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Watch Review

Vintage Rolex 3131 Bubbleback

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Paul Altieri

The Rolex Bubbleback 3131 is truly a vintage watch, as it is one of the brand’s very first fully-functional automatic timepieces produced in the 1930s and one of the earliest models from the iconic Rolex Oyster Perpetual collection. The watch gets its name from its protruding, bubble-shaped caseback that is emblematic of the brand’s early self-winding models. Rolex Bubbleback watches were most frequently crafted from either yellow or rose gold (9k, 14k, or 18k), and surviving examples can be found with various different styles of dials and hands.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubbleback 3131

Vintage Rolex Bubbleback 3131 Oyster Perpetual

Rolex Bubbleback 3131 Key Details:

  • Production Years: 1930s – 1940s
  • Reference Number: 3131
  • Case Size: 32mm
  • Materials: Yellow or Rose Gold (9k, 14k, or 18k)
  • Functions: Time w/ Running Seconds
  • Dial: Multiple Options Available
  • Bezel: Fixed, Yellow or Rose Gold, Smooth Style
  • Crystal: Acrylic (Domed)
  • Movement: Automatic (Self-Winding)
  • Strap/Bracelet: Leather Strap or Metal Bracelet

Click here to learn more about the Rolex Oyster Perpetual.

Vintage Rolex 3131

Vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubbleback 3131

History Of The Rolex Bubbleback

The Rolex Bubbleback was launched in 1933 (following the advent of the self-winding “Perpetual” movement in 1931) and it featured the first auto-rotor. Rolex was not the first company to create the automatic-winding movement, but it was the first to create a wristwatch with a winding weight that is able to rotate a full 360 degrees, which now serves as the foundation for nearly all automatic movement designs.

Rolex created the auto-rotor movement based on the Aegler movement in Hunter watches that featured a “perpetual motion” winding mass. Rolex patented its first successful Perpetual self-winding wristwatch in 1932 and introduced the Bubbleback to the public the following year. Like most authentic vintage Rolex timepieces a Bubbleback is sure to spark the hearts of vintage watch collectors.

Vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual 3131 Bubbleback

Rolex Bubbleback Development

Despite the ubiquitous name, Rolex never engraved “Bubbleback” anywhere on the watch or officially recognized the name. However, the thick auto-rotor required a fatter case, and the decision was made to move the case out in the back rather than make the entire watch itself larger. This led not only to the English designation of “Bubbleback” but the Italian nickname “Ovettone” (meaning “Little Egg”), as well as the more sinister “Little Coffin” name in Hong Kong. Nicknames are often given to a watch for their unusual appearance, or the colors of something similar, and for the Rolex Bubbleback, it is simply due to the shape of its case.

The first Rolex Bubbleback model was 1858, powered by the cal. 520 movement. Early Bubblebacks featured a three-piece case. However, in 1936, Rolex introduced a two-piece case with the references 3131 and 3132. In 1941, a ladies version of the Bubbleback was introduced with a cal. 420 movement. The Rolex Bubbleback was marketed in three sizes to appeal to both men and women, and multiple case sizes remains an offering for the current Oyster Perpetual watches that Rolex produces today. The culmination of the line was the “Big Bubbleback,” which would ultimately lead to the development of the 36mm Datejust once a date display was added in 1945.

Vintage Rolex Bubbleback 3131 Gold Oyster Perpetual

The Bubbleback 3131 – True Vintage

Collectors covet the Rolex Bubbleback 3131 because it was not only one of the first Bubbleback watches but also because it has a deep history and it is the first with a two-piece rather than a three-piece case. It offers a distinctly vintage aesthetic, while simultaneously occupying an incredibly important place within the history and development of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual collection.

This beautiful watch makes a wonderful addition to any luxury timepiece collection and is truly unlike any of the models that Rolex produces today. Rolex’s two greatest contributions to the greater wristwatch industry have been its waterproof “Oyster” case the self-winding “Perpetual” movement – and the Rolex Bubbleback ref. 3131 represent the merging of these two key innovations and offers a timeless aesthetic with the build quality necessary to last a lifetime.

Vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual 3131 Solid Gold

Paul Altieri

Paul is the company's Founder and CEO. He is responsible for all the day to day activities from purchasing, receiving, marketing and sales. Paul is a graduate of Boston College 1979 and resides in California with his family.

  1. Thank you for sharing the of the Rolex Oyster Bubbleback. Is the woven fabric band shown in the pictures authentic for this vintage Rolex, ‘33 – ‘45? Can you please refer me to where I can purchase this style of band?
    Thank you,

    • That nylon strap was not the original strap fitted to that watch. When that vintage Rolex Bubbleback was brand-new, it would have been fitted to a leather strap. However, you can find aftermarket nylon and canvas straps available through a number of sources.

  2. Hi : Where all of these early bubblebacks sold with leather straps , or did some of them use Rolex or other metal bracelets?

    • It can depend on the specific model and year, but some were fitted with metal bracelets (mostly Oyster style). However, it should be noted that these vintage bracelets do not have fitted end-links like later-era Oyster bracelets. Instead, they will have flat end-links (leaving a small gap between where they fit around the springbar and the side of the case of the watch.

  3. Thanks for the great info on the Bubbleback. Did the early 3131 watchbands have the Rolex emblem on the buckle?

    • More than likely, they would have had the Rolex emblem on their buckles. While there is no exact confirmed date for their introduction, signed Rolex buckles would have probably first started to pop up after Rolex’s move to Geneve when the brand was first starting to establish itself as a manufacturer. By the time the Bubbleback Rolex models were hitting their stride in the 1930s, buckles with the Rolex emblem would have likely been more-or-less standard on most models.