Rolex’s Quartz Models
Many of the terms we have traditionally associated with quartz timepieces are the exact opposites of those we usually associate with Rolex.
Cheap, soulless, mass production timepieces, lacking in craftsmanship and heritage.
It is no surprise then that the brand has dabbled only very fleetingly with the technology in the past, and even then, seemingly against their will.
However, paragons of the traditional watchmaker’s art or not, Rolex have indeed had to engage with the world of electronics throughout their long history. In order to remain at the top, they have released a number of battery-powered models, and more recently than you may think.
Below we explore how the manufacture begrudgingly embraced quartz, adapted it—in typical Rolex fashion—to make it their own, as well as taking a look at some of the fascinating watches it produced.
Rolex And Quartz Technology
There was nothing new about quartz technology by the time what would go on to be known as the ‘Quartz Crisis’ decimated Switzerland’s horology industry. As early as 1927, engineer Warren Mason built the most accurate clock ever made using quartz crystals to regulate the timekeeping, but as said clock took up an entire room, it was still decades away from worrying wristwatch manufacturers.
Yet by the mid 20th century, it was becoming clear that something major was brewing, with two American brands taking definite strides in the right direction. Firstly, Hamilton produced the Hamilton 500 in 1957, which replaced the movement’s mainspring with a battery for the first time. A few years later in 1960, Bulova brought out the Accutron, which did away with a balance wheel in favor of a metal tuning fork, and both these vital developments laid the bedrock for eventual quartz calibers.
Finally spotting the dangers, 20 of the biggest Swiss maisons banded together in 1962 to form the CEH (Centre Electronique Horloger) to try and launch a counter offensive.
The consortium, which boasted the likes of Omega, Piaget and Patek Philippe, as well as Rolex themselves, among their number, took until 1969 to come up with a workable, mass produced quartz movement; the Beta-21.
Accurate to within five seconds a month, leaps and bounds above anything even these titans had been able to produce with conventional mechanics, the caliber found its way inside some 16 different models from the various CEH brands. And for Rolex, that model was the ref. 5100 Beta-21.
The Rolex ref. 5100 Beta-21
On paper, the ref. 5100 was a triumph. Not only was it amazingly accurate, but thanks to a micro motor supplied by Omega, the seconds hand still had that silky smooth sweep around the dial Rolex owners loved so much, as opposed to the jarring one-second jump associated with the cheap quartz watches coming in from Japan.
It was, as well, the first model from the brand to feature both a Quickset date and a hacking function. It was also the first to be fitted with a sapphire crystal, taking the place of the former acrylic.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the huge-for-the-time 40mm case was penned by none other than Gerald Genta, the legendary watch designer responsible for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Because of the large size and awkward shape of the Beta-21, there were no Oyster cases into which it would fit, and Genta’s housing, as revolutionary as it was, lacked waterproofing—one of Rolex’s main selling points. On top of that, the caliber drained its battery too quickly and because it was only ever released in solid yellow gold, and Rolex wanted to recoup some of the funds they had poured into its development, the ref. 5100 was not only the most accurate watch they had ever produced, but also the most expensive.
Nevertheless, all 1,000 units of the model sold out in preproduction, before anyone had even seen it in the flesh when it was unveiled at the 1970 Baselworld show.
Rolex struggled on with the ref. 5100, nicknamed The Texan for its larger than life persona, until 1972 before doing what they have done so well throughout their history; turning inward, locking the doors and building something better all on their own.
It took them five years. In 1977, Rolex emerged with not one but two new quartz pieces, both based on their own bestselling classics, the Day-Date and Datejust. Their basic form took the ref. 5100 as inspiration, particularly in retaining the integrated bracelet. But as these models were composed by the brand’s own designers, they were true Rolex watches and benefitted from their own waterproofed housing, hence the name; Oysterquartz.
Inside were a pair of calibers, the Cal. 5055 and Cal. 5035 respectively, which were themselves constructed very much in keeping with the latest generations of their traditional movements going into the mechanical versions of the watches (the Cal. 3055 and Cal. 3035).
Seeing no need to monkey with a thoroughly proven formula, Rolex simply kept as much of the mechanical calibers as they were able for the quartz varieties. So, the gear train and pallet assembly were virtually identical on both and, in fact, the entire drive mechanism was based on a standard escapement with the exception of the pulse motor and onboard electronics.
But in order to be formally classified as a chronometer, the Cal. 5055 and Cal. 5035 were going to have to outperform their conventional siblings by an enormous amount. The COSC laid down that quartz chronometers had to be accurate to within +/-0.2 seconds a day, as opposed to the -4/+6 seconds a day for the regular movements.
To achieve it, Rolex used an oscillator four times faster than the one the CEH had implanted into the Beta-21 and also fitted a thermistor, a device that analyzed the ambient temperature and regulated the frequency of the quartz crystal accordingly, making their newest creations some of the first analogue thermocompensation movements ever made.
Some 18-months later they changed the structure of the crystal, turning it into a tuning fork shape and sent these second generation calibers in for testing. And while no official data was ever released, it is believed the Oysterquartz watches had a mean variation of just 50-seconds a year.
The Oysterquartz Variations and the Quartz Cellini Models
To get a feel for just how reluctant Rolex were over engaging with quartz technology, you only have to look at the figures. The brand, these days, famously churns out around a million mechanical watches per year.
As for the Oysterquartz, between their introduction in 1977 to their eventual retirement in 2001 (although they still appeared in the catalog until 2003) Rolex produced just 25,000. Not per year—in total.
Those were split across a surprising number of different types. The quartz Day-Date, especially, was given plenty of variety, issued in 12 separate references—from the most prevalent ref. 19018 in yellow gold, to the ref. 19188, beset with diamonds and rubies and sitting on the ‘Karat’ bracelet, itself awash with precious stones. The total number of those in existence may not have even broken double figures.
But were the Oysterquartz duo the only battery-powered Rolexes ever made? Actually, no.
Their Cellini Collection, the perpetually overlooked series of out-and-out dress watches, received a handful of quartz models, from the 1980s to as recently as the 2010s.
Exclusively for women and ranging in size from the miniscule ref. 2721 at 21mm up to the 37mm ref. 6623, they were all powered by the Cal 6620 and later the Cal. 6621. Both of these were derived from a movement meant to go into the quartz version of the Lady Datejust but which never progressed past the prototype phase, the Cal. 6035.
The Cal. 662X movements measured just 19.8mm in diameter and 2.5mm in height and, strangely, had no seconds hand mechanism. So all quartz Cellini watches were two-handers only. The first examples of the Cal. 6620 movement rolled off the line in July 1983 but testing took so long that full-scale manufacture didn’t happen until 1987. The caliber was replaced in 1990 by the Cal. 6621, which replaced the trimmer (a device which regulates the pulses caused by sending an electrical charge through the quartz crystal) with an inhibition circuit (a more modern and accurate version).
The Cal. 6621 stayed in production all the way up to 2019, with more than 100,000 being made. Now, however, there are no current pieces in any of Rolex’s collections of watches powered by quartz movements.
Will There Ever Be Another Quartz Rolex?
Despite their obvious superiority in precision, the mention of the word quartz amongst hardcore horology enthusiasts is usually treated with something akin to disdain. High quality luxury watches are not bought, these days at least, to be the last word in timekeeping accuracy—they are bought as statements, signs of good taste, mementoes or rewards for a certain level of achievement.
That aside though, we are seeing some of the biggest names in the business start to reintroduce quartz models back into their lineups. Perhaps most noticeably in recent years is Patek Philippe’s unveiling of their Aquanaut Luce Quartz ref. 5267/200A, a unisex sized, 38.8mm version of their all-conquering Nautilus-light. It joins Patek’s quartz-powered portfolio alongside several examples in their Gondolo and Twenty~4 ranges.
Will Rolex follow suit and bring us their own line of new battery-driven wrist machines? Well, trying to second guess what Rolex might do next week is an exercise in futility, let alone several years down the line. But they are certainly a brand which likes to surprise us, for better or worse, so only the most foolhardy would rule it out completely. But rest assured, if and when it happens, we’ll have all the details for you here.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.