As someone who spends a lot of time writing about military watches or micro and independent brands, too often do I come across stories of defunct Swiss brands which didn’t survive the Quartz Revolution of the 1970s. However, there were brands that pulled through, for example Rolex, Omega, Tissot, and Longines. What all of these brands had in common is that they got into the quartz trend and being so large, they were able to produce their own battery-operated movements and adapt their core collections to this new technology. This got me thinking: what about Rolex? The Swiss giant is never short of surprising us. After all, it made military watches during World War II and rectangular models starting in the early 1920s. How did the brand handle the Quartz Revolution? How did Rolex survive? Let’s find out.
Rolex Has Always Been at the Forefront of Technology
The Swiss brand is a mammoth that has an incredible capacity to adapt to new circumstances. It developed the Oyster case in the 1920s which was the most water resistant case at the time, and was first putting a self-winding movement inside a true water-resistant metal enclosure. It was also the first brand to put a date complication on a watch and to create a GMT for pilots. (Glycine created the first GMT however it wasn't made available to the civilian sector.) So it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Rolex also made quartz movements and developed its own technology, which in part explains why it survived the Quartz Revolution. As we will see below, the Swiss brand went a step further in embracing the trend of battery-powered movements.
The First Swiss-Made Quartz Movement
At the same time, the Swiss and Japanese were working on developing quartz movements. Although Seiko beat the Swiss to the punch, the latter were very close to being the first. That’s because, feeling that the tides were changing, 20 Swiss watch manufacturers got together to create the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH / “Horological Electronic Center” in English) which sole mission was to engineer Swiss-made quartz calibers that would be better than Seiko’s or any other country’s for that matter. The culminating efforts of the CEH resulted in the creation of the Beta 21 caliber in 1969. 6,000 movements were made and powered such models as the first Rolex Quartz model ref. 5100, the IWC Da Vinci, and the Omega Electroquartz.
When Rolex Developed the Oysterquartz
The Beta 21 came with a caveat for Rolex in that it wasn’t adaptable to the Oyster case, which means the Swiss brand couldn’t guarantee the legendary water-resistance of its first quartz models. That was due to the fact that the movement was more or less the same for all 20 brands that contributed to its development. So Rolex went back to the drawing board and developed the Oysterquartz in 1977 which came with 11 jewels (quartz movements typically have one or two) and it could be easily regulated by any watchmaker during service. The movement was, in the same way Seiko’s superior quartz movements were, able to regulate itself to match ambient temperature.
The later feature, although developed by Seiko, is interesting to me given Rolex’s history. One key engineering feat of the Oyster Perpetual that made it to Mount Everest on the wrist of Sir Edmund Hillary was the fact that the brand used a different type of oil for the movement which could sustain colder temperatures and make it possible for the movement to work in high altitudes. It only made sense, then, that Rolex would over-engineer the Oysterquartz calibers.
In 1978, Rolex went a step further and released the second generation of Oysterquartz movement whose key feature was a quartz crystal in the form of a tuning fork. The latter made it possible to get the Oysterquartz movements COSC certified. All in all, Rolex made quartz-powered watches for 25 years and eventually stopped once the craze had died down. If you want to learn more on this topic, I recommend reading this article on Revolution Watch and that one on Bob’s Watches. Who knew that Rolex made such technologically advanced battery-powered movements. Something I didn’t know about and perhaps you either.Featured image: www.bobswatches.com