Watch writers spend a lot of time eulogizing over the all-around versatility of various pieces. This one or that one can be sported by anyone in any situation, we often say. But I would defy you to find another watch quite so universally welcomed, whatever you might be wearing and wherever you may be standing, as the Oyster Perpetual.
Acting as what is sometimes haughtily referred to as an ‘entry-level’ model, the Oyster Perpetual is Rolex’s longest-serving creation, and even for a brand usually so immune to the fickleness of trends, remains almost rebelliously anti-fashion. Rolex has occasionally trodden down the path of gaudy splendor, slipping away from its tool watch roots to bring us Rainbow Daytonas or iced-up Day-Dates. Of course, these have both their place and their admirers.
However, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual is same planet, different world. No one, not once, has ever sneered derisively at the flashy showboater with his Oyster Perpetual.
What’s in a Name?
If you want to get technical about it, everything Rolex makes outside of their Cellini range is an Oyster Perpetual. There are two names at work here, and each one describes an innovation that transformed the entire concept of the wristwatch.
‘Oyster’ refers to the water and dust-proof case Rolex perfected in 1926. ‘Perpetual’ is the title the brand gave to their own take on the self-winding mechanism in 1931. Together, they brought never-before-seen levels of robustness and convenience, and have formed the backbone of practically every model the watchmaker has created ever since. What we call the Submariner, for instance, is actually the Oyster Perpetual Submariner; the GMT-Master is really the Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master, and so on.
But those two pieces, along with all the others in the collection, are variations on the basic theme, given little bits of extra utility to warrant the additional name. The Oyster Perpetual is just the pure essence of the original – a waterproof, automatic watch that tells you what time it is and leaves it at that.
Everything You Need
While it has long been the most affordable model in the Rolex catalog, there have been precious metal versions of the Oyster Perpetual in the past. Its earliest days saw it forged in 9k, 14k, and 18k yellow and pink gold, and it was also one of the first series to appear in Rolesor, the brand’s term for the two-tone combination of gold and steel.
The contemporary range is only available in stainless steel, albeit Rolex’s very special alloy, Oystersteel – the incredibly tough 904L more usually confined to the realms of chemical engineering and aeronautics. The materials in the Oyster Perpetual actually raise an interesting question about what the term ‘entry-level’ pertains to, at least as far as a luxury brand is concerned.
Any company that produces a range of items has a least expensive option, usually somehow lacking in some crucial area. It has always been especially true with car manufacturers. The base model will be just a bit too underpowered to impress and will almost certainly be missing all of the most fun toys.
With a brand like Rolex however, and in a watch like the Oyster Perpetual, it is difficult to see where the corners have been cut. The metal used in its construction is identical to what is used for rock-solid behemoths like the Sea-Dweller. The movements are stuffed to the gills with the same cutting-edge components that you will find in the very top-end models and are held to the exact same merciless standards of both the COSC and (even more unforgiving) Rolex itself. Hands and hour markers are trimmed in 18k white gold, just as elsewhere. Basically, the brand doesn’t seem to do compromises; if it says Rolex on the front, it is Rolex all the way through.
Oyster Perpetual Choices
Alongside the Datejust (the only watch in Rolex’s portfolio to come close to the same sort of longevity), the Oyster Perpetual has the largest selection of case sizes.
The 26mm ladies model is currently the smallest watch Rolex produce, followed by a 31mm and a 34mm, each still women’s models ostensibly. The time-honored 36mm is next, and until fairly recently, it was as big as any of the brand’s more dressy offerings would get. 2015 saw the very welcome introduction of a 39mm version, keeping in line with the general move towards larger watches across the board.
The detailing options, while plentiful, are nowhere near the scope of the Datejust or the President. Some dial color choices are confined to certain sizes – you will only find a pink dial in 26mm or a dark grey one on the 31mm for example, while grape is exclusive to the 36mm version.
Other dial colors overlap throughout the range. Last year, Rolex introduced a black and a white dial to the whole family, taking their simplest watch even deeper into the land of understatement. Both have been extremely well received and are beautiful in their execution, the delicately off-white face especially. Polar dials are still a comparative rarity at Rolex, and the choosing of just where to place one is always carefully done.
Hour indexes are likewise somewhat dependent on case size. There are no diamond accents, which is to be expected. Roman numerals and the occasional 3/6/9 are restricted to some the ladies models, while batons are the most commonly used, particularly for the 36mm version and above.
However, this is just as well. 3/6/9 markers on the 39mm black dial Oyster Perpetual would leave it pretty much indistinguishable from the modern-day Rolex Explorer, bar the latter’s Mercedes hands. Of course, much like someone telling me I bear a striking resemblance to Bradley Cooper, that is far from an insult.
The bombproof steel case is brushed on all surfaces rather than polished, and that detail, coupled with its other elements, leaves the Oyster Perpetual in a little subgroup all its own. Neither true dress nor tool watch, it is made from a variety of components from both. (A drool watch if you will!)
A Watch for all Seasons
Two types of people buy the Oyster Perpetual. The first are those poor souls (about to become poorer) who are taking those initial tentative steps into luxury watch collecting. Buying what is bound to become the first of many Rolex watches is an event, and the Oyster Perpetual is the obvious place to start.
The second are those not looking to amass a great hoard, but who just want that one perfect watch; the one that fits the bill wherever they go, whatever they are doing, that will last forever and go on to become part of some lucky relative’s inheritance.
For both groups, Rolex’s most straightforward, uncomplicated offering could not be any more fitting. Possibly the one model from the contemporary range that most perfectly encapsulates the values that the brand was founded on, the Oyster Perpetual is the quietly stylish, unassuming, and faultlessly reliable classiest of class acts.
With enough variety to fit any wrist and any taste, it could well be the only watch you ever need. For more information on the timeless Oyster Perpetual and other Rolex classics, be sure to check out our YouTube channel for all our latest video content.