Rolex is celebrating, in 2016, the 90 years of the Oyster,
 the first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch in the world. 
It was an innovation that transformed watch
design forever. Precise, robust and reliable, the Oyster became the timekeeper of choice for explorers and pioneers of all types whose exploits played a part in forging the status of this legendary watch. Today, Rolex has further reinforced the performance 
criteria that qualify Oyster watches as Superlative Chronometers.

The Oyster, « The best wristwatch in the world »

 “Gentlemen, we make the best wristwatch in the world.” In January 1927, the founder of Rolex addressed an assembly of watch retailers to present his most recent creation: the Rolex Oyster. It had been launched a few months earlier, in 1926, and was the first-ever completely hermetic and waterproof wristwatch. “The Oyster is, in our opinion, the most important invention regarding watches of recent years,” he assured them. And Hans Wilsdorf was a man to be believed. In little more than 20 years, he had founded and established a pioneering wristwatch brand renowned for its spectacular advances in precision and original designs. He could legitimately proclaim that he had created by that time “more successful models of wristwatches for the British market than the whole of Switzerland combined”.

Mastery of precision

Hans Wilsdorf had made precision his top priority. In 1910, a Rolex was the very first wristwatch to obtain a chronometer certificate – an official mark of precision. Granted by an official watch rating centre in Switzerland, it showed for the first time that a wristwatch could be as precise as a pocket watch, the benchmark in those days. In 1914, when the Kew Observatory in Great Britain – the highest authority for chronometric precision at the time – awarded a “Class A” precision certificate to a Rolex wristwatch, the watchmaking world received the news with astonishment. This was a certification that involved extremely rigorous tests lasting 45 days and had generally been reserved for large marine chronometers. Rolex had now proved that a wristwatch could rival the most precise of timepieces – a fact scarcely believable at the time.

Such success for Rolex contributed significantly to establishing the credibility of this type of watch. Until then wristwatches had been considered jewellery items of particular appeal to women and lacking in precision.

In a document written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rolex in 1945, Hans Wilsdorf spoke about the doubts that had beset watchmakers back in that era: “Watchmakers all over the world remained sceptical as to [the wristwatch’s] possibilities and believed that this new-fangled object was bound to prove a failure. Their arguments against the wristwatch were, inter alia, the following: firstly, the mechanism required by this type of watch must of necessity be small and delicate and it could never withstand the violent gestures of hand and arm. Secondly, dust and damp would rapidly spoil the mechanism, even if it were well constructed. Thirdly, accuracy and regularity of working could never be obtained with so small a movement.”

After conquering precision, Hans Wilsdorf turned his attention to overcoming the other two challenges. “To my technical assistants, my constant refrain from the earliest days was: ‘We must succeed in making a watch case so tight that our movements will be permanently guaranteed against damage caused by dust, perspiration, water, heat and cold. Only then will the perfect accuracy of the Rolex watch be secured,’” he explained.

Waterproofness, guaranteeing reliability on every count

The introduction of the Oyster marked a second fundamental milestone in the realization of Hans Wilsdorf’s vision. The Oyster offered, he said, “the ideal solution [to] a problem that has baffled everybody since watches [have been] worn on the wrist”. And he continued: “I prophesy that the Oyster will popularize the wearing of wristwatches with men more than anything else has done.” With the Oyster, Hans Wilsdorf explained, it was no longer necessary to remove the watch to wash one’s hands or bathe, or while at work in a dusty workshop or when perspiring profusely. “You just keep your Oyster on your wrist whatever happens and it will never fail you.” A time-honoured promise that would lead to the Oyster’s being chosen and relied on by numerous pioneers – from climbers of the highest peaks to explorers of the deepest reaches of the oceans.

The hermetically sealed Oyster provided optimal protection for the movement, thanks to an ingenious case with a patented system of a screw-down bezel, case back and winding crown. It was a total watchmaking concept. Case and movement were considered as one in the overall goal of improving chronometric performance. If Hans Wilsdorf presented the Oyster as such an important invention, it was down to the fact that its waterproofness also contributed greatly to maintaining precision over the long-term. As the founder of Rolex explained at length in 1927: “Apart from being waterproof, dirt and every other proof [the Oyster] has the very important advantage over all other watches [in] that it will maintain its time keeping and not…vary gradually, more and more, for the simple reason that the true cause of such irregularities is banned. We all know that the pivots must run in oil, and oil attracts all those ne particles of dust, which constantly, although in only very small quantities, penetrate into all watch movements, however well the cases are made. The rotary action of the pivots gradually makes a paste of the oil that thickens more as time goes on, and dust gets attracted and is mixed up with it. This paste acts like emery paper on the very ne pivots and pinions and gradually they get worn away, very little of course, but sufficiently to cause bad time keeping. […] Our Oyster excludes all dust and consequently it will always maintain perfect time.”

The Oyster had yet a third advantage. Hans Wilsdorf appreciated the importance of aesthetics for a wristwatch, which is much more conspicuous than a pocket watch: “Once and for ever the problem of having a hermetically sealed watch is solved – and solved in such a way that beauty of design goes hand-in-hand with utility.”

A watchmaking revolution

The Rolex Oyster was one of the most important watchmaking inventions of its time and, in 1945, talking about the 1926 era Hans Wilsdorf said: “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.” However, Mr Wilsdorf persevered and, through a communications drive, made the watch known and appreciated all over the world. “Other manufacturers had to follow the movement which was to exercise an enormous in influence on the entire Swiss watchmaking industry… Statistics show that since 1927 waterproof wristwatches, to a value of more than one thousand million Swiss francs, have been exported throughout the five continents. Another and no less tangible result of the development of the waterproof watch is the profound modification it has brought to the manufacture of watch cases generally in Switzerland. Old machinery, incapable of turning out such delicate work, had to be replaced by new and more accurate machines. Millions of francs were invested in this modern technique and the machine industry entered a new era of prosperity. The Swiss watchcase industry itself regained its position as the first in the world and this at a time when it seemed to have most serious foreign competition to face.”