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ROLEX BLOG

Advantages & Disadvantages of Acrylic Crystals on Vintage Watches

June 20, 2018

BY Eric Wind

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While all modern Rolex watches are fitted with crystals craft from highly scratch-resistant synthetic sapphire, older Rolex timepieces were manufactured with crystals made from a plastic-like material known as acrylic. The first Rolex watch to ever be fitted with a sapphire crystal was the reference 5100, Rolex’s first-ever quartz watch that was produced as a limited series and powered by the Beta-21 movement. The reference 5100 debuted to the public in 1970; however, acrylic crystals continued to be fitted to certain lines of Rolex watches into the early 1990s.

Acrylic Crystals like this have been used by Rolex in the past

Acrylic Crystals like this have been used by Rolex in the past

Acrylic crystals are significantly less scratch resistant than their later-era, sapphire counterparts, and will inevitably develop small marks and scratches on their surfaces, even if they do not receive any rough treatment. Sapphire has a hardness of 9 out of 10 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, while acrylic plastics typically have a rating of around 3 or 4. Most commonly encountered metals and minerals have a hardness rating that ranges anywhere between 5 and 8, which means that when the majority of hard objects come into contact with an acrylic crystal, they are likely to leave some sort of mark or scratch.

Vintage Acrylic Rolex crystal

This acrylic crystal has seen better days

While acrylic crystals do acquire blemishes rather easily, light scratches and scuffs can often be remedied whenever they manage to occur. Any damage sustained by a sapphire crystal is likely to be permanent, while more minor marks on acrylic crystals can be easily removed at home within a few minutes, by simply using any number of commonly available polishing compounds, and a soft cloth.

Although acrylic crystals are significantly less scratch resistant than their later-era, sapphire counterparts, they are generally better at surviving significant impacts. Hardness ratings relate to scratch resistance, rather than overall durability. Sapphire crystals are very “hard” and difficult to scratch; however, they are prone to chipping and shattering should a significant impact take place.

A Two-Tone Rolex Submariner with a stunningly clean sapphire crystal

A Two-Tone Rolex Submariner with a stunningly clean sapphire crystal

Whenever a sapphire watch crystal does manage to break and shatter, the tiny, incredibly hard crystal shards create permanent marks on the surface of the dial, and ultimately get into the inner-workings of the movement, requiring the watch to be professionally cleaned and serviced. Acrylic crystals are inherently more flexible, and better at accommodating hard impacts; however, when they do manage to break, they often crack but hold together, rather than shattering and falling into the watch.

Rolex 5100 Saphire Crystal Shot

Rolex 5100 with a Saphire Crystal

The smooth, hard surface of a sapphire crystal provides a watch with a more modern and refined look and feel, and its superior hardness ensures that the face of the watch will look clear and pristine for years to come. On the other side of things, many collectors appreciate acrylic crystals for the warm, vintage appearance that they bring to a watch. Additionally, whenever a replacement crystal is required, acrylic crystals are significantly less expensive to replace than their sapphire equivalents. Neither acrylic nor sapphire can be considered an all-around, “better” material for watch crystals, but rather each has its own, unique list of advantages and drawbacks.

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4 Responses to “Advantages & Disadvantages of Acrylic Crystals on Vintage Watches”

  1. Joe poslic says:

    Quote: “While acrylic crystals do acquire blemishes rather easily, light scratches and scuffs can often be remedied whenever they manage to occur. Any damage sustained by a sapphire crystal is likely to be permanent, while more minor marks on acrylic crystals can be easily removed at home within a few minutes, by simply using any number of commonly available polishing compounds, and a soft cloth.”

    This is simply incorrect and here is why. It doesn’t consider the intensity of the hit. Hits of certain intensity and sharpness might not make any damage on the sapphire crystal, but will damage the acrylic beyond repair. Some hits of lower intensity will leave a lot of marks on acrylic, but will not leave any mark on the sapphire. Also, there are hits which would make the acrylic crack, but do nothing to the sapphire.

    Furthermore, if you really want to enjoy the dial, the only way is glass. Acrylic will always distort the dial and blur it at least a little, but enough to kill its beauty. Always.

    • Paul Altieri says:

      You are definitely correct that sapphire offers the clearest view of the dial, however some collectors actually love the distortion provided by a domed acrylic crystal – this is one of the main aesthetic draws of older watches – vintage Rolex Submariner and Omega Speedmaster watches are a perfect example of this.
      Additionally, the type of impact and the object impacting the crystal can also have a significant impact on how the crystal will tolerate it, and both acrylic and sapphire have their respective pros and cons. For example, brushing up against a regular painted wall with an acrylic crystal will likely put marks on it, and while they can quickly be buffed out, this type of impact will have absolutely zero effect on a sapphire crystal. Conversely, a hard impact from a sharp and pointed object may take a large gouge out of an acrylic crystal (one that cannot be polished away) or crack it, but that same sharp and hard force may also completely shatter a sapphire crystal.

  2. Adam Golightly says:

    My grandfather just gave one of his older watches to my brother because he has a ton of them. He would really like to get some help from a professional to make sure that it works correctly because it doesn’t have the right time. Thanks for explaining how crystals in watches can scratch the glass because they can be more permanent scratches.

    • Paul Altieri says:

      If your watch is not running properly and it has not been serviced for a number of years, then it likely needs service in order to be restored to proper function. Just like anything mechanical, watches do require periodic maintenance to guarantee that they run exactly as they should. If this sounds like it may be the case, then we would recommend reaching out to your nearest authorized service provider or repair center to get a quote for service.

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