The Beckertime Comparison Series: The Men’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual Versus the Rolex Ladies Oyster Perpetual of the 2010s
There’s a definite pecking order at work within Rolex’s portfolio—a sort of hierarchy of popularity which tends to dictate how often a certain model will receive an upgrade in design or mechanism.
Top of the shop has long been (and will likely continue to be) the most iconic tool watch models. So the Daytona, the GMT-Master II, the Sea-Dweller and, to a strangely lesser extent, the Submariner, all get looked over and subtly altered on a semi-regular basis.
The dress watch stalwarts of the Datejust and Day-Date can expect a checkup and some delicate enhancements almost as frequently, although there’s a good chance you won’t notice from one generation to the next just by looking at them.
And then there’s the rest; the somewhat neglected underdogs, the cult favorites familiar only to those with some degree of knowledge of both the brand itself and horology in general.
In this group you will find the likes of the Air-King, the Explorer, the Milgauss and most certainly the Oyster Perpetual series.
Other than their dark horse status, the other attribute they all share is an overriding simplicity. Even by Rolex’s standards, a manufacture which, until very recently, considered a chronograph or dual time zone function about the limit for mechanical complexity, these four are about as straightforward as a watch can be.
Time-only, aesthetically austere, every one has held a place in the lineup for decades, but seem to have spent much of that time more or less forgotten. Evidence can be found in just how few references there have been of each compared to the big-hitters. All released a handful of versions in quick succession at the start of their runs as the finer details were worked out, then one iteration came along which just went on and on.
So the Milgauss debuted in 1956, with its first two models here and gone by 1960. Then the ref. 1019 arrived and continued essentially unchanged right up until 1988. It was a similar tale with the Explorer ref. 1016, running from 1963 to 1989. And the Air-King went even better with the ref. 5500, starting in 1957 and not replaced for 38-years.
But What About the Oyster Perpetual?
The Oyster Perpetual watches are actually a little different. Dating back even longer than notable veterans like the Explorer, they officially belong to the Classic Collection of dressier models, but still have much of the sporty aspect of the Professional Collection of tool watches.
However, while the other second tier Rolexes have had only one or two styles out at a time, with maybe a single choice in dial color if you’re lucky, the OP is more like the Datejust; available in a huge variety to suit any taste.
Even so, it is a consistently overlooked range, which is odd considering its importance in the history of Rolex and watchmaking as a whole. The name is formed from the two most significant advances ever made to the wristwatch—the waterproof Oyster case Rolex invented in 1926, and the self-winding Perpetual movement they perfected a few years later in 1931.
Together, the twin innovations have formed the backbone of just about every watch the brand has created since, with only the Cellini range not being an ‘Oyster Perpetual something-or-other’.
Regardless, it has long been seen as the entry level Rolex, and as such has more often than not loitered at the back of the queue when the watchmaker is dishing out the improvements.
That is, until recently. The last few years have seen the Oyster Perpetual series go through some important changes, and now it is up among the more interesting and diverse offerings in the portfolio.
The Oyster Perpetual in the 2010s
The start of the 2010s saw the Oyster Perpetual in a significantly different range of sizes than the end of the 2010s.
As with the Datejust, the assortment covered lady’s, mid and men’s size watches, exclusively in steel with smooth bezels, coming in with a 26mm, a 31mm, a 34mm and a 36mm. But with modern tastes being what they are, the collection was beginning to look behind the times.
The 36mm was being thought of as too small by an ever-growing section of the traditional male audience, whereas more and more women had taken to wearing watches at least that size, if not bigger. As a consequence, the 26mm was being disregarded completely; seen as excessively tiny, it was suffering a similar fate as was befalling the 26mm Lady-Datejust of the time.
However, underlining the point about the Oyster Perpetual being one of the forgotten Rolex, it would take until 2015 before anything was done about it.
That was the year the collection started taking a shift to the right as far as dimensions were concerned. The series got a new top end with the introduction of a 39mm, the ref. 114300. Still not an unreasonably large watch by any means, it was nonetheless extremely well received.
As with the rest of the range, Rolex kept these new Oyster Perpetual additions fairly lighthearted—so along with the more conservative dark rhodium or silver dials, we were also treated to faces of red grape and a bright blue with neon green accents over the hour markers.
The next size down, now the 36mm, relaxed into its role as the ideal unisex Rolex with its own set of off-the-wall dials, such as bright purple or white grape (sort of a pale gold).
It was a pattern which replayed across the rest of the series, each size getting a selection of vibrantly colorful frontages running alongside more neutral shades.
But the one thing missing was a classic monochrome for the two largest pieces, something which was remedied in 2018 when the 36mm and 39mm were given beautiful black and white versions. Rather than being flat and uninteresting examples of both, the black had a subtle sunburst, changing tone in different lighting, while the white, quite a rarity in the Rolex portfolio these days, had a warm glossy finish which added a real touch of class.
The Contemporary Oyster Perpetual Collection
2020 saw one of the biggest shakeups to the Oyster Perpetual range in its history.
An entirely new generation of the collection emerged, with upgrades made to every model as well as two new sizes being brought in to replace existing ones (even though one of the sizes had only just arrived).
At the smallest end, the OP followed the lead of the Lady-Datejust from 2016 when it finally ditched the 26mm watch and replaced it with a 28mm. Although 2mm doesn’t sound like much on paper, the increase in dimensions was certainly noticeable on the wrist and this new, characteristically simple piece has gained a strong following.
But if that was an expected move, the substitution of the recently introduced 39mm for a brand new 41mm definitely wasn’t. The former had only been part of the lineup for five years and was proving highly popular. Why Rolex decided to pull the plug so soon is a mystery, yet there’s no doubting the larger size watches have opened up the series to a wider audience.
More importantly than all that though, each variant received new movements from Rolex’s latest wave of calibers. The 28mm, 31mm and 34mm are all now driven by the Cal. 2232, the no-date version of the Cal. 2236 which debuted inside the 34mm Pearlmaster in 2014.
Manufactured completely in-house, it takes advantage of Rolex’s patented Syloxi silicon hairspring, leaving it impervious to magnetic fields and giving it great resistance to temperature variations and up to 10 times more shock protection than a regular hairspring. It is thought the Syloxi actually outperforms the Parachrom hairspring Rolex developed in 2000 for their bigger mechanisms.
One of those, the Cal. 3230, is now found inside the 36mm and 41mm OPs. Another cutting-edge caliber, it features both the Parachrom Bleu and one other element missing from the Cal. 2232, the Chronergy escapement. A from-the-ground-up redesign of the traditional Swiss lever escapement, the Chronergy replaces or improves upon about 90% of the components and is reportedly some 15% more efficient as a result.
The new movements bring the Oyster Perpetual range into the 21st century at long last, although they were among the last of the brand’s watches to get the newest crop. At time of writing, only the 34mm models of the Datejust (called the Date) are still powered by the previous Cal. 31XX generation.
Despite a wide variety in colors, the dials fitted to the latest crop of Oyster Perpetuals have a uniformity about them.
The handset is kept the same across all sizes, as you would expect. Rolex has employed its plain stick hands for the OP, underlining both the watch’s stubborn simplicity as well as its place in the Classic Collection.
Yet, unlike other series which have numerous different models, every dial has the same baton hour markers. There’s no sign of even the relatively low-key Roman or Arabic numerals and certainly no diamond accents as you would see elsewhere.
As for those colors, it is clear to see that Rolex now considers the Oyster Perpetual as their true unisex offering, regardless of size.
The largest 41mm is a seven watch group, with dials running the gamut from a deep black (no white in the current selection, unfortunately), through a refined silver and a bright blue, before shifting gears dramatically to a bunch of examples which out-kitsch even the Stella dials from the 1970’s Day-Dates.
The yellow, green and coral red pieces are blindingly bright, while the turquoise is at least within shouting distance of restrained. But it is still not going to go unnoticed anywhere but a dark room.
As for the 36mm, that assembly has all the same color options, plus a candy pink I can’t recall ever seeing before in Rolex’s archives, making the once traditionally men’s size ideal now for either gender.
The 34mm, as it has been for a while, is the problem middle child of the range size-wise, and as such gets just four dial options; black, blue, silver and another pink, but a far more refined salmony shade this time.
The final two sizes reveal something quite intriguing. Even with the increase in dimensions of the smallest model, it looks as if Rolex expect to sell more of the 31mm. That piece gets nine dial options, the most of any in the collection, while the 28mm has to get by with just four. The trend for outsize watches may be behind us now, thankfully, but the overall growth in average dimensions is here to stay.
The brand has clearly decided to take the perennially ignored Oyster Perpetual in a new, bold direction and, for the most part, it has worked beautifully. A model typically bought by those either at the start of their collecting journey, or else looking for just one watch to last a lifetime, the latest generation offers plenty of scope.
Of course, popularity at Rolex is something of a double-edged sword. The OP range has usually been one of those steel rarities which are available to buy at ADs without jumping through too many hoops—the benefit of being a relative also-ran.
But with these contemporary pieces being so well received, it will be interesting to see if that lasts, and preowned prices are already skyrocketing for some examples.
One thing’s for sure though. If you are in the market for a watch that is the epitome of three-handed, time-only elegance, with or without a quirky twist, all backed up by a name synonymous with faultless quality, there is very little out there which does as much for the price.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.