Review: The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 17013
With a history as long as Rolex’s, there are always going to be those moments that exist outside the norm.
The quartz crisis was, fortunately, a relatively brief interlude in the watchmaking industry—the worst of its effects taking place over little more than a decade. However, that was plenty long enough to annihilate around two-thirds of Switzerland’s traditional manufacturers, forcing hundreds into bankruptcy.
Rolex survived better than most, and arguably thrived, in their customary way; innovation.
Forced to engage with the new technology, they at first teamed up with 20 other companies to build a joint quartz movement to be used inside a variety of brand-specific watches, giving us the Beta-21.
But playing with others has never been something at which Rolex excel, and in 1972 they bolted the doors and got to work on a caliber of their own. After five years two new watches debuted, dubbed the Oysterquartz, loosely based around their conventional dress pieces, the Day-Date and Datejust.
Even though Rolex was participating very much out of sufferance, their quartz models, and the movements especially, remain amongst the most impressively over engineered examples ever made. They are way out in front of anything else they have created in terms of timekeeping accuracy, and their highly individual, archetypically seventies styling is one now very much in vogue.
True to their springs and gears equivalents, the quartz powered Day-Date models were released only in gold, while the Datejust watches were the more everyman option. These could be had in either all steel or one of two varieties of Rolesor, Rolex’s own name for their blend of steel and gold.
Both watch series’ ran from 1977, with production officially stopped in 2001, although certain references remained in the catalog until 2003. During that time only around 25,000 were made; a tiny number compared to the manufacture’s mechanical output.
That makes these pieces particularly rare and highly collectible, a fascinating slice of Rolex history that still manages to be perfectly affordable.
The ref. 17013 is perhaps the most popular of all the various Oysterquartz versions, and below we will take a look at it in a bit more detail.
Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust ref. 17013 Metals and Bezels
All the Oysterquartz watches Rolex produced were technically 36mm, the customary size for much of their Classic Collection at the time.
However, the then-space age internal technology seemed to call for a similarly futuristic housing and so they were given striking angular cases with integrated bracelets, reminiscent of the Gérald Genta-penned Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet. The design essentially looks like one continuous metal band and wears far larger than its dimensions on paper would suggest.
Of course, the other reason the Oysterquartz models had such a different look to their mechanical counterparts was because Rolex wanted to make sure no one was going to confuse the two. Interestingly, the brand did a market test of the case style in 1974, powered by a regular Perpetual caliber (the Cal. 1570), releasing both a steel and two-tone version, the ref. 1530 and ref. 1630 respectively. Only around 1,500 were made, and have become much sought after by collectors.
Eccentric shape though they were, they were nonetheless still Oyster cases, water resistant to 100m; something which couldn’t be said for Rolex’s first stab at producing a quartz watch, the ref. 5100 with the consortium-built Beta-21.
The ref. 17013 was the yellow Rolesor piece of the Oysterquartz Datejust range, with the gold being used on the fluted bezel as well as the crown and two of the three central links of the Jubilee-style bracelet.
The other two variants available were the all-steel ref. 17000 and the ref. 17014, another bi-metal offering, this time with white gold, except here the precious metal was used only for the surround.
The absence of versions with the Datejust’s typical selection from the era of either smooth or engine-turned bezels was more evidence of how much Rolex was merely going through the motions with quartz, perhaps the only time in their history they could be accused of doing the bare minimum.
Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust ref. 17013 Movements
The initial Oysterquartz models, including the ref. 17013, were launched in 1977, the same year a new generation of mechanical Datejust emerged.
The ref. 160XX series was released to introduce an upgraded Perpetual movement, the Cal. 3035, which brought the high beat 28,800vph frequency to the men’s range for the first time.
Rather than try and reinvent the wheel with the electronic caliber that was to sit inside the quartz Datejust models, the Cal. 5035, Rolex’s engineers based it very much on that traditional mechanism.
So elements like the gear train and pallet assembly from the Cal. 3035 were carried over, and the entire escapement, except for the pulse motor, were identical.
Unusually for Rolex though, the quality of the finishing was far higher than the more industrial style their movements typically receive. The rhodium-plated brass bridges were given beautiful chamfered edges and Côtes de Genève striping—a benefit of having a far lower production run and so more time to lavish on them.
What it all amounted to was one of the most advanced quartz movements yet created. The 3,600vph, 11-jewel caliber was among the first thermocompensated examples, able to regulate the frequency of its crystal’s vibration to offset changes in ambient temperature.
Its technology was also streets ahead of just about anything else being produced, and it was almost unbelievably precise.
Rolex’s traditional watches had long worn the ‘Superlative Chronometer’ tag issued by the COSC, the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute. To do so, their mechanisms had to keep to an accuracy of -4/+6 seconds a day. The requirements for quartz were far greater than that, at +/-0.2 seconds a day.
For the first 18 months the brand didn’t submit any of their new models for certification, but after continuing to work on the Cal. 5035 (and the Cal. 5055 in the Day-Date), altering the quartz crystal in the oscillator to a tuning fork shape, the COSC found the movements to be able to keep within +/-0.07 seconds a day.
Even by modern standards it is massively impressive and the movements were so far ahead of their time they are still serviceable by Rolex technicians today.
It makes the Oysterquartz models easily the most accurate watches Rolex has yet produced, and something nigh-on impossible to beat with a conventional movement.
Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust ref. 17013 Dials
The great appeal of the traditional Datejust and Day-Date watches has always rested on their sheer scale of available options. The different possible connotations of various metal, dial color, bezel type and bracelet number into the thousands, looking to attract as wide an audience as possible.
With the Oysterquartz though, the selection was just a fraction of that given to the mechanical versions.
The Day-Date had the longer options list, with some fairly extraordinary variations emerging towards the end of its run. But the Datejust stuck very much to the basics, and potential customers had the choice of either champagne, black, white, blue or silver dials, mostly with plain stick baton hour markers, although Roman numerals did appear occasionally later.
On the two-tone case of the ref. 17013, those shades match particularly well and the champagne especially. A yellow Rolesor Rolex with a gold dial is one of the all time classic horology visuals.
Because of the brand’s reluctance in sending the earliest examples of the watch to the COSC, there are actually two types of dial, known as Mark I and Mark II. Mark I pieces don’t have the ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially certified’ text, while the Mark II does. With the comparative rarity of the Mark I dials, they tend to be the more collectible, and expensive, of the two.
Finally during this era, the luminescent material Rolex was using on hands and indexes went through changes as well. Most of the examples you will find on the preowned market were still using tritium, a low-level radioactive substance. These are easily identified by looking underneath the six o’clock index, where they will be marked ‘T Swiss T’ or ‘T Swiss Made T’. Those built from around 1998 until the end of production a couple of years later switched to the photoluminescent (and completely non-radioactive) Luminova. These are labeled simply ‘Swiss’.
Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust ref. 17013 Bracelets
Between models such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus, IWC Ingenieur and the previously mentioned Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, integrated bracelet watches were very much de rigueur during the 70s. That they had all been devised by the same man, the legendary Gérald Genta, was no coincidence, nor was the fact he had also created Rolex’s quartz prototype, the ref. 5100.
Although the Oysterquartz was the brand’s own design, the influence of those other pieces couldn’t be more obvious. The sharp-edged cushion shape was very much of its time, as was the reimagined Jubilee band.
With the ref. 17013, the yellow gold elements take up two of the bracelet’s center links, as opposed to all three on the traditional version. Each link is also far longer and chunkier than usual as well, which gives a better complement to the overall styling.
In all it is extremely distinctive, a perfect match for a watch that looked like nothing else Rolex ever made.
The Oysterquartz Datejust ref. 17013 is undoubtedly an oddity in the crown’s long story. While it was made, like the rest of the range, out of necessity rather than any desire, it still speaks volumes about the manufacture. The quartz crisis might have forced their hand, but Rolex responded by building one of the most extraordinarily accomplished watches of its type, testament to their dedication and engineering prowess.
Today, the Oysterquartz models, and the yellow Rolesor examples specifically, have become cult favorites among collectors looking for something a little more quirky than the usual suspects of Submariners and Daytonas. Best of all, prices are still realistic, despite the relative shortage of them on the market.