Rolex Oyster case

Do you know why all Rolex watches, except the Cellini models, have „Oyster Perpetual” in their official names? Well, today, we are about to find out the reason and its many fascinating details.

For nearly a century, Rolex watches have been synonymous with reliability, precision, and water resistance

We take water resistant cases perfectly for granted these days but, as so many of our must-haves today, they had to be invented first, through painstaking effort and inspired engineering. The world’s very first waterproof case for a wrist watch was invented and introduced by Rolex nearly 100 years ago, in 1926. It relied on a patented system that secured the front of the case, the bezel, as well as the case-back, to be secured to the middle segment through threads. The screw-down case-back is a totally ubiquitous piece in modern watch design, but it was Rolex who first introduced how this system could result in a seamless, durable and elegant waterproof case design.

The first water resistant wrist watch in the world: the Rolex Oyster from 1926

This design was introduced with the watch called the Rolex Oyster – and so Rolex cases with the same base design of today are called Rolex Oyster cases as a way of paying tribute and respect to this milestone in watchmaking.

Certainly, such genius solutions are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, most of the time – and the Rolex Oyster case is, in fact, no different. You see, in 1922, Rolex launched the Rolex Hermetic that is also remembered as the Rolex Submarine; not to be confused with the Rolex Submariner of today. This wrist watch had a pocket watch-style inner case a bezel, case-back, crown and front crystal. This case was then installed in a capsule of sorts, the external case, which had the lugs soldered onto it. This external case had a threaded top part, much like the lid of a jam jar. By screwing this lid – that was essentially another bezel and front crystal – back onto the base, the inner case holding the movement would be closed off from the external elements.

The predecessor to the Rolex Oyster: a Rolex Hermetic from 1924, featuring an outer case with a screw-down lid

This first design, although it meant, in its own way, a big leap forward already, had a number of issues. First, there was the rather large size that was a direct consequence of having essentially not one, but two cases. Second, having to take off the lid every time when the watch was to be wound or set – basically every other day – quickly became a tiring thing to do. Therefore, there was only one way forward: the eliminate the outer case and create one external shield that would be waterproof both from its bezel and case-back, as well the crown.

The bezel, the winding crown and the Cyclops lens over the date make Rolex timepiece recognisable in wrist watches universe

The 1926 Rolex Oyster featured solutions for all issues. With its screw-down bezel, case-back, and even a threaded crown, it was the world’s first water resistant wrist watch. The Rolex boutiques of the time even had aquariums with the watches submerged in them to prove their waterproof capabilities. The Rolex Oyster and the very concept of a water resistant case was so novel that the larger public needed convincing.

Rolex ended up providing long-distance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with a Rolex Oyster to wear during one of her attempts to swim across the English Channel. For reasons not important to us right now, there had already been great media coverage around this attempt, and so when Gleitze returned with a watch that was still ticking, it made the headlines along with her attempt.

The public was to be convinced about the durability of the world’s first water resistant watch: here’s the Daily Mail from 1927, reporting about the Rolex Oyster standing up to the test

Fast forward to 2018, and the Rolex Oyster is still around, albeit in a much more refined and advanced form. Today, the case maintains its hermetic construction, as all Rolex Oyster watches come tested to beyond their rating of either 100 meters, 300 meters, and up to 3,900 meters for the Rolex Deepsea. This is achieved with a solid middle case, screw-down case-backs and crowns and, thanks to the remarkable accuracy of modern manufacturing technologies, friction-fitted crystals and bezels.

The only duty of the wearer of a modern Rolex Oyster watch is to ensure that the Twin- or Triplock crown of his or her watch is securely screwed down into its locked setting, after setting or winding the watch.

The modern Rolex Oyster case is a true technical feat, a remarkable result of near-100 year’s of research, testing and refinement

Hence, to answer our initial question: all Rolex watches, with the exception of Cellini, that are produced today are called Rolex Oyster for their waterproof cases because their current design is inspired by, and is paying tribute to the world’s very first water resistant wrist watch, the Rolex Oyster of 1926. Oh, and as for the “Perpetual” part? That stands for Rolex’s automatic winding system that we will look at in a separate article soon.

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