Rolex can legitimately lay claim to two innovations that did more to transform the image of the wristwatch than any other. In fact, both are name-checked on the dial of virtually every model in their current Professional and Classic collections: Oyster and Perpetual – a reference to the brand’s waterproof Rolex Oyster case and its self-winding ‘Perpetual’ movement.
However, it is the Rolex Oyster, the title given to the brand’s 1926 development of the first truly workable waterproof case that initially revolutionized the industry. It cemented the transformation of the wristwatch from a delicate fashion item largely worn by women, into a vital accessory for individuals from all walks of life. The Oyster case thoroughly shielded the delicate movement from the elements, enabling watches to be reliably worn through most physically demanding professions or activities.
The Rolex Oyster case has been the backbone of the company’s output for more than 90-years now, and has become such a ubiquitous feature that it is almost taken for granted these days – a testament to how well (and for how long) it has been doing its job. However, that in no way diminishes the brilliance of its design, and the effectiveness of the engineering behind it. Below, we take a look at the history of the Rolex Oyster case.
The Early Rolex Cases
The Rolex Oyster was by no means the first attempt at producing a watch case capable of keeping out the elements. As early as 1891, a Swiss manufacturer by the name of Francois Borgel invented a sealed wristwatch housing which contained the movement in-between two threaded case halves. While it provided a certain amount of protection, the market for anything but pocket watches was still tiny and so his brainchild didn’t catch on. It wouldn’t be until the end of the First World War that the concept of the wristwatch would change forever.
In the horrors of the trenches, a timepiece worn on the arm had proved itself far more useful than one worn in the pocket, which had to be extracted, opened, closed and put back. Additionally, returning soldiers wearing wristwatches altered the perception of them in the eyes of the general public. Once seen as feminine, they were now suitable for the toughest of men.
Unfortunately, where pocket watches were afforded some defense by being kept securely tucked away the majority of the time, early wristwatches were relatively fragile, needing servicing far more often as dust and debris was able to seep inside, as did moisture, which would clog up the oils and corrode the delicate components of the internal movements.
The Arrival of the Rolex Oyster Case
It would take the marketing genius of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf to fully identify the need for a waterproof case if the wristwatch was going to meet its true potential.
He worked on the problem for some years before the final breakthrough, originally developing the Hermetic watch (sometimes called the Submarine), featuring a screw down cap that sealed in not only the entire movement, but also the winding crown, notoriously the part of any design most susceptible to ingress. Although somewhat successful, it still entailed having to open up the watch completely to wind it or adjust the time.
Then, in the mid 1920s, he came across item 114948 in the Swiss patent register, a new system for a crown that screwed into a threaded tube inside the watch case. Dreamt up by two men from La Chaux-de-Fonds (the historic home of Swiss watchmaking and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) by the names of Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret, it was a far more practical solution and so promised greater commercial success.
Ever the savvy businessman, Wilsdorf worked to ensure he wasn’t beaten to the punch, not acquiring the patent himself but by having it transferred to Charles Rodolphe Spillman, the owner of one of Rolex’s case-making firms in the town. Five days later, on July 24th 1926, Spillman transferred the patent to Wilsdorf and on the 29th, the brand registered ‘Oyster’ as a Rolex trademark.
The Evolution of the Rolex Oyster Case
Interestingly, the basics of the winding crown design – really the Achilles heel for water resistance – has barely changed over the last nine decades. The threaded crown screws onto the matching thread of a tube connected to the side of the case. The internal spring design was slightly adapted a few years after the Oyster’s introduction to allow for the stem to disengage as it was screwed down, facilitating operation and enabling a better watertight seal.
These days, the crown arrangement on Rolex watches is made up of around 10 different components and creates either two (Twinlock) or three (Triplock) sealed zones. The case, on the other hand, has developed more significantly.
On the original examples, the movement wasn’t actually attached to the case itself, but rather to a threaded metal ring, along with the dial and hands. The ring was then fitted into the body of the watch, and the crown, stem, and threaded tube were fixed in place and secured, before the separate bezel and case back were screwed down from either side, forming a completely sealed unit. Wilsdorf used soft lead for the gaskets on the earliest examples of the Oyster Case, a metal that would deform slightly as the components were fastened together, filling in any gaps caused by tiny manufacturing imperfections in the case.
Groundbreaking upon their release, the first four Oyster watches emerged in 1926, for both men and women. The 28mm and 32mm models could be had with either an octagonal or cushion-shaped case, both taking their styling cues from the Art Deco movement prevalent at the time. The bezels were all fluted with a coin-edged pattern, a forerunner of the fluted design we know today, but a functional consideration at the time. The serrated surround gave the watchmakers a way to grip the bezel as they screwed it down, a feature that was repeated on the case back for the same reason.
The first time the new Rolex Oyster watches really came to international acclaim was in 1927 when, in another piece of promotional virtuosity, Hans Wilsdorf persuaded a young British swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze to wear one as she attempted to swim the English Channel. Although the attempt was unsuccessful on that occasion, the watch came out in perfect working order after 10 grueling hours submerged in the bitterly cold waters.
One month after the swim, Wilsdorf purchased the entire front page of the Daily Mail newspaper to show both Gleitze and his ‘Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements’ together. The Rolex Oyster had arrived.
The Rolex Oyster Case Today
The company continued to improve on the design of the Rolex Oyster over the years. Additional seals were added to the crown and the tube surrounding the winding stem in 1953 to form the Twinlock, and also introduced a simplified version of the case that could also accommodate a rotating bezel. After debuting on the Turn-O-Graph, Rolex went on to be used on perhaps the most famous of all their creations; the Submariner.
In 1970, the next generation winding crown appeared, with a second O-ring gasket inside the tube to give the Triplock. It was first introduced on the Sea-Dweller but can now be found on a number of Rolex Professional watches, including the Submariner, Daytona, and GMT-Master II. Today, between the Oyster case and the two winding crown systems, every Rolex watch – even the dressiest of Datejust and Day-Date modes – is water resistant to at least 100m.
Rolex’s dive watches, of course, stand apart. The current Submariner is rated at 300m, the Sea-Dweller to 1,220m and the incredible Deepsea is safe to 3,900m. That latter model is especially noteworthy, in that it introduced a new form of case architecture to help it stand up to the high pressures found that deep below the surface of the ocean. Known as the Ringlock System, it supports the crystal and caseback against an ultra-hard internal ring, and could be viewed as a modern day interpretation of the original Rolex Oyster case design.
There’s no doubt the Rolex Oyster case is one of the most important inventions in the history of horology. It opened up a completely new direction for the wristwatch, giving rise to models able to perform in the harshest of environments, as well as keeping Rolex at the top of a fiercely competitive business.
Countless models from virtually all manufacturers now feature a version of the design first pioneered by the Rolex Oyster case, and to this day, Rolex watches represents the gold-standard in water-resistant timepieces. Although the Oyster case has never stopped evolving, it serves as an example that it is often the simplest ideas that are best, and the industry today would certainly look very different without it.