In 1927, Rolex did a surprising thing: the release of the first waterproof watch truly suitable for daily wear. The waterproofing strategy applied to this watch is very different from other companies’ early attempts, but it is not abnormal in visual and tactile sense. Experienced Rolex enthusiasts may have realized that what they just mentioned was the game-changer of historic significance: the first Rolex Oyster.
In 1927, it has been 89 years. However, the mark on the watch tells us that it is one year older. That’s right, in October 1927, the famous British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze successfully crossed the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster watch. But in fact, as early as 1926, the Oyster-like idea and prototype had already appeared. The prototype table shown in the picture with this article is now in its infancy. On such a commemorative day, many details about what the oyster is, why and how are worth exploring.
Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex, has never been a watchmaker. In all legal documents, he defined his profession as ‘merchant’, that is, a person engaged in trading. It’s important to understand this, because for more than fifty years after Hans Wilsdorf has been in charge of the company, Rolex did not make its own watches like it does today. Rather, Rolex only assembled watches. The movement is purchased from one manufacturer, the case is purchased from another manufacturer, as are the dials, bracelets and other components. Hans Wilsdorf’s talent is natural, insight into business opportunities, find gaps in the market, and Rolex can use this as a guide to always assemble something special. Now we call Hans Wilsdorf a marketing genius, and the Rolex Oyster story is a perfect example.
Rolex-Mercedes Gleitze Poster
The fierce battle in World War I proved the advantages of watches over pocket watches, and Rolex was one of the first manufacturers to profit from them. But in the following years, the watch users also complained: First, the watch is not as accurate as the old pocket watch; second, the oil is blocked by dust, or the movement is stopped due to water ingress. Compared with the pocket watch, After-sales maintenance is more frequent.
The first problem is foreseeable, because a smaller movement means a smaller balance wheel. To correct buyer prejudice, Hans Wilsdorf tried to send the watch to Swiss and British correction laboratories for testing to prove its accuracy. This practice has continued to this day. Today, Rolex is the brand with the largest number of COSC-certified astronomical watches.
The second problem is more difficult to solve, although many attempts have been made to prevent the intrusion of dust and water. For example, in the Victorian era, the winding crowns of pocket watches used by explorers were equipped with screw-in waterproof caps, which were connected to the case by a chain. This system is very clumsy, the winding crown must be small enough to fit the waterproof cap (By the way, in the 1990s Cartier retro-styled this design in the Pasha series).
Waterproof case with screw-down case back, crown and bezel
In the early 1920s, attempts to waterproof watches were to make ‘hermetic’ watches by wrapping the entire watch in a second case. When you need to wind or adjust, loosen the bezel and take out the entire watch. The case is mostly made of gold and silver, so there are two main problems with this design. Gold and silver are soft in texture, and the threads and bezel will be worn by repeated tightening and loosening every day. When the threads are worn, the watch is no longer waterproof; the bezel is worn, and it becomes difficult to loosen it.
Attentive readers may have noticed that the focus of both of these early attempts was on protecting the crown. The crown is the most obvious entry point for dust and water vapor. The solution we need is to lock the crown to make it waterproof. In May 1926, the footsteps of fate came.
Hans Wilsdorf used to browse the Swiss Patent Register and select entries that could be used. Code 114948 fit this definition. At La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret devised a crown waterproofing system that was screwed onto the protruding solenoid of the case. The crown is in the normal position, which is not subject to the restrictions of the waterproof cap and the second case. It is easy to use and easier to sell. Hans Wilsdorf purchased the patent at the right time. In just a few months, the Rolex Oyster was officially launched.
The above is recognized history, and recent research results have made this history more detailed. In 2010, watch historian David Boettcher published an article in the National Association of Watch Collectors (NAWCC) announcement. The article states that on July 19, 1926, the patent was first assigned to a person named Charles Rodolphe Spillmann, who owned a watch case manufacturing plant in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Five days later, Spillmann transferred the patent to Hans Wilsdorf (interestingly, not directly to Rolex). Five days later, on July 29, Hans Wilsdorf registered the ‘Oyster’ trademark. At this point, the case, crown and name, all elements are in place.
I believe Spillmann is not a simple middleman who helps Hans Wilsdorf hide his interest in patents. More likely, Spillmann brought the patent to Hans Wilsdorf, explaining to him how to combine the crown and case to design a revolutionary waterproof watch. Although there is no clear evidence, if you look closely at the case back of the 1926 Oyster prototype shown in the picture, you will find a small hammerhead logo at the bottom. This is the logo of the Swiss watch maker. The number inside it is 136, indicating that this case was produced by C. R. Spillmann & Cie of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Almost all early Rolex Oyster watches in gold case were engraved with this mark, indicating that these cases were solely the responsibility of the Spillmann factory.
Inside of screw-down case back
A small hammerhead logo on the underside of the case shows that this case is from C. R. Spillmann & Cie, the number 136 is clearly visible
The original Oyster case design is very interesting, the movement is not directly connected to the case. The case consists of three separate parts: the middle frame (with lugs), the upper bezel and the back case. Both the top bezel and the back case are screwed in. The movement, dial and hands are carried by an externally threaded metal barrel, with holes at 3 o’clock and bolts at 9 o’clock. The metal barrel is inserted into the case, the pin at 9 o’clock is inserted into the hole reserved in the case, and the crown and the winding stem are assembled to the case through the hole at 3 o’clock. Finally, the upper bezel and the rear bottom cover are rotated and locked.
At that time, Rolex advertised that waterproof watches did not use cork or leather washers, relying only on metal-to-metal screwing; this statement is true, but to ensure perfect sealing, the watch still used washers in the back case The washer is made of a thin lead sheet, which will deform when tightened to compensate for variations in the surface processing of the back cover.
The appearance of the case is ‘cushion’ (cushion). Since the 1920s, Rolex has used the ‘cushion’ case until the end of the Second World War. The Oyster has also introduced alternative octagonal cases, but has not been as popular as the ‘cushion’. In less than a decade, the octagonal case has disappeared from the Rolex catalogue, most likely because it looks too old fashioned.
Less popular octagonal case
Like all Rolex watches of the same period, the movement in the Oyster was supplied by Bill Aegler. This unique movement is called ’10½ Hunter’: 10½ centimeters (23.7 mm) is the diameter of the movement; ‘Hunter’ refers to the design of the watch, which is like a hunter’s pocket watch (with a protective cover) The crown is set at 3 o’clock, as opposed to an open pocket watch with the crown at 12 o’clock.
The movement is divided into three versions: Prima, Extra Prima and Ultra Prima. All three are 15-stone structures, identified by timing tests after assembly. One of the best performances is Ultra Prima, Prima is not so precise, and Extra Prima is somewhere in between. Watches equipped with the Ultra Prima movement are usually marked with the corresponding text, as shown in the figure below.
Watches with Ultra Prima calibre are marked with corresponding text
By the mid-1930s, Rolex simplified the complicated three-piece case into two pieces, with the upper bezel integrated into the case, while abandoning the metal barrel that carried the movement. Spillmann seems to have disappeared from the Oyster story, but this is not the case. In the 1960s, we could still see the abbreviation ‘C.R.S.’ in the bottom cover of the Rolex chronograph. This relationship lasted nearly 20 years. Of course, the production of the ‘cushion-shaped’ case is not over. In the late 1930s, Rolex also produced a number of oversized cases for an Italian brand. That’s right, the Italian brand that was not so famous at the time was Panerai.
In addition to the larger diameter of the watch in the 1940s, the basic design of the Oyster case has always been consistent and stable. Until the 1950s, the new case and crown came out together, and the crown was called ‘Twinlock’. As the name suggests, the crown uses double washers to ensure its watertightness. The initial waterproof depth can reach 50 meters, which is a real breakthrough in seepage prevention of the case.
Oyster prototype with Ultra Prima movement
In 1953, Rolex also introduced a two-piece case with a rotatable bezel. The first watch model to use this case was Ref 6202 Turn-O-Graph, with an inlay on the bezel and a 60-minute mark. Launched as a water-resistant alternative to the chronograph, the Ref 6202 Turn-O-Graph is unsuccessful in market sales, but it has become the basis for Rolex’s most representative (one) model, the Submariner. In September 1953, the deep-sea submersible of the Swiss explorer Jacques Picard dived 3131.8 meters deep, and the Rolex watch attached to the hull was still working normally. At the Basel International Watch & Jewellery Show in the spring of the following year, the Rolex Submariner watch was officially launched.
The parallel development of the case and crown has continued for many years, as can be seen in the Sea Dweller in the 1960s and the Deepsea in 2008. In the deep dive watch, Rolex abandoned the two-piece case that had been used for 60 years and returned to the original oyster design. It turns out that the ancient design of the back of the year can also meet the performance needs of the 21st century. Sometimes, going forward may mean going back to the starting point.