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Rolex Oyster - Making of the modern watch

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This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Royal Oyster. The waterproof case and the subsquent Oyster innovations have paved the way for the development of the modern wristwatch that we know today. (Above) Date 40 and Rolex Green Seal.
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Oyster Perpetual Explorer
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Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf.
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Perpetual rotor, 1931.

THE waterproof, automatic and chronometer wristwatch is much taken for granted these days. But when it was first conceived, about 100 years ago, virtually everyone in the watch business doubted that the idea could really take off.

Even the watchmakers working endlessly to produce a watch that still ticks - and accurately - in water were not so sure.

"In those days, the idea of a watch permeable to water appeared quite utopian and without future to the majority of manufacturers and technicians who did not, in fact, see its necessity or utility," Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf said in 1945. "At trade congresses and meetings, the 'waterproof' watch was held to scorn by specialists and a discussion of the problem provoked sarcasm rather than useful and objective arguments."

The sceptics had a point then. The mechanism for operating the wristwatch would be too small and delicate to take the knocks of the hand and arm. Dust and damp would quickly jam the mechanism, even if it were well-constructed. And a movement tiny enough to squeeze into the wristwatch could never achieve the desired accuracy. Such misgivings probably drove Rolex to prove them wrong. Wilsdorf made precision his top priority and in 1910, Rolex was the first to obtain a chronometer certificate for a wristwatch - 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," Rolex says in press release at the Baselworld watch fair in March.

Rolex didn't rest on its laurels but persisted in the search for perfect accuracy. Wilsdorf ceaselessly nagged his technical assistants to produce a watch case "so tight that our movements will be permanently guaranteed against damage caused by dust, perspiration, water, heat and cold".

In 1926, Rolex unveiled the Rolex Oyster, the first-ever completely hermetic and waterproof wristwatch. Like the oyster, this new watch "can remain an unlimited time under water without detriment to its parts", according to Wilsdorf. Which means that with the Royal Oyster, it was no longer necessary to remove the watch before you wash your 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," Wilsdorf said.

The Oyster would not only become a useful tool for divers and explorers, it also became key in helping to maintain precision over the long haul - thanks to the waterproof case which protects the watch movement from dust and moisture. The secret of the Royal Oyster's success was a patented system of a screw-down bezel, case back and winding grown.

Yet, the original Oyster wasn't flawless. The watch needed to be wound regularly to supply the energy it needed to work. This meant unscrewing its waterproof winding crown, which allowed humidity and impurities to penetrate.

To ensure that the Oyster was a truly hermetic case for the movement, Rolex in 1931 produced its own version of the self-winding mechanism that was already found in pocket watches for the wristwatch. Rolex's version has a free rotor called "Perpetual", which would later become the standard adopted by the entire watch industry.

With the self-winding mechanism, the wristwatch could now wind itself while being worn. Each movement of the wrist would turn the rotor, which meshes with the mainspring. And the constant charging of the mainspring ensures greater regularity and boosts the precision of the watch movement.

Thus was born the Rolex Oyster Perpetual. And over the decades, Rolex has built an extensive collection of watches based on it. These fall into two categories: Elegant classic timepieces with annual calendar functions, such as the Datejust, Day-Date and Sky-Dweller; and "Professional" watches such as the Explorer, Submariner, GMT-Master, Yachtmaster and Cosmograph Daytona.

Rolex has continued to build on the Royal Oyster to develop new innovative features for its watches. There was the scratch-proof and corrosion-resistant Cerachrom bezel launched in 2005; the anti-magnetic and shockproof Parachrom Hairspring introduced in 2000; and the highly efficient Chronergy escapement.

All these improvements were focused on one thing - to make the watch run more accurately, a goal watchmakers often tend to forget when they get distracted with adding more bells and whistles to their creations, instead of concentrating on making them work better. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Royal Oyster. The waterproof case and the subsquent Oyster innovations have paved the way for the development of the modern wristwatch that we know today. They will continue to help shape it in the next 90 years.


Paving the way for the watch of today: 90 years of Oyster innovations

  • 1926 - The Oyster Case, which launched the world's first waterproof wristwatch;
  • 1931 - The Perpetual Rotor, which launched Rolex's first automatic wristwatch;
  • 1953 - The Twinlock Winding Crown was unveiled with the new Submariner, the first watch that was waterproof to 100 metres deep;
  • 2000 - The Parachrom Hairspring that is insensitive to magnetic fields, offers great stability in the face of temperature variations and is up to 10 times more accurate than a traditional hairspring in case of shocks;
  • 2005 - The Paraflex Shock Absorber, a highly efficient shock absorber;
  • 2005 - The Cerachrom Bezel Insert, a hard corrosion-resistant ceramic that's anti-scratch and its colour is unaffected by ultraviolet rays;
  • 2014 - Syloxi Hairspring, a silicon hairspring for women's watches;
  • 2015 - The Chronergy Escapement, which improves the standard Swiss lever escapement by 15 per cent.