Rolex did something truly astonishing in 1927: it released a genuinely waterproof wristwatch that, unlike earlier efforts from other firms, neither looked nor felt unusual, and could be worn on a daily basis. The seasoned Rolex enthusiast may well recognise the model above as an early example of that historic game-changer: a first generation Rolex Oyster.
That would make it 89 years old. But its markings tell us that it is, in fact, one year older than that. While the first models dodate from 1927 – famously, the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze was given one to wear as she swum across the Channel that October – it was in 1926 that the Oyster was conceived and prototyped; and indeed, the one pictured here is just such a 90-year-old prototype. On such an anniversary, the details of how and why the Oyster came to be are worth examining.
Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, was never a watchmaker. In all his legal documents he gave his profession as “merchant” – someone who buys and sells. This is important to understand, because for the five decades and more that he ran the firm, Rolex didn’t make watches from scratch as it does now; rather, it assembled them. Movements were bought from one firm and cases from another, as were dials, bracelets and all the other components. Rolex was able to take commonly made items and assemble them into something special, thanks in particular to Wilsdorf’s talent for spotting a hole in the market. Nowadays we would call him a marketing genius, and nothing exemplifies this skill more than the story of the Rolex Oyster.
The trench warfare of WWI had demonstrated the advantages of the wristwatch over the pocket watch, and Rolex had been one of the first watch manufacturers to capitalise on this shift. But in the following years civilian users of wristwatches had two complaints: they weren’t as accurate as their pocket watches of old, and they had a tendency to need servicing much more often than pocket watches, since the oils got clogged with dust and detritus or the movements succumbed to water ingress.
The first attempts at making a water-resistant wristwatch came with “hermetic” cased watches from the early 1920s. Here, the watch was completely encased in a second outer case, and could be wound and set by unscrewing the bezel and flipping the watch out on its hinge. This design had two major problems, due to the use of gold or silver for the cases. Both being very soft metals, the daily unscrewing of the bezel caused the screw threads and bezel knurling to wear out, the former meaning that the watch was no longer waterproof and the latter meaning it became difficult to unscrew the bezel anyway.
Wilsdorf would have made it a habit to scour the entries in the Swiss patent register for anything he thought that he could use, and patent 114948 certainly fitted that description. It was filed by two gentlemen from La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret, and proposed a system for a winding crown that screwed down on to a threaded tube protruding from the case. As the crown was in the normal position and unencumbered by a cap or an extra case, it was much easier to use and therefore much more likely to achieve sales success; Wilsdorf lost no time in acquiring the patent from its owners, and within months the Rolex Oyster was on the market.
Or so the accepted history has it, though recent research refines the story. In a 2010 article in the US National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) Bulletin, watch historian David Boettcher showed that the patent was in fact transferred to one Charles Rodolphe Spillmann, who owned a casemaking firm in La Chaux-de-Fonds, on July 19, 1926. Then, five days later, it was transferred from Spillmann to Wilsdorf himself – interestingly, not to Rolex directly. After a further five days, on July 29, Mr. Wilsdorf registered the trademark “Oyster” and the package was complete: case, crown and name were all in place.
In the mid-1930s Rolex moved from the complex three-part Oyster case to a simpler two piece design which integrated the bezel into the case body and did away with the movement holder, and Spillmann seems to have vanished from the Oyster story – but not, in fact, permanently. In the 1960s the initials “C.R.S.” are to be seen inside the casebacks of Rolex chronographs, and this relationship continued for almost two decades. Neither was it the end of the cushion case, of course: in the late 1930s Rolex produced an oversized version of this case for an obscure Italian instrument maker, Officine Panerai. The rest, on that front at least, is the stuff of watchmaking legend.