How astonishing that a watchcase borne from stoic functionality 90 years ago would come to seem like a transformation akin to horological alchemy. Like lead into gold, it is the perfect segue of tool into treasure, inspiring passion like few other instances in watchmaking. But if, according to Gertrude Stein, a rose is a rose, then it follows that a tool watch is a tool watch and a Rolex Oyster is a Rolex Oyster. Not only a technical triumph against the ingress of water, it is also a milestone in popular wristwatch culture: the nonagenarian Rolex Oyster can stake its claim as “the watch we all knew even before we knew watches.”

Blazing new territory

The early-20th century was a world that believed the wristwatch was both aesthetically and technically inferior to the pocket watch. Events, including the First World War, would change this to delight, in finding it a more accessible alternative to its pocket-bound predecessor. Jacques-David LeCoultre compressed the Calibre 145 to just 1.38mm thick. Auguste Verneuil produced the first perfectly homogeneous synthetic rubies to be used universally for pivot bearings. Heuer Watch Co. would enable it to serve as a pulsometer. Breitling devised a wrist-worn chronograph with a 30-minute counter.

“The nonagenarian Rolex Oyster
can stake its claim as ‘the watch we all knew even before we knew watches’.”

And Rolex? The company had just made a precision masterpiece, the first chronometer-certified wristwatch. It was the very first wristwatch to be credited by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, Switzerland. By 1914, any doubts regarding the accuracy of a wristwatch were forever silenced by the brand’s first “Class A” rating-precision certificate awarded by the British Observatory at Kew – the most stringent testing centre in the world.

Prior to this, Hans Wilsdorf had already recognised the potential of the wristwatch and sought to establish its place and purpose in the mainstream. He concentrated on the production of an indestructible watch that was guaranteed to withstand the elements. In 1926, he addressed a weakness that had long plagued wristwatches. Considering a watch was to be worn on the wrist – further increasing its chances of damage caused by water, heat, dust, shocks and magnetism – it demanded a case that was more than merely aesthetic. He presented a revolutionary housing which, in name and in essence, referred to an oyster, the moniker implying that it would survive underwater and be guarded against dirt.

The Oyster case featured an ingenious patented system that functioned like a jar lid. Once the bezel, caseback and winding crown were screwed down, it was hermetically sealed. While revolutionary, Wilsdorf knew that an achievement like this was only as good as the publicity it received and, with great resolve and foresight, he sought an opportunity to demonstrate the reliability of this radical new timepiece.

Wilsdorf’s affinity for showmanship was confirmed when, in 1926, he chose to demonstrate the Rolex Oyster by authorising dealers to exhibit the watches in fishtanks, in their window displays. And, in a move that has become a golden moment in horological history, he enlisted the help of endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, who agreed to wear a small gold Rolex Oyster around her neck during her gruelling 10 hour-plus attempt to swim the English Channel in 1927. The watch kept perfect time and, subsequently, Rolex ran a full-page advertisement on the front page of the Daily Mail declaring: “The wonder watch that defies the elements.”

But despite the achievement of a genuinely waterproof case, Wilsdorf recognised that there was still an element that flew in the face of the entire Oyster concept. It had to be manually wound, which in turn meant that the waterproof winding crown had to be regularly unscrewed, subjecting the movement inside to humidity and dust. To ensure a completely impenetrable case, the watch needed an automatic movement and, by 1931, after several years of research, 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 and, as a bonus, the constant charging of the mainspring ensured greater regularity and precision.

Best of all, the first Oysters – and later Oyster Perpetuals – demonstrated that a flawlessly-executed piece of machinery need not be denied aesthetic appeal. Fit for adventure, yet elegant enough to pass muster at even the most formal occasions, the Oyster met with extraordinary enthusiasm.

From strength to strength

In 1945, Rolex launched the Oyster Perpetual Datejust, which came with a date display at 3 o’clock and the same elegant fluted bezel. Since then, the Oyster has evolved into two main categories: the elegant classics equipped with calendar functions such as the Datejust, the Day-Date, and more recently the Sky-Dweller, and the specialised Oysters known as Professional watches, including the Submariner, Sea-Dweller and GMT-Master II, which are in many ways the pinnacle of modern tool watches.

Innovations followed – like the watches – perpetually. In 1953, Rolex introduced the Twinlock system, which guaranteed that the screw-down winding crown was perfectly water-resistant to a depth of 100m. Two rubber gaskets were used, one located within the crown and the other inside the case tube. The first watch to host this breakthrough was the Submariner in 1953. The gasket in the tube maintained the water resistance of the Oyster case even if the crown was not entirely screwed down. This function remains easily identified by the two dots below the Rolex coronet signature on gold models and by a bar on steel models. Rolex’s Professional watches, however, are equipped with a Triplock system that guarantees water resistance to a depth of 300m. Distinguishable by its larger size and three dots below the coronet, the Triplock system utilises one gasket outside the winding tube, a second inside the crown, while the third and fourth are located inside the case tube encircling the winding stem.

The Submariner was equipped with a graduated rotating bezel, specifically designed for deep-sea diving. This exceedingly robust creation would become the signature Rolex, as well as the archetypal Oyster model. In the same year, the Explorer was launched after a Rolex-equipped Sir Edmund Hillary reached  the summit of Everest for the first time. With its luminescent dial, which was extremely legible under all conditions, and its steel bracelet, the Explorer heralded a new look for Rolex.

Then came the GMT-Master in 1954, developed in collaboration with Pan Am. It was one of the first watches to feature a 24-hour hand, along with a 24-hour bezel to indicate a second time zone and was issued to the crews on long-haul flights. In 1967, Rolex launched the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller Submariner 2000, a deft evolution of its renowned predecessor. It was resistant to a depth of 610m and was developed from the Submariner for industrial deep-sea diving company COMEX. The bezel on the Sea-Dweller is significantly thicker than the bezels employed in other Oyster models, due to an extra ridge on the underside to accommodate the much thicker crystal.

Another technical leap came in 2005 when Rolex patented the Cerachrom bezel, which offered an exceptional, long-lasting lustre and was virtually indestructible – scratchproof, corrosion resistant and impervious to ultra-violet rays. To inscribe the numerals and graduations on such a hard material, Rolex also patented the unique 40-hour process, which involves coating it with a thin layer of yellow gold or platinum. It first appeared on the GMT-Master II, before it was extended to the dive watches and the Yacht-Master models. It now also appears in a monobloc version on the Cosmograph Daytona.

Today, the Oyster case-middle is crafted from a solid block of 904L steel, gold or platinum. Its fluted caseback is hermetically screwed down with a special tool that allows only Rolex watchmakers to access the movement. But while it varies subtly from range to range, much like the various iterations of the lauded Porsche 911, its profile remains unmistakable.

Unprecedented resonance 

And then, of course, there is sister brand, Tudor, which has, in the past five years, transformed into the cool, cutting-edge sibling in perfect sync with the demands of today’s market. Today, it is celebrated for its intelligent blend of adventurous designs, daring materials and, of course, the supreme reliability that comes from sharing the same case technology as Rolex. Less palpable but nevertheless significant, is the reputation and popularity of the Oyster case, which lends Tudor immediate credibility, allowing enthusiasts to recognise its broader, shared past.

Lastly, one needs to recognise the Rolex Oyster’s perfect proportions – the curved lugs are crucial to the comfort on the wrist, while framing the face of the watch and creating an unmistakable profile that flows seamlessly into the integrated Oyster, Jubilee, Pearlmaster or President bracelets. Yet, the alchemy of a Rolex Oyster remains unquantifiable.

There is a certain ease of manner that only an Oyster allows – a sense of assurance in knowing how much the watch can withstand and still retain its ability to tell true time. A Rolex Oyster will always invite debate and opinion in social circles, but its timeless dignity unites fellow enthusiasts, creating a connection and an understanding that comes from the shared experience of knowing the phenomenon that is the Oyster. But make no mistake: it is only with such an unbridgeable chasm of opinions and emotions that a watch like the Rolex Oyster achieves – for 90 long years – true and unprecedented loyalty.