As Rolex celebrates 90 years of the legendary Oyster, we look back at the origins and the evolution of the first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch in the world, one that transformed watch design forever.
“Gentlemen, we make the best wristwatch in the world,” the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf said in January 1927 as he addressed an assembly of watch retailers who had come to see his most recent creation: the Rolex Oyster. It had been launched a few months earlier, in 1926, and was the first-ever completely hermetic and waterproof wristwatch. “The Oyster is, in our opinion, the most important invention regarding watches of recent years,” he assured them. Even the name was a very well thought out branding exercise. “The fact that, like an oyster, it can remain an unlimited time under water without detriment to its parts, gave me the idea of christening it the Rolex Oyster,” he would say later. Precision and perfection were always a priority for Wilsdorf. In 1910, a Rolex was the very first wristwatch to obtain a chronometer certificate – an official mark of precision. Granted by an official watch rating centre in Switzerland, it showed for the first time that a wristwatch could be as precise as a pocket watch, the benchmark in those days. In 1914, when the Kew Observatory in Great Britain – the highest authority for chronometric precision at the time – awarded a `Class A’ precision certificate to a Rolex wristwatch, the watchmaking world received the news with astonishment. This was a certification that involved extremely rigorous tests lasting 45 days, and had generally been reserved for large marine chronometers. Rolex had now proved that a wristwatch could rival the most precise of timepieces – a fact scarcely believable at the time.
The introduction of the Oyster thus marked the second fundamental milestone in the realization of Wilsdorf’s vision. The Oyster offered, he said, “the ideal solution [to] a problem that has baffled everybody since watches [have been] worn on the wrist. I prophesy that the Oyster will popularize the wearing of wristwatches with men more than anything else has done.” With the Oyster, as he explained, it was no longer necessary to remove the watch to wash one’s hands or bathe, or while at work in a dusty workshop or when perspiring profusely. “You just keep your Oyster on your wrist whatever happens and it will never fail you.” However, as protected as it was in its waterproof case, the original Oyster still had one flaw: like all watches of its day, it needed to be wound regularly to supply the energy necessary for it to work. This meant unscrewing its waterproof winding crown, thereby reaching the barrier between the exterior and the interior of the watch, and allowing humidity and impurities to penetrate. To complete the Oyster concept and ensure a truly hermetic environment for the movement, a way had to be found to avoid this, and for the movement to rewind itself without the help of outside energy.
Self-winding had already been brought into pocket watches by eminent watchmakers in the 18th century. In the 1920s, its use spread to wristwatches, although never very satisfactorily. Demonstrating the same determination he had displayed in facing other technical obstacles and in countering the derision of his contemporaries over his ambition for precise, small movements and truly hermetic cases, Wilsdorf embarked on the challenge of self-winding and turned it into the third pillar of the Oyster.
After several years of research, technical teams at the Manufacture des Montres Rolex in Bienne found a solution. In 1931, Rolex registered a series of patents on a self-winding mechanism with a free rotor called `Perpetual’, which would later become the standard adopted by the entire watch industry. The watch could now wind itself while being worn, each movement of the wrist turning the rotor, which meshed with the mainspring. By establishing the standard for the precise, reliable, self-winding wristwatch, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual became the archetype of the modern watch, the watch that would change watches. All watches today are waterresistant to some extent and most modern mechanical watches are also selfwinding, almost invariably inspired by the free rotor system perfected by Rolex. Over the decades, Rolex has developed an extensive collection of watches based on the Oyster Perpetual, with each new model responding to specific needs and uses. The first Oysters, and later the Oyster Perpetuals, were such versatile watches that they could be worn for formal occasions as well as in extreme conditions by swimmers, racing drivers, aviators, mountaineers and explorers of every stripe, wherever essential equipment included a reliable and precise watch, capable of resisting the elements.
In 1945 came Datejust, a high-prestige Oyster Perpetual in gold, with an innovative date display in an aperture at 3 o’clock on the dial. From then on, two categories of Oyster came into being: particularly elegant classic watches with calendar functions, such as the Datejust, the Day-Date with its day and date display (1956), and more recently the Sky-Dweller with an annual calendar and a dual time zone (2012); and a second category consisting of specialized Oysters known as `Professional’ watches, veritable toolwatches with additional features or functions for specific activities.
One of the first Professional Oyster watches, the Oyster Perpetual Explorer, was launched in 1953 after the first successful ascent of Everest. With its luminescent dial that was extremely legible in any circumstance and its steel bracelet, the Explorer stood out as a different kind of watch. In 1953, Rolex also launched the Submariner, an Oyster Perpetual with reinforced waterproofness and equipped with a rotatable graduated bezel, specifically designed for deep-sea diving. In these versions of the Oyster, form followed function. Their names frequently reflected the category of user they were designed for. These Professional watches also introduced many innovations, responding in the most practical, functional and reliable way possible to specific needs for measuring time. Explorer, Submariner, GMTMaster, Yacht-Master and Cosmograph Daytona; each Professional model in the Oyster collection became a benchmark in its field, fully fledged archetypes of the explorers’, divers’, pilots’, skippers’ or racing drivers’ watch.