Breaking First: Rolex's History of Innovation

This year, the Oyster - the iconic wristwatch that not only has defined Swiss watchmaker Rolex, but has also measured the history of haute horlogerie - ticks off its 90th anniversary. To mark the occasion, LuxuryFacts tracks back Rolex's innovative past - as epitomized by the Oyster - that shaped today's watchmaking industry

By: Dimitria Vitanova

Posted on: August 31, 2016

Hans Wilsdorf, RolexFew luxury brands can state they have birthed and shaped their market segment. Even fewer can aver they have done so with spiking success. Luxury watchmaker Rolex comfortably claims both.   

The Swiss Maison boasts annals that stretch back some 111 years to include several “firsts,” which truly redefined watchmaking. In fact, the very genesis of the label was one such incident. In the heyday of pocket watches, Rolex’s founder, German Hans Wilsdorf set out to create wristwatches, which until then had been regarded as trinkets, inaccurate and feminine. Yet, grasping the potential value of wristwatches, Mr Wilsdorf (together with his brother-in-law) commenced a venture that would set precedents.

The first among them was the Oyster – the wristwatch that ever since its 1926 debut has served as an emblem for ingenuity. Presenting his creation to an assembly of watch retailers the following year, Mr Wilsdorf boldly stated “[t]he Oyster is, in our opinion, the most important invention regarding watches of recent years.” And it has remained so ever since.

First Rolex Oyster 1926Perhaps, always ahead of its time, in a span of 50 years, the Oyster inaugurated such modern horologic fundamentals as precision and waterproofness, self-winding rotors and date and day displays. With the Oyster, Rolex not only founded today’s high-end wristwatch industry. It has continuously reinvented it. 

Rolex’s quest for ground-breaking excellence, however, commenced a decade prior to the Oyster premiere, with Mr Wilsdorf’s entrepreneurial resolve to amend the segment’s flaws. First to be corrected was chronometric precision, which in the early 1900s largely evaded wristwatches. By 1910, nevertheless, Rolex wristwatches had made horologic history by obtaining two coveted distinctions for their ticking exactness – the first-ever certificate by the Official Watch Rating Center to be granted to a wristwatch as well as the prestigious Kew Observatory’s “Class A” stamp, previously reserved for marine chronometers. The Oyster made good on those recognitions. 

Precision, though, often drowned in water.  Mr Wilsdorf knew that and worked to prevent it. He spent years in developing water-impermeable designs that, as it happened, crystalized in the Oyster. Elegantly simple, the Oyster featured what is now the distinct Rolex fluted bezel that could be screwed down to the case back, hermetically sealing the tiny movements from water-borne damage.

A Rolex ad in Daily Mail 1927Nonetheless as revealed in Mr Wilsdorf’s own account years later, his peers were less than enthused about the Oyster’s waterproofness. “In those days, the idea of a watch impermeable to water appeared quite utopian and without future to the majority of manufacturers and technicians who did not, in fact, see its necessity or utility. At trade congresses and meetings, the ‘waterproof’ watch was held to scorn by specialists and a discussion of the problem provoked sarcasm rather than useful and objective arguments.”

Yet, Mr Wilsdorf trusted the Oyster’s worth. And soon, so did everyone else. It only took a dive into the man’s PR acumen. In 1927, he equipped English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with an Oyster for her grueling stroke across the English Channel. After 10 hours, the Oyster emerged out of the waves to keep on its reliable track of seconds. To mark the feat, Mr Wilsdorf commissioned a full-spread commercial on the front page of the Daily Mail. “The triumph march of the Rolex Oyster around the world,” as the ad proclaimed, began in earnest.

Following a somewhat trodden pattern, Rolex’s next grand advance built on the one prior. The newly achieved waterproofness could not be easily maintained in hand-wound wristwatches, whose proper functioning required daily unscrewing of the crown – a seemingly benign action that could seriously impair water resilience. 

First Oyster Perpetual by Rolex 1931To keep its horologic reign, Rolex needed a mechanical movement. It materialized in the form of a weight, which triggered by the gestures of the wrist, freely oscillated along a central axle. A time-keeping novelty that presaged its contemporary sophisticated kin, Rolex’s Perpetual rotor quickly started chugging inside the Oyster.  

Once the Oyster became synonymous with precision, waterproofness and self-winding, the brand turned its revolutionary savoir faire to complications. Rolex further tweaked its signature Oyster line with the adoption of what were then unheard-of faculties that are nowadays common calendar features. In 1945, the label introduced the Oyster Perpetual Datejust, the first-ever self-winding wrist chronometer to display the date on its dial, at 3 o’clock. A jewel in the watchmaker’s portfolio, it was followed by the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date, which in the mid-1950s, became the first wristwatch to show the day of the week, scribbled in an arc across the 12-o’clock mark. The Day-Date also added a Cyclops lens over the date, enlarging it for easy reading – a touch present even in Rolex’s latest contraptions. 

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day Date 2016Although Rolex’s collections have since featured many small – yet essential – improvements, it was not until the mid-aughts that the brand got the industry buzzing again. In an era when few concepts are truly newfangled, Rolex broke the odds, claiming two breakthroughs in a row. In 2007, the Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master II became the world’s first watch with a programmable, mechanical countdown. A year later, the Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea emerged. Or rather, submerged, given that its ingenious case remains airtight up to 12,800ft under the surface – a depth as mind-bending as Rolex’s record of “firsts,” itself. 

Even though Rolex has released and refined other lines, the Oyster has lived on as a testament to horologic excellence. Chances are no one can speak of the Oyster’s essence better than Mr Wilsdorf did. And he once put it plainly yet powerfully, “[y]ou just keep your Oyster on your wrist, whatever happens and it will never fail you."


Watch our exclusive, short video, highlighting the triumphs of Rolex

Post your comment

    We encourage thoughtful discussion, debate and differing viewpoints, with the understanding that all comments must be civil and respectful. We encourage you to remain on topic and to be mindful that the comments are public. We do not permit messages selling products or promoting commercial or other ventures. Upon request of individuals named in comments, some comments may also be removed. We reserve the right—but assume no obligation—to delete comments, and report offenders who do not follow the code.