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What’s Better, Acrylic or Sapphire Rolex Crystals?

Matthew Becker - Jul 09, 2012 COMMENTS ( 3 ) >

Rolex Synthetic Sapphire Crystal

Watch crystals are one of the most visible yet most fragile aspects of a wristwatch. Without a crystal that is clear, reading the watch would be impossible. Yet, having a crystal that was as clear as glass provided clear viewing, but was easily broken as the watch face is vulnerable to bangs, door jams, and day-to-day knocks that wrists survive but not necessarily watch crystals.  For decades the watch industry wrestled with these constraints.  Up until the late 20th Century, most watch crystals were in fact acrylic with the exceptions being mineral glass or expensive sapphire only seen on higher end watches. So what’s better, acrylic or sapphire Rolex crystals?

Rolex Plexiglass Crystals

Rolex slowly introduced synthetic sapphire with no clear indication when the entire line would be either sapphire crystals or acrylic.  The advantages of acrylic was that it is more resistant to day-to-day bangs, but it scratched easily, and it would lose its elasticity over the years and would need to be replaced in order to keep the watch water tight. A scratch to an acrylic crystal was easy to polish out and the smooth edges give it a warm feeling. An acrylic crystal was easy to polish and keep “crystal” clear, but doing so required some maintenance and access to car wax. When an acrylic crystal broke, it did not shatter into pieces and the watch could still keep running, although it lost its water tight capability.  Omega’s SpeedMaster that went to the moon was selected for the Apollo missions partially because of the Hesalite (acrylic) crystal such that if it shattered in space, there would not be crystal splinters floating around the Apollo cabin.  For years, most of the Rolex sports line possessed acrylic crystals because of these properties. Rolex’s first sapphire crystal appeared on the OysterQuartz in 1970 and the Submariner in 1981. The Rolex Perpetual was the last watch to possess a sapphire crystal which was not until 1991.

Shattered Rolex Sapphire Crystal

Synthetic sapphire crystals are extremely hard, with diamond only being harder on the moths scale, and incredibly clear. A synthetic sapphire crystal is resistant to scratches, easy to read, and  requires little maintenance.  The drawback with synthetic sapphire is that its hardness makes it prone to shattering leaving splinters inside the watch. Rolex requires a complete watch service during a crystal replacement because of the high probability of crystal shrapnel landing inside the movement. If your Rolex sapphire crystal does shatter, the first thing to do (aside from crying or swearing, or both) is to pull out the crown and stop the movement.  You do not want crystal pieces to scratch the watch face, or cause more damage inside the movement.

Comments (3)

  1. J PHILLIPS Reply 1 year 6 months ago

    Hi.
    I have just bought a ladies rolex 1976 and it has had to be returned to the shop because it required a service. When I asked them to waterproof the watch also, they told me that it has a plexiglass face and that it cannot be waterproofed. Could you tell me if this is true?
    Thank you if you can.

  2. James Kimbrough Park Reply 1 year 5 months ago

    Took my Rolex in for servicing with shattered crystal. Rolex had been received in June 1985 as graduation gift from my parents. Assumed crystal had been synthetic sapphire because of date received watch. Watch taken in for servicing and crystal replacement, wore for two weeks after servicing, then new crystal fell of and was clearly acrylic. Startling to me because I had thought original crystal synthetic sapphire. When watch with fallen-off crystal taken back to repair place , store owner told me serial number on my watch corresponded to manufacturing in 1981 and therefore he had correctly done the crystal replacement as acrylic. But from my reading of your article, acrylic scratches easily, yet my crystal replaced only twice in 27 years (first replacement done by parents) and I had not noticed much scratching at all, only the breaking of the crystal that had occurred twice, necessitating the replacements. Never had to think much about servicing the watch: always a great watch and worn every day for the past 27 years. Shop owner of course now says the broken crystal I took in was acrylic. How can I know for sure which type of crystal my watch had? How infallible is the serial number as a reference? How could the watch have been worn so frequently over so many years with an acrylic crystal and very little scratching occurring? Your article mentions that “Rolex slowly introduced synthetic sapphire with no clear indication when the entire line would be either sapphire crystals or acrylic.” Could this shop owner be wrong that the watch given to me in 1985 (and he says made in 1981) was meant to have an acrylic crystal? What are my options? Thank you for your very informative posting and thank you in advance for any light you can shed on any of the above.

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