You can forgive the Swiss watchmaking industry for dragging its feet when the quartz era dawned. An industry centuries in the making, they had brought mechanical timepieces to an unheard of level of sophistication, forging movements that were both at the cutting edge of technology and a highly expressive art form.
By comparison, the detached coldness of quartz was from another planet. Lacking in tradition, history and, most of all, passion, it was seen as a fad and nothing more, suitable for the kind of cheap, plastic, disposable watches that no self-respecting enthusiast would wear in a million years.
By the time they realized the extent to which they had misjudged the situation, the damage had already been done. The quartz crisis of the 1970s eviscerated the traditional Swiss watchmaking firms, killing off better than two thirds of the country’s manufacturers and throwing those that clung on by the skin of their teeth into a blind panic.
In a desperate bid to counter the insurgence of countless waves of electronic watches from Japan and America, 20 of the top Swiss brands bonded together into a consortium called the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in order to develop technology of their own.
Their first prototype, the Beta-1, put into production as the Beta-21, found its way into the watches of sixteen separate CEH companies. For Rolex, it was shoehorned inside the 40mm case of the ref. 5100.
Representing a significant stylistic departure for the world’s leading watchmaker, the 5100, with its distinctive integrated case and bracelet, had looks more in common with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak than with any of Rolex’s previous offerings. The limited run of 1,000 pieces sold out before production began, even though the exclusively 18k yellow gold construction landed it with a price tag that made it the most expensive watch the brand had ever produced. Along with its internal technological advances, it was also the first Rolex to receive a sapphire crystal and a Quickset date function.
However, while it may have been a hit initially, its appeal was short lived. In 1972, the 5100 was discontinued, as was Rolex’s association with the CEH. A manufacturer that had been the pioneer of so much in the mechanical watch world, using the same calibers as more than a dozen rival brands was never going to be the Rolex way. So, they did what they always do when necessity demands; they locked the doors and built a solution of their own.
The Caliber 5035
It took them five years. In 1977, the Cal. 5035 Oysterquartz emerged, an 11-jewel, 32khz caliber designed solely to sit inside the newly created quartz version of the Datejust. Simultaneously, the Cal. 5055 was launched to power the Day-Date models.
As you would expect, while it was clear Rolex was only getting involved with this new technology under sufferance, what they came up with became the standard for others to follow.
Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the Cal. 5035 was constructed as much as possible along the same lines as the mechanical movements Rolex had been dominating the industry with for decades. The bridge, gear train and pallet assembly would be recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity of the inner workings of a Submariner or Explorer. In fact, the entire drive mechanism of the 5035 is based very much on a traditional escapement and, with the exception of the pulse motor and electronics, the movement is almost identical to the mechanical Cal. 3035 launched the same year.
However, while that conventional automatic caliber could achieve an accuracy rate stringent enough to wear its ‘Superlative Chronometer’ tag from the COSC, the standards set down by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute for quartz movements were a different matter altogether. For that, the 5035 would have to be certified to within +/- 0.2 seconds a day.
Even for a company like Rolex it was a big ask, and one of the reasons they decide to break away from the CEH to develop their own system. To extract every last shred of precision from their quartz movements, they used an oscillator four times faster than that found in the Beta-21, as well as employing a thermistor to analyze the ambient temperature and regulate the frequency of the quartz crystal, making it one of the first analogue thermocompensation movements ever made.
While all these advances gave the 5035 a formidable performance, it wasn’t until 18 months into its production run that Rolex started to submit the caliber to the scrutiny of the COSC, and only after the quartz crystal in the oscillator circuit was altered to a tuning fork shape. Although no official data has been released, it’s believed these second generation movements had a mean variation of 50 seconds per year, making them the most accurate timekeepers the company has ever produced, by a huge margin.
The Cal. 5035 at Work
The Cal. 5035 and Cal. 5055, the only two quartz calibers Rolex ever mass-produced (with the exception of the Cal. 6621 in several of the Cellini range), stayed in production for 25 years. But, where the company famously makes around a million mechanical watches a year, in a quarter of a century, only 25,000 quartz pieces left the factory.
Today, those watches represent a fascinating slice of brand history. Their breakthrough technology and extreme rarity value, along with their archetypal 70s styling, make them an appealing target for vintage collectors.
Both the Oysterquartz versions of the Datejust and the Day-Date were manufactured to look strikingly different to their mechanical counterparts, with reluctant Rolex executives striving to ensure there could be no confusion between the young upstarts and watches that were the products of decades of laborious evolution.
The Rolex Datejust ref. 17000
The Datejust, the watch with the longest unbroken production run of any in the Rolex stable, has often been used as the guinea pig when the company wants to test out its new innovations.
The Oysterquartz model of the all-time classic was released in three variations; the steel ref. 17000, the steel and yellow gold Rolesor ref. 17013 and the Rolesor steel and white gold ref. 17014.
While it retained the familiar fluted bezel of the traditional piece, it also carried over much of the ref. 5100’s styling, with the bracelet, case and lugs forming a unified whole that lacked the sweeping grace of the original and, if you squinted, could be easily mistaken for a Patek Philippe Nautilus. The design meant the ref. 17000 series wore a great deal larger on the wrist than its 36mm dimensions would suggest.
Although the case was a drastic departure from the norm, Rolex kept the dial elements identical to its mechanical stable mate. In fact, apart from the obvious inclusion of the ‘Oysterquartz’ text under the brand name, the only other way you could differentiate one dial from the other is the telltale seconds hand.
Debuted at the same time as the Cal. 5035, the Perpetual Cal. 3035 ushered in the 28,800bph frequency of all modern Rolex automatic movements. It is what gives the seconds hands on their contemporary models their trademark smooth sweeping motion of eight beats per second.
With the Cal. 5035, a stepper motor is used to drive the pallet fork, which in turn drives a pallet wheel that is linked directly to the hands. This 3,600bph system creates an audible, one beat per second ‘tick’ that sets the watch apart from anything else in the Rolex catalog.
The Vintage Oysterquartz
As was evidenced by the severely limited numbers in which it was produced, the Oysterquartz Rolex models were something of an oddity, and an acquired taste at best.
Even though the company could be accused of showing a certain lack of enthusiasm for the new quartz technology, when they did eventually decide to join the party, what emerged was one of the most over-engineered and advanced quartz movements ever made. In its day, it had virtually no rivals in terms of accuracy and sturdiness, and it is a testament to Rolex’s work ethic that a mechanism only made by the relative handful, from back in 1977, is still serviceable by their technicians today.
As products, the Cal. 5035 and Cal. 5055 served their purpose—helping the world’s most famous luxury watch brand ride out the worst of the crisis and proving they were the equals to any challenge.