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Rolex Oyster Perpetual

First published February 23rd, 2006

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual

Timeless timepiece? The Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch is exactly that. This masterpiece of horological engineering has become the world's most sought after wrist watch. Introduced in 1926, the Rolex Oyster was the first airtight, dustproof, and waterproof watch. The Perpetual Rotor, a self winding mechanism, followed soon after, in 1931. Since then the Oyster Perpetual has survived all conditions from 35,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean to a 500-degree oven to the summit of Mount Everest to outer space, without losing a single beat.

In truth, although a fine and handsome watch, this is not exactly the most beautiful or accurate, at least not in the 21st century when there are so many other makers with an equally obsessive zeal for quality and style. And yet the Oyster remains the watch most desired, most collected, and most replicated by fakers. The reason lies in its pedigree and the nature of its makers, Rolex SA in Switzerland.

The origins of the Rolex company

The company that was to become Rolex was in fact founded in London in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf, a 24-year-old German orphan from Kulmbach in Bavaria, with his English brother-in-law Alfred Davis. Wilsdorf was not a watchmaker by trade but had worked for a watch exporter in Chaux-de-Fonds, France. He moved to London in 1903 where he was employed by a watchmaker for a short time before founding the company. He married an Englishwoman and adopted British nationality.

At first, Wilsdorf & Davis was one of many importers of movements, cases, and faces for assembly into pocket watches distributed to jewellers who then put their own names on the face. At the time, the wrist watch (invented by Patek Philippe at the end of the 19th century) tended to be seen as a woman's version of the man's more reliable pocket watch, but in 1904 the Brazilian inventor and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont had one made by Louis Cartier for ease of use while flying, and the idea of the universal wrist watch gained popularity.

Wilsdorf had foreseen an increasing demand for high quality wrist watches for men and began production with movements imported from the Swiss Aegler company fitted into high quality English cases. In 1908 the company registered Rolex as a brand name for its watches, and in 1912 it moved to Geneva in Switzerland to limit the taxes and export duties on the silver and gold used in the cases. Wilsdorf & Davis became the Rolex Watch Company in 1919.

Later, Wilsdorf would buy out his brother-in-law and enter into a joint shareholding of the company with the Aegler family, whose movements Rolex now used exclusively.

Rolex Oyster - the pedigree

Hans Wilsdorf's preoccupation with excellence is marked by a number of 'firsts' which came to set the Oyster Perpetual apart from the rest, and define to the watch as a classic.

In 1910 Wilsdorf & Davis obtained from the School of Horology in Switzerland the first official chronometer certification awarded to the movement of a wrist watch, but whilst this was a measure of accurate timekeeping the question over reliability remained in Wilsdorf's mind. Dust and moisture could still find their way into the movement, with a consequent effect on performance. So he developed a case and special winder to produce the first-ever waterproof watch. Jewellers began to display Rolex watches submerged in fish tanks.

Shortly after, in 1914, a Class A precision certificate was awarded to a Rolex wrist watch by the renowned Kew Observatory in England, a standard previously achieved only by marine chronometers. By now the wrist watch - the Rolex in particular - was replacing the traditional pocket watch for men and with the arrival of the war was especially popular in the armed forces.

Rolex continued to develop the water resistance of their watch case but the winder remained a problem, until the company bought the rights to a patent for a screw-down winder originally proposed by another Swiss watchmaker, Perret & Perregaux. This led to the introduction of the new 'Oyster' in 1926, with a fully-waterproof case and a double-locking winder. The Rolex Oyster was endorsed very publicly the following year with a celebrated cross-channel swim by Mercedes Gleitze (inset) wearing one on her wrist. The launch of the watch in the UK was accompanied by a full-page advertisement in the Daily Mail, stating:

"Rolex introduces for the first time the greatest Triumph in Watch-making. ROLEX 'OYSTER' - the Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements. Being hermetically sealed, the Rolex 'Oyster' is proof against changes of climate, dust, water, damp, heat, moisture, cold, sand or grease; it can, in consequence, be worn in the sea or bath without injury, nor would arctic or tropical conditions affect the wonderful precision of its beautifully poised movement. The introduction of the Rolex 'Oyster' model marks an unique development in the forward stride of the chronometric science, and perfect timekeeping under all conditions is at last a possibility."

The Perpetual self-winding movement

One niggling imperfection of the Oyster was that the winder had to be unscrewed to wind the watch. If the owner forgot to screw it back in tightly, or as the threads or waterproof seals wore out over time, the watch was no longer fully waterproof. This was solved by Rolex in 1931, with the introduction of the Perpetual self-winding movement.

A self-winding watch contains an internal rotor - a semi-circular metal plate which rotates back and forth with any movement of the wrist, rewinding the mainspring that powers the watch. The concept had first been introduced in 1770 by the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet. Emile Borer, head of research and development at Rolex, perfected the mechanism. Now, the external winding knob (the crown) was needed only for occasional time adjustments and the watch's waterproofing system became more reliable (and cheaper).

Thus, in the space of less than 30 years, the company founded by Wilsdorf (inset) had introduced the first certified chronometer wrist watch, the first waterproof watch case, and the first self-winding wrist watch. There was more to come. In 1945 Rolex invented a date-display mechanism and launched the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust.

This pedigree is what gave (and still gives) the brand its fundamental credibility as the world leader in its market. In the 1990s the Rolex Oyster was voted by the industry as "The Watch of the Century."

Rolex watches from the 1950s onwards

The Rolex philosophy is one of continuous but steady evolution. Oyster Perpetual-based sports watches and chronographs were introduced to the range from the 1950s as the company matched products with activity lifestyles. The world's first diving watch, the Rolex Submariner was introduced in 1953, followed by the Rolex Explorer (1954), Day Date (1956), Sea Dweller (1967), Cosmograph Daytona (1976), Yacht Master (1992), and others. The GMT Master (1955) was made for pilots at the request of Pan Am Airways, recording the time in two different time zones simultaneously.

With the 1970s came the quartz boom in watchmaking. Low-cost digital technology from Japan replaced labour-intensive craftsmanship of the Swiss variety. Many of Geneva's watch houses went digital, and many went under. Prestigious names like Omega, Longines, Blancpain, Tissot, Rado, and Hamilton, were consolidated into a publicly-owned consortium to avoid bankruptcy, but Rolex braved the storm and stayed with its mechanical heritage. The company did participate in the development of the original quartz watch movements but sales of its quartz models were never allowed to become a significant proportion of the company's total production.

Remaining privately owned, Rolex could take the long term view of the future without worrying about shareholders and the next quarter's profits. Interest in high-quality swiss-made movements duly returned in the 1990s, and fine watchmaking was reborn to a leaner industry. The Rolex company produces some 650,000 watches per year, keeping tight control over distribution, sales outlets, and price.

Page last modified: November 30, 2014

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The art of Françoise Taylor:
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