The Vintage Rolex 1920s Oyster Innovation
To kick off our series covering the most popular watches from Rolex’s long and illustrious history, we’ll begin way back in the 1920’s.
It was the decade in which Rolex truly became Rolex. It was finally transitioning from the original name of Wilsdorf and Davis, and starting to build the reputation for unparalleled excellence that continues today.
The ‘20s was also the decade that saw the men’s wristwatch start to increase in popularity. Up until then, they were seen very much as feminine items. As a result, men traditionally opted for pocket watches on a chain. After the First World War and the rigors of battle, however, the practicality of wearing a watch on the wrist proved itself and the concept slowly started to catch on.
Still in its infancy and under the guidance of founder Hans Wilsdorf, the name Rolex was already starting to be associated with the highest levels of timekeeping accuracy. In 1910, his obsessive focus on precision had seen the fledgling company produce the first ever wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision from the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne. A few years later, in 1914, another creation achieved a class ‘A’ certificate from the Kew Observatory in the UK. This was an award previously only granted to marine chronometers.
The Roaring 20s
So with these early successes, it was a logical progression for Wilsdorf to shift the whole operation from its original base in London to the Swiss city of Geneva in 1919. Switzerland was already the watchmaking capital of the world. And now, surrounded by the finest precision engineers, Rolex was able to start making strides in the development of the wristwatch.
And it was the roaring 20s that saw them achieve one of their most successful innovations ever—The Oyster.
Below, we’ll take a look at the development of the first of the vintage Rolex 1920s Oysters, along with some of the other most popular designs of the time.
The Rolex Art Deco Telephone Dial
Think of the 1920s, and your mind immediately conjures up images of the insouciant decadence of The Great Gatsby and the burgeoning of the Jazz age. But, perhaps most of all, it’s the decorative stylings of the Art Deco movement that best define the decade. It’s personified by the bold lines and sleek, streamlined forms taken from Cubism and the Bauhaus School. In fact, Art Deco influenced everything from fashion to architecture and furniture making to product design.
One of the most popular Rolex series of the era, the ladies ‘Telephone Dial’ watches, were steeped in the design motifs of Art Deco. The Arabic or Roman numeral hour markers were given the elegant flourishes of what was known as the ‘Empire’ style. They set them with long, graceful cathedral hands.
The cases were sometimes circular or in softly curved geometric shapes. They were small and delicate, housing the manually-wound ‘Rebberg’ movements from Rolex’s longtime cohort, the legendary Swiss watchmaker Aegler.
Aegler specialized in making the particularly intricate calibers to fit inside lady’s watches. Also, they manufactured lever escapement mechanisms when the majority of other firms were still producing the less accurate cylinder escapements.
The ladies Telephone Dial watches are among some of the most tasteful and aesthetically refined models Rolex have created. They perfectly reflected the opulence and richness of the period.
The Rolex Prince
Another design dripping with Art Deco influences was the Rolex Prince range. These date back to 1928 and continue even today under the Cellini name—Rolex’s line of stylish dress watches.
With its distinctive rectangular case, the shape allowed for a dual dial display. The top for the hours and minutes hands, while an only slightly smaller sub dial underneath marked the seconds. The legibility of the lower dial quickly led to the Prince series. They referred to this as ‘the doctor’s watch’, as it made the timing of a patient’s pulse rate much easier for physicians.
With a movement again sourced from Aegler, the Prince range set new standards for precision and simplicity in a wristwatch. The shaped caliber had the winding barrel at one end and the balance at the other. This left room for a longer mainspring to provide a 58-hour power reserve. The large balance wheel delivered a greater accuracy.
Of the long line and many variations of the Prince range, the first two models released remain the most well-known. The Classic, ref. 1343, had the clean rectangular lines of the period. Yet, the Brancard, ref 971, featured the elegantly flared sides its name suggests. ‘Brancard’ in French means ‘stretcher’.
Made from a variety of precious metals, the Prince was available in yellow gold, platinum or sterling silver. It was an unashamedly luxurious and beautifully sophisticated watch. It was a real product of its age because its irregular shapes represented the experimental, tradition-breaking ethos of the 1920s.
The Rolex Oyster
Rolex launched the Oyster in 1926. It was t he first truly pioneering innovation from Rolex. It was also one of the most significant in watchmaking history up until that point,
Rolex had been evolving the concept of a waterproof timepiece for some time. The simple snapback cases used for pocket watches for hundreds of years had always been plagued by moisture entering the fragile internal mechanism.
They had previously developed their Hermetic watch, featuring a screw down cap that sealed in the entire movement. Although effective, the winding crown was the Achilles heel in any water resistant watch design. Typically because it had to be contained inside the case. That meant having to completely open up the watch to wind it or adjust the time.
The Oyster had the first ever serially produced waterproof case. As a result, Rolex changed the way wristwatches were regarded by the world. They were no longer seen as delicate items of jewelry for women or little more than gimmicks for men. By introducing the idea of screwing down the bezel, case back, and winding crown against the solid middle case to form an impenetrable shell, the wristwatch was suddenly a robust tool. It became a practical, durable device that was impervious to the elements and the worst that life could throw at it.
The cushion-shape of the original Rolex Oyster watches is another example of typical Art Deco design. While today they use almost exclusively round cases for their creations, Rolex developed the now iconic dive watch for the Italian watchmaker Panerai from the shape of those early Oysters.
The First Celebrity Endorsement
Along with founding a whole new direction in engineering, the Oyster also introduced another first—the celebrity endorsement.
More than anything else, Hans Wilsdorf had few equals as a marketer. He was among the earliest in any industry to recognize the value of aligning his brand with extraordinary people. He enabled them to tell the story of his products for him. So, in 1927, when he learned of the British professional swimmer Mercedes Gleitze’s attempt to swim the English Channel, he seized the opportunity to raise awareness of his new waterproof watch by persuading her to wear one during her crossing.
It was, in fact, her second time at the challenge. Her first claim to have successfully achieved the feat had been subject to allegations of cheating so, just 14 days after that initial attempt, she set off again. This time, the icy waters of the Channel defeated her. Consequently, they hauled her out of the water barely conscious, a mere seven miles shy of the coast.
Regardless, the Oyster she wore around her neck for the 10-hour endeavor worked faultlessly, cementing the reputation of Rolex’s technical wonder. Before long, their authorized dealers were displaying models suspended in fish tanks as testament to their water resistance.
The 1920s was a pivotal decade for the young Rolex company, and one that laid the groundwork for the relentless series of innovations that have set the company so far apart from every other watchmaker today.
Next week, we’ll look at the most popular Rolex watches of the 1930s, and see how the company coped with the highs and lows of the decade.