To many of us who call ourselves mechanical watch aficionados, the quartz crisis is the stuff of legend and hearsay. It happened so long ago it couldn’t have really been real, could it?
After all, we still have quartz watches. Seiko and Citizen are a part of every mall jeweler’s repertoire. No mechanical watches were harmed – or prevented from being made – by modern electronic timepieces (well, that one’s arguable). But we still have plenty of mechanical pieces to choose from.
And we’ll even grudgingly admit that the watches timed by vibrating crystals are quite a bit more accurate than their spring and gear driven counterparts.
But yes campers, the quartz crisis was real. How they nearly ate a mechanical lunch is the stuff of legend too – the kind told to wide-eyed children around campfires and dinner tables everywhere. And the mechanical comeback kids are legendary in their own right. And did you know that a quartz watch (Swatch, to be precise) played a BIG role in the salvation of the Swiss mechanical watch industry?
Ah, but that’s a story for another day. Today I want to talk to you about how Rolex went briefly to the dark side and lived to tell about it. The watches that led them on that journey were the Oysterquartz watches.
But let’s back up a step or two. In the late 1960s, quartz timepieces seemed like the next natural progression in watches. No more, no less. The fact that Japanese quartz watches nearly did the Swiss in wasn’t the result of being inherently better. Rather, it was that the Japanese grabbed onto the quartz handrail earlier.
But in those late 1960s, Rolex (along with a few other Swiss brands) had indeed begun to explore timepieces regulated by a vibrating quartz crystal. In fact, they did some pioneering work in that area, although they were clear they had no intention whatsoever of abandoning mechanical watches. By 1970, they were ready to release their first efforts into the wild. The watch was the QuartzDate, ref. 5100.
The 5100 was notable for several reasons. It was the first Rolex to be driven by a quartz movement, yes. But it was also the first production Rolex to sport a sapphire crustal. It also featured hacking seconds and a quickset date. As reward for all that, the piece quickly sold out. Unfortunately, like a race horse that went out too fast, the 5100 ultimately staggered and fell. It was discontinued after only two years.
Undaunted by that setback, Rolex kept working on quartz movements. Five years later, in 1977, they released references 17000 and 19018, the Oysterquartz Datejust and Day-Date, respectively. Both bore a striking resemblance to their namesake mechanical brethren, although their cases with integrated bracelets had a distinctively Gerald Genta look to them.
The movements within, calibres 5035 and 5055, were 11 jewel (less jewels are needed since there is no mechanical escapement). Fit and finish of these two quartz calibres were typically outstanding, perhaps better that of than Rolex’s contemporary mechanical movements.
It’s interesting – and important – to note that the Oysterquartz watches did not go through the same evolutionary changes to which Rolex subjects their mechanical watches. A testament to the thorough nature of initial design and development?
Finally, the last Oysterquartz watches rolled off the line in 2001, and the last left dealer shelves in 2003. They’re still readily available today and you occasionally see them on the wrists of knowledgeable watch guys.