Top Tier Wonders of the Oysterquartz World
In a textbook example of belated door bolting, Rolex’s begrudging dalliance with the world of quartz technology didn’t really start in earnest until 1977. That was the year the leaders in all things mechanical launched their answer to the crisis which had eviscerated their industry all around them. The flood of cheap electronic timepieces from Japan and America had bankrupted more than two thirds of the traditional Swiss houses in less than a decade, and while Rolex had fared better than most, it had still become obvious something needed to be done.
That something was the Oysterquartz series, a pair of watch families based around two of the most popular and best selling models in the company’s history; the Datejust and the Day-Date.
Rolex released quartz-driven versions of both, powered by a duo of in-house calibers (the Cal. 5035 and Cal. 5055), housed in archetypal seventies-esque cases—all sharp angles and integrated bracelets, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
That similarity to the AP was to be expected—the styling was actually a follow-on from Rolex’s first ever quartz model launched a few years earlier, a more or less prototype piece called the ref. 5100. Containing a consortium built caliber, the Beta-21, the large 40mm exclusively 18k gold watch had been designed by Gérald Genta, the man who sketched the Royal Oak and Patek’s Nautilus, among others.
Almost despite Rolex’s best efforts, the Oysterquartz range proved extremely popular, with customers flocking for a high quality and hugely accurate timepiece from such an influential brand that was significantly cheaper than their classic offerings. Yet, despite the enormous demand, the firm only churned out around 1,000 pieces each year, devoting the vast majority of their resources to their mechanical output.
The Rarest of the Rare
Those 1,000 units were split between the two models in their various different guises, with the bulk allocated to the lowest cost pieces, the stainless steel (ref. 17000) and yellow Rolesor (ref. 17013) Datejusts.
The Oysterquartz Day-Dates, like their conventionally powered siblings, were never made available with any hint of steel, and the ref. 19018s were the next most plentiful, forged in all yellow gold.
There were far fewer examples of each watch made with white gold in the make up as well—confined to the bezel only for the DJ and in solid 18k for the President.
But in terms of real scarcity, Rolex also made, in numbers that barely scraped into double figures each year, nine gem-encrusted references of the Day-Date.
Today, these pieces are so rarely seen that some are only rumored to still exist, while the most abundant of them come up for auction just once or maybe twice a decade.
Below, we take a look at each one.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19038
As well as introducing an electronic movement into the Rolex domain, the Oysterquartz series also brought a new design flourish not seen before or since.
Instead of the standard President bracelet, the integrated band on the ref. 19038 was given a ‘Pyramide’ finish.
It involved each center link decorated with eight tiny pyramid shapes which, on this reference, carried over onto the circumference of the bezel as well. In addition, a total of 12 tiny diamonds were mounted into the surround, one opposite each hour marker.
Dial options were relatively generous, with the watch able to be fitted with any of the faces available to the regular Day-Date.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19048
Switching back to the normal bracelet and its polished center links, the ref. 19048 was produced in 18k yellow gold like the ref. 19038 above, but with the distinction of a bezel set with 44 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19049
It is from this point that the Oysterquartz starts to become unicorn rare. These were watches made in the 70s and 80s, an era when yellow gold was at the peak of its popularity. As such, white gold pieces, such as this ref. 19049, were produced in much smaller numbers and finding one for sale becomes a Herculean task. It is basically the same watch as the ref. 19048, with its diamond-fringed bezel, but the neutral metal has a more versatile aesthetic than its counterpart in the modern day.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19058
Another yellow gold model, the ref. 19058 is so hard to find it may have only been made as a special order. It is very similar to the last two watches on our list, except the precious stones in its bezel, which could be diamonds, rubies or emeralds, are baguette-cut curves rather than round in shape.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19068
The ref. 19068 is a cross between the ref. 19038 and the ref. 19048, meaning a yellow gold case topped with a surround of brilliant-cut diamonds and a ‘Pyramide’ bracelet. Most commonly it would be finished with a diamond accented dial as well.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19078
If you remember the Rainbow Daytona from last year, you will be familiar with the look of the ref. 19078. The bezel here is set with multicolored gems that cover the whole spectrum, with corresponding hour markers matching each point. Auction house Phillips actually got hold of one of these from somewhere long enough to put up for sale in 2017, with a reserve price of between $103,000 and $207,000.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19148
The hardcore Rolex geeks will have spotted the subtle change in reference number and know that it signifies something. In this case, it denotes another new type of bracelet. What Rolex call the ‘Karat’ bracelet, it has its center links covered with 300 brilliant-cut diamonds—12 per link.
Elsewhere, all is the same as the ref. 19048; yellow gold case, a further 44 diamonds around the bezel and, more often than not, a jewel-coated dial.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19168
An extraordinary watch, the ref. 19168 sits on another unique bracelet. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Octopus’ for reasons I don’t really understand, each link of the modified President band has two round cut diamonds flanking a central baguette-style gemstone; either rubies, sapphires or more diamonds.
Away from that, it is identical to the ref. 19058 with its beautiful jeweled bezel.
The Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19188
To my eye, the ref. 19188 is the most attractive of the Oysterquartz Day-Dates. It too comes with the Karat bracelet—300 brilliant-cut diamonds covering the center links, plus another eight where it meets the yellow gold case. But the bezel here has a combination of 20 round diamonds arranged in sets of five, interspersed with groups of six baguette-cut rubies. On the dial, each hour marker is made from another tiny ruby and there is a horseshoe-shaped ring of more diamonds inside the minute track.
Fewer than a handful are now left in existence, and I have personally never seen one up for sale.
The Oysterquartz series as a whole number only around 25,000 watches, making them extremely uncommon at the best of times, and the ones we’ve looked at above are the rarest of them all. That, coupled with their unique place in the Rolex story, has seen interest in them soar in collector circles.
At Beckertime, we have a wide range of Oysterquartz models. Take a look at our online store to find your favorite.
Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.