400, the movement was heavily modified, and only 50% of the original Zenith parts were kept. The most notable changes are the absence of a date complication, a new escapement mechanism, and a reduction of the balance’s oscillation rate from 36,000 to 28,800 beats per hour. Comparing the movements, Rolex’s movement finishing is of a higher quality than Zenith throughout the movement; the changes made by Rolex turn this movement into a very suitable powerhouse for the Daytona watch.

Along with the changes to the movement, Rolex modernized its aesthetics in many ways: the case diameter changed from 37 mm to a more modern 40 mm, a sapphire crystal was added, the dials were changed to a more glossy finish, and a contrasting colored ring was added around the subdials. These changes make this an attractive and modern looking watch, and even 30 years after release, the aesthetics have not much changed between this 1988 version and new 2018 Rolex Daytonas. The Rolex Daytona ref. 16520 is a standout piece in Rolex’s history and a worthy addition to any watch collection.

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