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Vintage of the Week: Rolex Bubbleback 3131

August 30, 2018

BY Eric Wind

vintage bubbleback rolex

Vintage Bubbleback by Rolex

The Rolex Bubbleback 3131 is truly a vintage watch, being one of the first fully-functional automatic watches produced in the 1930s and some of the earliest Rolex watches available.  The watch takes its name from the protruding or “bubbleback” case. Like all vintage Rolex watches on our site, this one is a completely all original period collectible. The Bubbleback was made in several types of metals, including steel, half gold, and 9, 14, and 18 karat pink or yellow gold with various sizes and dials also available.

inside look rolex bubble back

Inside Look Rolex Bubbleback.

History of the Bubbleback

gold Rolex Bubbleback with leather strap bob's watches.

Gold Rolex Bubbleback with Brown Strap

The Bubbleback was launched in 1933 and featured the first auto-rotor.  Rolex was not the first to create the automatic movement, but this watch does signify the company’s success in developing a self-winding movement.  Rolex created the auto-rotor movement from the Aegler movement in Hunter watches that featured a “perpetual motion” winding mass.  Rolex patented its first successful perpetually self-winding wristwatch in 1932 and introduced the Bubbleback one year later.  Like most authentic vintage Rolex timepieces a Bubbleback is sure the spark the hearts of vintage watch collectors.

bubbleback crown

Rolex Bubbleback Crown

Rolex Bubbleback Development

vintage rolex bubbleback movement

Vintage Rolex Bubbleback Movement

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 watch larger overall.  This led not only to the English designation of “Bubbleback” but the Italian ovettone or “Little Egg,” as well as the more sinister “Little Coffin” name in Hong Kong. Nicknames are often times given to a watch for their unusual appearance, or the colors of something similar.

vintage bubbleback

A Vintage Rolex Bubbleback has a large case because of its larger movement size.

The first Bubbleback model was 1858, powered by a Reference 520 movement.  Early Bubblebacks featured a three-piece case.  However, in 1936, Rolex introduced a two-piece case with models 3131 and 3132.  These were also some of the first Rolex watches to feature Steelium, a stainless steel material, and Rolesor a steel and gold combination. In 1941, a ladies version of the Bubbleback was introduced with a Reference 420 movement.  The Bubbleback was marketed in three sizes to appeal to both gender markets.

The culmination of the line was the “Big Bubbleback,” which led to the development of the DateJust.

The Bubbleback 3131—True Vintage

rolex vintage bubbleback

A Rolex Vintage Bubbleback is a true vintage watch.

Collectors covet the Bubbleback 3131 because it was not only one of the first Bubblebacks but it has a deep history and it is the first with a two-piece rather than a three-piece case.  This beautiful watch makes a wonderful addition to any collection, whether the collection is based solely on antique watch types or specific to beautiful, vintage Rolex models.  A Bubbleback 3131 is the ideal gift for any vintage watch collector, no matter what his or her preference in models and types.



7 Responses to “Vintage of the Week: Rolex Bubbleback 3131”

  1. Rob Pecsar says:

    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,

    • Paul Altieri says:

      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. Hector J Meruelo says:

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

    • Paul Altieri says:

      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. Harry Cole says:

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

    • Paul Altieri says:

      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.

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