While it’s natural for most of the attention to go the case, bracelet, dial, and material of a Rolex watch, the crystal protecting the face also adds its own flair. Depending on the era, your Rolex watch either has an acrylic (plastic) crystal or a sapphire crystal. If you’re unsure about which one you have, read on to find out the differences between acrylic and sapphire to see what crystal your Rolex watch has.
The Rolex Crystal on this vintage is an acrylic crystal.
Acrylic vs. Sapphire Crystal
Vintage Rolex watches include acrylic crystals on them and while many may assume that sapphire crystal is automatically better, the plastic glass has its benefits too. First off, many vintage Rolex watch collectors simply like the look of acrylic over sapphire. Acrylic is less shiny and lends a cool retro vibe to the watch. In terms of practicality, acrylic does get scratched quite easily, but it’s also simple to buff out the scratches in a few minutes using polishing pastes. The good news is that acrylic is durable and quite resilient to breaking. Furthermore, if it does break, it does so in a clean manner rather than shattering. Another advantage of acrylic is that it is much cheaper to replace than sapphire.
Synthetic sapphire crystal has a much sleeker look and offers superb transparency to view the dial. Also, since sapphire ranks so high on the Mohs’ scale of mineral hardness, it is much more scratch resistant—a huge benefit for watch wearers. However, because of its hardness, sapphire will also shatter or chip if hit at certain angles. If this happens, not only does the watch need a new costly sapphire crystal replacement, the movement also needs to be looked at to see if any shards landed in there.
While acrylic and sapphire both have pros and cons—and their own fans—today, most modern luxury watches exclusively use sapphire crystal.
With better technology, Rolex changed from Acrylic to Sapphire Crystal.
When Did Rolex Introduce Sapphire Crystal?
In true Rolex fashion, rather than introducing sapphire crystal to all their watches overnight, the brand introduced it slowly. In fact, Rolex first used sapphire crystal on their first quartz watch, the Rolex ref. 5100 (based on the famous Beta 21 caliber) in 1970. It’s fitting really, since during that era, quartz watches were viewed as high-tech marvels. So, naturally modern sapphire would be the ideal choice.
Rolex then used sapphire crystal again on the Rolex Date ref. 1530 and the Rolex Datejust ref. 1630. While these two models shared the same angular case shape and integrated bracelet as Rolex’s quartz watches, they were actually automatic watches. When Rolex released the Oysterquartz collection powered by in-house quartz movements in 1977, sapphire crystal was used again.
Finally, in the early 1980s, Rolex used sapphire crystals on the Submariner ref. 16800 and eventually began equipping all their watches with it. Today, all contemporary Rolex watches use sapphire crystal.
In short, to see what crystal your Rolex watch has, you can either examine how it looks or find out the date of the watch. Pre 1980s, your Rolex will most likely have acrylic crystal and from 1980s onwards, it’ll most likely have a sapphire crystal.
Which crystal do you prefer? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.