Friday, July 27, 2007

Part 2: The Complete History Of The Rolex Submariner & SEA-DWELLER


The Complete History Of
The Rolex Submariner & SEA-DWELLER
Rolex's Conquest Of The Ocean

Part 2: The Perpetual Oyster & The Mermaid

In a span of 5 years from 1926 to 1931 Rolex and Hans Wilsdorf would create and patent two major horology milestones that would forever set Rolex apart–the Rolex Oyster waterproof watch-case and the Rolex Perpetual Movement. In 1925, Rolex would also create and register their famous trademark logo of the Rolex crown.

The Art-Deco era was a time of tremendous growth for Rolex, so much so there are many art-deco elements which remain as part of their current design language.

The Rolex Oyster is perhaps the most revolutionary and profound development in watch history. The following patent application was filed by Hans Wilsdorf on behalf of Rolex in 1926:

The next photo below is of the actual first Rolex Oyster made in 1926, which was made out of yellow gold. This art-deco masterpiece wrist watch changed everything. Was it the first professional dive watch in history? In many ways yes and in many way no, as we will soon see. More than anything it was watch you could take swimming without damaging.


What Exactly Is A Rolex Oyster?

So what makes a Rolex Oyster an Oyster? The winding crown acts like a screw-on cap or mini jar lid and has watertight gaskets in it. The best way to think of it is to imagine a submarine hatch that is threaded and has to be twisted or spun open or closed.



How A Rolex Oyster Works

I want illustrate exactly how a Rolex Oyster keeps out all elements including water and thus protects the movement. The next set of 5 images were taken by the ultra-passionate Rolex collector, Stefano Mazzariol of his yellow gold Rolex Submariner [Reference 1680]. In this this first image, we see the watch sitting on its side with the winding crown screwed down.


This next image shows the winding crown up-close in the screwed-down position. Once again, think of a threaded submarine-hatch that is closed or a jar lid that is screwed shut.


In this next image (below) we see the Rolex Oyster Crown unscrewed, meaning it was unscrewed by spinning it counter-clockwise. Notice the exposed threads on the bottom of the winding tube. You can't see it in this photo, but the Rolex winding crown has matching threads inside the crown itself like a jar lid.


The winding crown itself has a stem attached to it that goes through the tube which allows you to wind the watch or change the hours or minutes–depending on how far out the winding crown is positioned or pulled.


In this last image in this set (pictured below) we see the same vintage yellow gold Rolex Submariner as in the photos above, but the Oyster bracelet has been removed and the screw-down case-back has been removed as well. Once again, in this photo, you can't see the the threads on the case-back but it has threads and the case-back screws into the case very similarly to a jar lid or submarine hatch.


The crown and case-back, when removed allow complete access to the movement, but when they are in place and screwed-down, they make the watch not only impervious to any elements, but completely waterproof. We take this design detail for granted today, but its design completely revolutionized the watch industry when Rolex introduced and patented it in 1926. (Note: This Rolex Submariner from the late 1960s or early 1970s, but I shared it with you to perfectly illustrate how a Rolex Oyster Case works).

In the above photo we also see the exposed Rolex movement and on the bottom half of the movement, we see the automatic winding rotor which uses gravity to spin around in either direction to "automatically" wind the watch. Later in this chapter we will explore how Rolex in 1931 once again revolutionized the watch industry by bringing the first "automatic" watch to market which Rolex named the "Perpetual." So a Rolex "Oyster Perpetual" is a waterproof watch that is self-widing or perpetually winds itself from the motion of your wrist moving around.


The First Professional Dive Watch?

This is kind of profound, but in 1926 Rolex simultaneously developed and brought to market the Rolex Oyster pocket-watch (pictured below) at the same time they developed the Rolex Oyster wrist-watch (pictured above).


The photo above and below of the Rolex Oyster pocket watch appear courtesy of the renowned Rolex historian, James Dowling. Ironically, as we will see in the next chapter of this story, the Rolex Oyster pocket watch pictured above and below would go on to become the first professional Rolex dive watch.


The Mermaid & The Oyster

On October 7, 1927 a British woman named Mercedes Gleitze (pictured below) who worked as a bilingual secretary in Westminister became the first Englishwoman to swim the English channel from France to England.


To make a long story short, Mercedes was accused of having not swam the whole way, so she announced she would do it again and this famous next attempt was referred to as "The Vindication Swim."

Hans Wilsdorf learned about this story and met with Mercedes Gleitze and asked her to wear one of his ladies Rolex Oyster watches. Mercedes agreed and attempted to swim the channel again.


Mercedes did not make it all the way and was pulled out of the water 7 miles from England. Hans Wildorf was a brilliant marketing strategist. He ignored the fact that Mercedes did not complete the second attempt and very successfully used her celebrity endorsement to advertise his remarkable Rolex Oyster. If you want to learn much more all the details of Mercedes Glietze's story please click here.


Mercedes Gleitze Rolex Oyster Case

The two photos below are of Mecedes Gleitze actual Rolex Oyster she wore around her neck on a chain during her "vindication swim." It is kind of strange she wore the watch on a chain around her neck as seen in the photo above, and not on her wrist.

In the two photos below, we see the actual watch Mercedes Gleitze wore during her vindication swim. Also notice in the photos below, this is the first example we see of a Rolex with the trademark crown logo which some people refer to as the "Rolex Coronet."


The original Rolex Oyster was revolutionary because it not only had a screw-off front and back, but it also had a winding crown that also screwed down like a hatch on a submarine, thus making it impervious to dust, water and perspiration.


As I previously mentioned, Hans Wilsdorf adroitly positioned the Rolex Oyster as "The Greatest triumph in watch-making history.


Ironically, Rolex had not invented the water-proof watch, but they had perfected it with the Rolex Oyster and had a first-to-market advantage. Rolex ran the following advertisement in a French magazine that targeted the Rolex Oyster at women. I think Hans Wildforf wanted to point out to men that if a woman would wear a wrist watch and achieve an amazing feat like swimming the English Channel than a man certainly could.


Rolex made quite a splash with the Rolex Oyster and ran the following Rolex Oyster Mermaid ad in the French marketplace in 1926.



The Rolex Oyster Perpetual
The First Waterproof Self-Winding Watch

The Development of the Rolex Oyster was an incredible horological achievement, but the challenge was that it made it more difficult to manually wind the watch because you had to unscrew it first, then wind it, then re-screw the Oyster crown.

In 1931 Rolex patented the Perpetual rotor which automatically wound the watch thus eliminating the need to ever wind it again. This not only made it more convenient but also more accurate because the watch would never stop so long as you wore it.

For those too young to remember, manual-wind wrist watches required you wind them daily which was an inconvenience for most people, although some people, like train conductors liked it ;-))))))


The watch pictured pictured above and below was made in 1931 and Rolex put an exhibition caseback on it to easily show potential consumers how it worked. As you can see in the photo below there is a rotor that says "Rolex Auto Rotor" which automatically spins clockwise or counter-clockwise just from the movement of your wrist and "Automatically" winds the mainspring. In other words, even the slightest movement of your wrist (using gravity) will wind the watch, thus keeping the mainspring at optimum tension.

Rolex based the design of their perpetual rotor system on one that Abraham Louis Perelet developed in 1770, and in the years before Rolex perfected their methodology, there was a company named Harwood that created a self-winding rotor system that only moved clockwise, but had many challenges.


By creating an auto-winding or self-winding wristwatch, Rolex once again revolutionized the watch–and again, Rolex was not the first to explore creating a self-winding watch, but Hans Wilsdorf and Rolex were the first to perfect it, patent, and bring it successfully to market.

The patent on the Rolex perpetual eventually ran out in 1948 and everybody was free to develop their own automatic rotor systems that used gravity to wind their movements–and they did...

Table Of Contents

Part 8: The Birth Of The Rolex DEEP-SEA: Jacques Piccard & Captain Don Walsh aboard the U.S. Navy Bathyscaphe Trieste
Part 9: The First SEA-DWELLER's: Doctor Bond. U.S. Navy Project Genesis and Jacques Cousteau & Project CONSHELF
Part 10: The Birth Of The Rolex SEA-DWELLER: Bob Barth, Scott Carpenter & U.S. Navy SEA-LAB
Part 11: Henri Delauze & COMEX
Part 12: Dr. George Bass [The Father Of Underwater Archeology]
Part 13: Dr. Sylvia Earle: The First Female Aquanaut
Part 14: Dr. Phil Nuytten [Pioneering DEEP-SEA Explorer: The Real Aquaman]
Part 15: Dr. Robert Ballard: The Ultimate U.S. Navy DEEP-SEA Discovery Of The 20th Century–Finding The Titanic
Part 16: The Return of The Rolex DEEP-SEA

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