With the dawn of the 1930s, the world suddenly found itself facing an almighty hangover following the carefree hedonism of the Roaring Twenties. The Wall Street crash of October 24th 1929 ushered in the era known now as the Great Depression, the longest and most severe economic slump ever suffered by the industrialized world.
But while the west agonized, and America in particular, with unemployment rising as high as 25%, it marked a turning point for Swiss watchmaking dominance. Their federal government acted quickly in battening down the hatches to weather the worst of the recession, outlawing the export of watch components to other countries for assembly and taking strict control of every aspect of the industry, from production techniques to pricing.
Although FDR’s New Deal brought the first signs of recovery as early as 1933, it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the economy returned to pre-depression levels, by which time the world had even bigger problems.
For Rolex, shielded at the heart of the insular Swiss watchmaking industry, it was a time of even greater innovation—continuing the strides it had made in 1926 with the Oyster, the first truly waterproof case, and their ongoing efforts to popularize the men’s wristwatch.
With the problem of protecting their timepieces from the elements essentially solved, Rolex turned their attention to cracking the last remaining issue—manually wound movements.
Having to wind your watch daily was more than a simple inconvenience; with the Oyster case, the crown was the design’s only potential weak point. Although hermetically sealed once it was firmly in place, unscrewing it each day eventually caused the interior waterproof seals to wear out, allowing moisture and dust to enter the mechanism.
The Perpetual Movement
The first self-winding wristwatch had been invented in 1923 by John Harwood, from the Isle of Man in the U.K. Although the Harwood Self-Winding Watch Company owned the patent on the idea and had put the system into production, it had not been a huge success and the company fell victim to the Great Depression in 1931.
With the concept now up for grabs, Emile Borer, the head of research at Rolex’s long-time partners Aegler, developed on Harwood’s original design, replacing the semi-circular weight with a unidirectional rotor able to turn through a full 360 degrees.
The winding crown now used solely for setting the time, Rolex’s watches became instantly more secure and durable, and because the rotor delivered a constant tension to the mainspring as it moved, their accuracy was also vastly improved.
It was the development that finally sealed victory over the pocket watch, as the relatively small amount of motion experienced by a watch kept in a vest pocket as opposed to on a wrist would never be enough to automatically power a movement.
The first Rolex ‘Perpetuals’ were launched in 1933 and, because of the extra bulk of their new mechanisms, required a correspondingly thicker case to accommodate them, thus starting the longstanding tradition of unofficial nicknames being given to the Swiss watchmaking giant’s creations. These early pieces with their rounded exterior were immediately christened ‘Bubbleback’.
Below, we’ll look at some of the most popular watches from the 1930s that made use of this ingenious new system which still forms the basic architecture of almost every modern automatic watch today.
Rolex Bubbleback 3131 & 3132
The earliest Bubbleback models, starting with the ref. 1858, featured a three-piece case construction with a deeply convex back to house their various calibers. By 1935, Rolex had refined their movements with a simplified balance wheel, known as the ‘Super Balance’ and a year later included it in mechanisms powering two of the most important watches in the company’s history.
The references 3131 and 3132, both introduced in 1936, were the first Oyster Perpetuals to appear with a two-piece case and were among the first from the company as a whole to be made available in a range of different materials. Along with a choice of 9, 14 and 18k pink or yellow gold, the new models also launched in Steelium, Rolex’s stainless steel alloy, and Rolesor, their combination of steel and yellow gold that is still extensively used across the current lineup.
Inside, the ref. 3131 used the latest 620 caliber, with the 3132 containing the 630. Virtually identical, the only difference was in the seconds hand—the 620 had the standard central sweep seconds and the 630 a subsidiary seconds hand on a sub dial.
Stylistically, it’s easy to look at these two watches from way back in the 1930s and see in them the basis for all future Rolexes. The round cases have moved away from the rectangular and cushion-shaped Art Deco designs of the ‘20s, taking with them much of their jewelry-like quality and ushering in a new role as robust and reliable tools for a more serious age.
Packed full of the sort of innovations for which the name Rolex was starting to become synonymous, the ref. 3131 and 3132 mark a significant chapter in the brand’s story.
The Rolex Oyster and the Quest for Adventure
While the world may have been reeling in economic turmoil, the spirit of the adventurer in the 1930s was as strong as ever. It was the decade that saw incredible feats being achieved both in the air and on land. And the intrepid pioneers who pushed their bodies and their machines to the limits presented Rolex with the perfect opportunity to test their own creations—and gain the kind of publicity money just can’t buy.
In 1933, the Houston Expedition, commanded by the gloriously named RAF squadron leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (or Lord Clydesdale to give him his proper title) completed the first ever flight over Mount Everest. At a time when Hillary and Tensing were still barely teenagers, the two Westland bi-planes of the mission circled 100 feet above the summit of the highest peak on earth, relying on the fragile mechanics of their engines in the thin and frigid air.
Not only did the crews return safely to their base in Purnea, India, but the Rolex Oysters worn by all four aviators proved completely reliable, despite having to deal with the vicious gradients in temperature and pressure and the brutal humidity of the region.
Back on the land, and the relentless pursuit of speed was also in its golden age. On the 3rd September 1935, Sir Malcolm Campbell became the first man to break through a major milestone when he piloted his Bluebird racer to over 300 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The British Royal Air Force Captain had been breaking his own speed records for eleven years, including five times at a place that will be forever linked with Rolex—Daytona Beach, Florida.
The conditions under which these achievements took place, with the hard-packed surfaces producing huge amounts of fine debris, coupled with the bone-jarring vibrations the watches were subjected to, were perhaps the sternest test to date for Rolex’s engineering. Campbell wore his Oyster on several of his triumphant runs, as well as when he successfully switched to breaking water speed records, and they remained as precise and robust as ever.
In a telegram to the company, Campbell wrote, “Rolex watch worn during record attempt and still going splendidly, notwithstanding rough usage received”. He became the first male sports figure to become a Rolex testimonee, although he always refused any fees from the company and bought all his watches himself. As an ambassador for the brand, Campbell was in a league of his own.
The 1930s were a turbulent decade and led to some of the darkest days in history. But as is so often the case, out of great adversity came great achievement. For Rolex, with their unrivalled innovations in the Oyster case and now their new Perpetual movements, it marked the start of their domination of the watchmaking industry.