The Rolex Oyster Turns 90

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The Rolex Oyster is one of the most recognizable watches in the world. It was the first waterproof wristwatch, aptly blending scientific achievement and beauty. And it all started with Hans Wilsdorf, a man with a passion for excellence.

Wilsdorf was born in Germany in 1881. He came to Switzerland in the early 1900s to begin a career in watchmaking. In those days, pocket watches kept better time than wristwatches, which were considered to be jewelry items, more popular with women than men. Wilsdorf hoped to change that and set out to create a precise, waterproof, and robust instrument—one that could be worn on the wrist.

With his business partner, Alfred Davis, Wilsdorf founded a watch distribution company in London in 1905. Three years later, he created the Rolex name—short, pleasant sounding, easy to pronounce and remember, and possible to inscribe on the dial and movement of a watch.

The operations moved to Geneva in 1910. By then, Rolex had proved that wristwatches could be just as precise as pocket watches. Later that year, Rolex obtained the first certificate in the world granted to a wristwatch by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne. In 1914, a Rolex wristwatch was awarded the “Class A” precision certificate by the Kew Observatory, one of the highest honors for chronometer testing.

The next challenge, however, was making the watch waterproof. In order to keep water and dust from penetrating into the case, Wilsdorf patented a structure that consisted of a screw-down bezel, a caseback, and a winding crown. Then, he hermetically sealed the movement within the case. The first model, finished in 1926, featured an octagonal case with a round bezel and dial. He called it the Oyster. To prove its abilities, Wilsdorf outfitted swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with an Oyster as she swam across the English Channel in 1927. The watch was submerged for a full 10 hours. When Gleitze surfaced, it was in perfect working order.

And yet, Wilsdorf strived to make even more improvements. There was the issue of winding: Each time the watch had to be wound, the owner had to unscrew the crown, affecting the hermetic seal. Pocket watches were capable of self-winding, but there was not yet an accurate system for wristwatches. After years of work and research, Rolex soon issued patents for a self-winding mechanism with a free rotor (the “Perpetual” rotor) that wound the watch when the wearer moved his or her wrist.

Today, this remains the standard for the wristwatch world.