Following on from the success of its waterproof Oyster case in 1926, Rolex completed the wristwatch’s transformation from ladies accouterment to vital, robust tool for men in 1931 when Emile Borer, the head of research at long-time partner Aegler, secured the patent for John Harwood’s self-winding mechanism.
Replacing Harwood’s semi-circular weight with his own design, a unidirectional rotor that turned a full 360°, it delivered constant tension to the mainspring and greatly improved the movement’s accuracy. Perhaps more importantly, it meant the crown only needed to be used to set the hands, meaning the weakest element of the watch could be left secured most of the time.
The debut Oyster Perpetual, the ref. 1858, was released in 1933, powered by the Cal. 520 and featuring a three-piece case with a deeply convex back—coming to be called, unofficially, the Bubbleback.
A couple of years later and Rolex had refined their movement’s balance wheels, christening them the Super Balance, which slimmed down the watches to a degree.
In 1936, they released a pair of Oyster Perpetuals recognized as two of the most crucial models in the company’s history.
The ref. 3131 and 3132 both used a two-piece case arrangement and were among the first to be available in a choice of materials. As well as 9k, 14k and 18k gold, customers could take their pick from Steelium or Rolesor. There were also three size options to appeal to either gender. Aesthetically, they signified a move away from the rectangular or cushion-shaped designs that Rolex had been using since the Art Deco period in the 20s and became a more rounded form. The look suggested the new watches were less pieces of jewelry than they were tools for serious professionals.
The reputation of Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual watches started to grow, helped along by the patronage of some of the most illustrious names of the day.
Continuing a trend that started when Hans Wilsdorf persuaded Mercedes Gleitze to wear one of his waterproof creations during her record-breaking English Channel swim in 1927, the brand joined forces with Sir Malcolm Campbell a few years later in 1935.
The British RAF captain and racing motorist was the first person to break 300mph on land, piloting his Bluebird vehicle over the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He had already broken his own speed records a number of times by then, five of them on a long stretch of Florida coastline called Daytona Beach.
The intense conditions and bone-shaking vibrations presented the sternest tests for Rolex’s engineering, but Campbell’s watches performed faultlessly. The brand, then as now, was not shy in letting the world know.
By 1947, their renown was such that another relentless pursuer of speed had only one watchmaker in mind when he made his own entry into the history books. USAF officer and test pilot Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager wore an Oyster Perpetual as he took to the controls of his Bell X-1 aircraft before becoming the first man to break the sound barrier, on October 14thof that year.
Back on the land, but still a very long way up, 1953 saw Rolex accompany Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they conquered Everest. As official sponsors to the attempt, the company furnished the entire team with standard OPs, the only concessions to the trials of the expedition being to fit extra long straps, allowing the men to wear the watches over their heavy clothing, and a new form of lubricant to keep the movement running in the extreme cold.
The timepieces the team wore were sent back to Rolex following the climb and the following year the Explorer emerged; arguably the start of the Oyster Perpetual series dividing into the various specific tool watches we know today.
With the range developing various talents designed to appeal to individual users—added water resistance and rotating bezel on the Submariner for divers, dual time zone caliber for airline pilots with the GMT-Master etc.—the basic Oyster Perpetual family started to serve more as the gateway into Rolex ownership.
Nevertheless, its progress continued, receiving updated calibers throughout the decades all with the same single-minded aim of becoming the most precise and resilient timekeepers possible in a mechanical watch.
Outwardly, that most functional and elegantly minimalist shape barely changed, as is true for most of the central Rolex family. New sizes were introduced as tastes changed, but the styling at the heart of the model has remained consistent. The most recent evolution has been 2015’s 39mm model, keeping the watch very much in line with the latest Explorer. In fact, on the black dialed OP, the only difference between the two is the hour indexes.
Today, it is still the entry-level, offered in a wide range of dial colors on exclusively steel bodies.
It may well be the most unassuming model in the canon, but the Oyster Perpetual is the genesis of modern Rolex. Its twin innovations laid the groundwork for not only the most successful manufacture of all time, but also every mechanical watch that followed.
Stylish, sophisticated and inexpensive, if you are only going to buy one Rolex, it could well be the perfect choice.