The very first watch cases used on Rolex watches were the snap-back cases found on pocket watches. These were simple hinged cases with no protection from the elements closed and especially not when open. No secure seal was in place nor was there any use of gaskets and sealing lubricants. The main culprits for damaging a watch movement in this case were water, dust, perspiration and humidity.
Evolution means that Rolex then designed a new type of case called the Hermetic case this was circa early 1920s whereby the entirety of the watch, crown and all was covered by another case. This outer case was sealed much like you would by screwing a bottle lid back onto the bottle. This was obviously a great way to protect the watch inside but posed a slightly different challenge. It was not particularly efficient nor easy to use if you needed to change the time. The cap which was crewed down on its edges was machined or fluted. This made it easier to grip with bare fingers to be able to screw and unscrew it, though even these marks were worn down through constant use. It is these marks that are the forefathers of the modern Rolex fluted bezel.
1926 was a momentous year as this was the year that Rolex developed a screw-in front and back for a watch case, which Hans Wilsdorf subsequently dubbed the OYSTER. But it wasn’t just the case front and back that screwed down, the same logic was applied to the crown much like a hatch on a submarine, making it impervious to the common issues such as water, dust and perspiration. You can see the inspiration of the hermetically sealed case in the new Oyster case. Why protect a whole watch when all you need to do is protect the parts inside. The name is obviously from the shellfish, which Hans Wilsdorf perceived to be extremely hard to open and also protective of the soft fragile mollusc within.
There was no point in just having an amazing product. The claims had to be proven and then shouted about from the rooftops. This is where a British woman called Mercedes Gleitze comes in. On October 1927 she was the first Englishwoman to swim the English Channel from France to England. It took a staggering 15 hours and 15 minutes to complete the challenge and not on her first attempt either, no it took her 8.
The drama starts to unfold here, four short days after Mercedes Gleitze had become the first Englishwoman to complete the English Channel swim another British woman claimed to have swam the channel in a then record- breaking time of 13 hours and 10 minutes. This caused much uproar and the scepticism shown to this lady, Miss Mona McLennan forced her to admit that she had not completed the Channel swim at all. But all this doubt rolled over from the British public to accuse Mercedes Gleitze of the same hoax. This upset her greatly, which forced her hand into announcing that she would do it all again, only 14 days later. This immediately brought Mercedes a lot of attention and a bit of a media frenzy about the whole situation. It is at this time where Hans Wilsdorf hears about this interesting news and meets with Mercedes. A watch, the then new Rolex Oyster was offered to her to wear on her Vindication Swim.
It was reported that Mercedes Gleitze wore her Rolex Oyster around her neck and not on her wrist, these is photo evidence showing it around her neck suspended from a band. Unfortunately with all that had gone before and the new colder conditions on her second swim, Mercedes did not make it across the English Channel, but the media furore around her and the event had turned her into a celebrity. Her celebrity is still one that is remembered to this day because of her affiliation with Rolex. If not for the intervention of Hans Wilsdorf, Mercedes Gleitze may have been forgotten in history.
It was Mercedes that they used to promote their new innovation the Rolex Oyster, from printed ads to fish tanks in Authorised Rolex dealers. It took a huge step to empowering women and more importantly for Rolex to show that you the consumer, can achieve anything if you wore a Rolex. All positive reinforcement which Rolex still uses effectively today through their extensive Ambassador programme and numerous sponsorship activities.
Ahead of his time Hands Wilsdorf created one of the earliest stories of celebrity endorsement for a product and it was a woman which for that time was certainly rare.
With the Oyster case developed and successful, next on Hans Wilsdorf’s hitlist was a perpetual movement with no need for hand-winding. A movement that would be perpetually wound and derive all of its necessary energy from just being worn on the wrist.
Truly ahead of his time.
The fact that, like an oyster, it can remain an unlimited time under water without detriment to its parts, gave me the idea of christening it the “Rolex-Oyster”, the name under which it has become famous throughout the world. – Hans Wilsdorf