Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

90 Years of the Rolex Oyster

90 Years of the Rolex Oyster

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This article was first published in the September issue of Alam Assatt wal Moujawharat.

Oyster, Def: Edible mollusc, source of pearls – an oyster is different things to different people. To anyone with the slightest interest in watches, it is, of course, the most famous watch-case design of the 20th century.

Cold spray splashed into Mercedes Gleitze's face as she swam, the French coastline slowly receding into the horizon behind her. This would be the ninth time that she had attempted to cross the English Channel and her second attempt within the same month. Her previous swim had been successful, making Gleitze the first British woman to swim the 35-kilometre-wide Channel. Now, after a rival swimmer’s hoax claim cast doubt on Gleitze’s achievement, this was a ‘vindication swim’ intended to silence the doubters – even though it was October and a severe frost and gale-force winds had swept across England.

Around Gleitze's neck, attached by a lanyard, was a 28mm octagonal ladies’ watch with “Rolex Oyster” printed on the dial. The company's founder, Hans Wilsdorf, had heard of her vindication swim and arranged this promotional endeavour to test the claims of his new waterproof wristwatch. Wilsdorf was an able mathematician with a gift for languages but his greatest skill was discovering a gap in the market and finding a Rolex-shaped hole to fill it (Wilsdorf would later send jewellers Rolex-branded fish bowls so their shop windows could show a practical display of the Oyster case). That a waterproof watch should be remarkable might seem quaint today but in the 1920s the very notion that a timepiece could be resistant to a mild splash (let alone a constant barrage of waves) was considered worthy of the works of Jules Verne.

A gaggle of eager press waited on the English shore to capture Gleitze’s glorious arrival but it was in vain because, after hours in the frigid water, and just a few kilometres from England, she could go no further. Even so, her endurance was so impressive that her original record was officially recognised. While Gleitze’s ninth swim failed, her arrangement with Hans Wilsdorf and Rolex was a success. Her written statement avowing to the qualities of the Rolex Oyster was printed on ream after ream of newspaper, perhaps making her the first brand ambassador of the 20th Century. 

Dust and moisture ruin the accuracy of a watch by affecting the most crucial and delicate parts of the movement, namely the balance wheel and escapement.

The hinged or press-on case back of most watches made before the 20th century practically invited the elements inside and it wasn't until 1891 that a Swiss inventor, Francois Borgel, invented a sealed case. By sandwiching the movement between two threaded halves of a case, Borgel was able to create the first rudimentary version of a hermetically sealed case that protected the movement inside from dirt and moisture.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Beccan.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Beccan.

Over time, the wristwatch proved itself more popular than cumbersome pocket watches and Hans Wilsdorf knew that Rolex must continue to adapt, embracing the most current technology. For a decade he experimented with hermetic cases, with reasonable success, but one discovery in 1926 set him on the road to creating was has become the most iconic watch case in the 20th century, the Oyster.

That year Paul Perregaux and George Perret patented their invention of a screw-down crown and Wilsdorf knew that he wanted it. Perhaps wishing to avoid competitors knowing his business strategy, Wilsdorf arranged for a Rolex case-maker, C.R. Spillman SA, to first acquire the patent and then transfer it into Wilsdorf’s name. The screw-down crown has barely changed since its inception ninety years ago; a crown with a threaded interior is screwed down onto the matching exterior thread of a tube connected to the case,a spring inside the crown providing tension to increase water resistance. Wilsdorf later improved the design by adapting the interior of the crown so the stem would disengage as the crown was screwed, thus further preventing the infiltration of dust....

Similarly to Borgel's design, Wilsdorf's Oyster was able to maintain water resistance as the bezel and case back were tightly screwed onto the main case against soft lead seals with the movement and dial held together inside the main case within a metal sleeve. Other makers used perishable materials, such as cork or leather, for their seals, so Rolex proudly touted the superiority of lead as it gently disfigured when the case back was screwed in, creating a perfect seal that fitted into any imperfections in the case

The first four Rolex Oysters were released in 1926 in an octagonal and a cushion-shaped case, 28mm for ladies and 32mm for men. The octagonal Oyster was less popular than its curvaceous sister and was removed from the catalogue after a few years – which of course makes it the more desirable model among collectors today. While waterproof, the Rolex Oyster was never considered a dive watch as recreational diving didn't exist yet and military diving was still in its infancy. It was sold as giving peace of mind, not as an invitation to adventure under the sea – and its design reflected this. The cushion's soft curves and the octagon’s Art Deco angles were things to be admired from across the dinner table, not on the back of a boat. The silver and gold cases, the delicate baton hands and statuesque Roman numerals were not designed for underwater legibility and the leather strap would smell if kept wet for long.

The first rolex oyster in a cushion case from 1926. photo courtesy of rolex.

The first rolex oyster in a cushion case from 1926. photo courtesy of rolex.

Rolex was very protective of its patents and took even a minor watchmaker to court over perceived infringement, so any company wishing to market its own waterproof watch had to be inventive. Omega and Gallet offered two notable examples. In 1932 the Omega Marine was the first wristwatch to be awarded an official measure of water-resistance from the Swiss Laboratory of Horology. Locked into an outer case fitted with leather seals, it was far more prepared for underwater adventures than the early Oysters: sapphire crystal protected the dial better than acrylic crystal, the stainless steel case was more practical than the Oyster's precious metal cases and a sealskin strap was said to be impervious to water damage. It didn't matter. Rolex's marketing for its elegant Oyster told a better story than the blunt scientific instrument of the Marine. 

The Screw-on case of the Gallet flight officer with 'clamshell'. Photo courtesy of Kevin Odell.

The Screw-on case of the Gallet flight officer with 'clamshell'. Photo courtesy of Kevin Odell.

In 1936 Gallet released its Flight Officer chronograph inside its own Clamshell case, with four precisely placed screws clamping a specially designed lip of the acrylic crystal between the case and case-back. The Gallet Flight Officer would become the world's first waterproof chronograph but the Clamshell case did have flaws: each screw needed to apply equal pressure onto the case back to ensure the seal and one weak screw would flood the case and damage the movement inside. Gallet eventually switched to press-on case backs during the 1960s.  

In 1946 Hans Wilsdorf created Tudor, a sister brand intended to provide Rolex quality watches at more affordable prices and, while the movement inside was ETA, the case was 100 percent Rolex Oyster. Until the mid-1990s, when Tudor started producing its own cases, nearly every Tudor watch had "Rolex Geneva" printed on the case-back and a Rolex emblem on the crown.

Caseback of a Tudor Prince Oyster Date.

Caseback of a Tudor Prince Oyster Date.

Rolex switched to a simpler two-piece case in the 1930s, fixing the bezel to the case but keeping the fluted detail, which had been designed to give watchmakers' tools something to grip onto when securing the case. Although it was no longer necessary, this design element would become ingrained in people’s minds as an unofficial trademark of Rolex watches, along with the word Oyster on the dial. Rolex continued to improve the Oyster with the inventions of the Twinlock and Triplock crowns in 1953 and 1970. By adding additional seals into the tube and crown, Rolex was able to guarantee water-resistance to 100 metres with the Twinlock (identified by two dots or a line underneath the Rolex emblem on the crown) and 300 metres and below with the Triplock (three dots underneath the emblem). 

Not hamstrung by oddly-shaped cases or inflexible technology, the Oyster is able to function quietly and effectively in all environments. Boardroom to boat house, Datejust to Daytona. The ubiquity of the Oyster in the catalogue of Rolex is unique in watchmaking; over the years Rolex has used non-Oyster cases – notably for the Cellini collection – but those models are exceptions. Compare this with two other watch designs that were roughly contemporary with the Oyster and that also became 20th-century icons: Cartier’s Tank and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso. Neither has dominated the catalogue of its brand as the Oyster has dominated Rolex.

Among collectors very few references are valued solely for their use of the Oyster case. The extraordinary prices that Milsubs and Daytonas have been fetching at auction are due to a combination of a ballooning vintage market, trends and hype – not because they are inside an Oyster case. The Ref. 6062 is housed inside an Oyster case and is one of only two references made by Rolex to have a full calendar function and moon-phase – but it's the rarity that makes it desirable, not its case. Luckily the ubiquity of the case means that it is easy for a novice collector to find great examples of the Oyster case without spending the earth. Air Kings and Datejusts are the affordable first rung of a ladder that stretches all the way up to Submariners, GMT-Masters and Daytonas. Each with the same quality of case.

The watchmaking definition of the Oyster case is quite dull: a screw-down crown fitted onto a hermetically sealed screw-down three-piece case. However, the achievement of its design is anything but dull: it has been a shorthand for Rolex for nearly a century, it has been fitted on dozens of different styles of watch and it thrust a small Swiss brand into the limelight.

Many watch novices might struggle to place the name Mercedes Gleitze but the world will always remember two words. Rolex Oyster. 

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