What Goes into a Rolex?

If you take a stroll west through downtown Geneva, cross the River Arve (by the ornate Pont Hans-Wilsdorf), dead ahead you will not be able to miss the colossal expanse of green glass that is Rolex’s Les Acacias World Headquarters.

Built in 1965 and updated twice in the early 2000s, when CEO Patrick Heiniger condensed the dozens of disparate Rolex production plants into four enormous facilities around the canton, it houses all of the directors, marketing and communications staff for both Rolex itself as well as for its sister company Tudor.

In addition, tucked away somewhere in the two 10-story buildings that make up Les Acacias, is the brand’s Research and Development department.

Rolex R&D

Calling it a Research and Development department, though, is a bit of a misnomer. It is actually several distinct units, all specializing in a different element of the watchmaking process. Additiionally, they are backed up by some of the most highly specialized scientific laboratories of any manufacturer of anything.

This is where every component of every watch is dreamt up, created and tested to destruction. Custom-made machines simulate decades of wear and tear on everything from bracelets to the tiniest springs. Dive watches are pressure tested way beyond their actual ratings. This is conducted in a device designed by none other than longtime industrial diving associate, COMEX.

And it doesn’t stop at technicians just trying to get the best out of the watches. There is also a whole department dedicated to creating better oils and lubricants for the actual machines themselves. All this to help them build the watches more efficiently!

A Legacy of Innovation

Considering the litany of horological firsts credited to Rolex throughout its history, the fact that its R&D department is in a league of its own should come as no surprise.

This is the company, after all, that invented both the first waterproof cases and the first serially-produced self-winding mechanisms. Without these innovations, the future of the wristwatch would have been very different.

In later years, Rolex remained at the forefront of innovation. They developed new metallic alloys to ensure their movements are as precise as it is possible to be. Also, forever improving watchmaking materials to allow their products to withstand day to day life better for longer.

This sort of restlessness has been the lifeblood of Rolex since its inception. It is what has kept them so far ahead of their competition for decades now.

The Precursors to Greatness

However, even the world’s most successful watchmaker hits the occasional dead-end. When you spend the majority of your time leading from the front, not every turn you take is going to be the right one.

There are several Rolex designs in the archives which failed to go into production. Also, ideas that never made it much past the prototype phase.

Yet, many of these can still be seen as vital to the company in that they acted as stepping stones to some of the models on which the brand built its reputation.

Below, we’ll take a look at some of these precursors to greatness, and the watches they inspired.

The Zerographe

Dating all the way back to 1937, the Zerographe today represents one of those watches that collectors don’t just dream about, but obsess over.

Rolex Ref. 3346 Zerographe
Credit: Christie’s

Not merely because of the age, but because it premiered two incredibly important features that define Rolex as a pioneer in horology.

It is estimated that just 12 Zerographes, ref. 3346, were made, of which only four have since surfaced on the vintage market. A tiny number but leaving a crucial legacy.

The First Chronograph Movement

The first element that would later go on to become emblematic of the brand is the complication. The ref. 3346 contained the first chronograph movement Rolex ever constructed with a fly-back stop seconds function. It meant that the central seconds hand ran continuously. But, by using the pusher at two o’clock, it could be made to snap back to zero and remain there until the button was released.

Fairly crude by modern standards, but it would take a further 63 years before Rolex built their second in-house chronograph movement when the Daytona took delivery of its well-overdue Caliber 4130.

The Bezel

And the second component from the Zerographe that now embodies the Rolex brand is its bezel. Many people pointed to the Turn-O-Graph from 1953 as the company’s first use of a rotating surround. That was just the first mass produced design. The Zerographe is where the concept was first used, more than 15 years beforehand.

Since then, of course, it has been fitted to a pair of the most iconic watches ever made by any manufacturer; the Submariner and the GMT-Master.

With two groundbreaking features, it is perhaps surprising that the Zerographe did not go into full-scale production. And the reasons why remain unclear. Even by Rolex standards, the amount of information on the model is scarce, with almost no mention of it in the official literature at all. But whatever the reason for its short-lived run, it paved the way for some of the most beloved watches of all time.

The Antimagnetique Chronograph ref. 4113

Where the Zerographe contained a relatively primitive stopwatch complication, the ref. 4113 from 1942 was Rolex’s first ever example of a split seconds chronograph—the height of technical virtuosity at the time, and still beautifully impressive today.

Rolex Ref. 4113 Antimagnetique Chronograph
Credit: Hautetime

Alternatively known as a rattrapante movement, from the French word ‘rattraper’ meaning ‘to catch up’, the split-seconds function allowed the user to track several different timing events without having to reset the counter, as was necessary with the fly-back.

Rolex’s ref. 4113 is another incredibly rare piece, again barely numbering more than a dozen or so models, and was created solely to gift to victorious motor racing drivers and their team owners in the 1940s, particularly those competing in Sicily’s Giro Automobilistico di Sicilia.

It was also the largest watch they had ever built, weighing in at 44mm, but with a surprisingly thin profile, especially considering the technical complexity of the Valjoux-sourced 55 VBR movement inside.

The dial shows the first instance of Rolex using two sub dials, for constant seconds and a 30-minute register—experience that would be vital when designing a certain Cosmograph some 20 years later.

In 2011, one model of the ref. 4113 sold at auction for $1.17 M, the first Rolex to break the $1M mark. The same watch went again five years later for $2.5M.

Whether the Antimagnetique was ever meant to go into production or was always supposed to be just an exclusive gift for racers is unknown. But regardless, it remains perhaps the ultimate Rolex chronograph as far as many collectors are concerned.

The Moonphase Padellone ref. 8171

Whereas now Rolex is most renowned for the minimal simplicity of their robust tool watches, in their fledgling days of the 40s and 50s, they were producing a variety of complex models, and none more so than the triple date moonphase ref. 8171.

It was actually one of two references they created with the complication from around the same time. The second, the ref. 6062, came later and was fitted into an Oyster case. The original, nicknamed the Padellone after the Italian for large frying pan due to its 38mm diameter (huge for the era), came in a non-Oyster housing, and as such was not waterproof.

Rolex Ref. 8171 Moonphase Padellone
Credit: Monochrome

Although not as rare as the other watches on this list, it too was only produced in very limited numbers. Estimates put the figure at somewhere between 300 and 400 over the lifespan of the watch, which ran from 1948-1952.

The majority of that total were cast in either yellow or pink gold, with a tiny handful in stainless steel.

The Movement

Underneath the pocket watch style officer’s case back lies a truly complicated movement. This was the automatic A295 CPL, with its twin openings for displaying the day and the month. Around the perimeter of the dial is a chapter ring displaying the date, pointed out by the long, arrow-tipped additional hand. And a lower sub dial with a fan-form aperture shows the moon phases. Also, securing it to the wrist is an early Gay Frères-made pre-cursor to the Oyster bracelet.

While compared to the two chronographs above, there may technically be more examples of the ref. 8171 to fight over, but most hard-core Rolex collectors would be hard pressed to name any other model to top their personal wish lists.

As aesthetically elegant as it is scarce, the fact that the brand only created two vintage pieces with the moonphase complication makes the Padellone extremely special. Today, the heritage lives on in Rolex’s ultra-dressy collection with the Cellini Moonphase, a 39mm Everose piece that bears more than a passing resemblance to its 1948 ancestor.

The early days at Rolex were full of experimentation, the vast majority of which paid off in spades. But this being the world’s most revered watchmaker, even those endeavours that barely saw the light of day, and some that were never even made commercially available, remain fascinating, and give us the chance to trace some of the most recognizable watches ever made back to their roots.