Rolex's Forgotten Sapphire Casebacks: A History of Exhibition Rolexes

Rolex's Forgotten Sapphire Casebacks: A History of Exhibition Rolexes

Last year at Watches and Wonders, Rolex released a new generation of Daytona under the reference schema 126XXX. With a new metal-rimmed bezel, updated caliber 4131, and re-proportioned dial, this was a major update, especially by Rolex’s standards. The biggest surprise came with the platinum reference 126506, namely its sapphire exhibition caseback. Rolex included a similar caseback on the new Perpetual 1908. I read numerous articles calling these “Rolex’s first exhibition casebacks”, which is false. I read other articles calling them “Rolex’s first exhibition casebacks since 1931”, which is also false. Today, we’ll discuss Rolex's exhibition caseback from 1931, as well as the commercially-available example from 2005 that no one seems to remember. First, let’s cover a brief history of the exhibition caseback.

History of the Exhibition Watch Caseback

Hamilton Pocket Watch Salesman Caseback

Image Source: thepocketwatchguy.com

Exhibition casebacks originated in the late-19th century. Then called “salesman cases”, these clear-backed watches were produced for salesmen to show potential customers the exquisite mechanics behind the dial. This practice was popular amongst American pocket watch manufacturers. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that exhibition casebacks on wristwatches became popular and mass-produced. However, some brands produced a handful of “salesman case” wristwatches before the exhibition caseback phenomenon.

1931 Rolex Oyster Perpetual with Exhibition Caseback

Rolex Oyster Perpetual 1931 Exhibition Caseback

Image Source: rolexmagazine.com

Rolex patented their self-winding movement in 1931, giving life to the infamous “Perpetual” moniker. One of the earliest known examples of an Oyster Perpetual – a watch that combined Rolex’s newly-patented automatic movement with their revolutionary waterproof “Oyster” case – had an exhibition caseback. This watch was likely used as a “salesman case” to show off the brand’s new self-winding rotor. While this is the first known exhibition caseback from Rolex, it was not commercially-available. That wouldn't arrive until 2005.

2005 Rolex Cellini Prince with Exhibition Caseback

Rolex Cellini Prince with Exhibition Caseback

Image Source: hodinkee.com

Based on the 1928 Rolex Prince, the art-deco-inspired Rolex Cellini Prince features a sapphire exhibition caseback showcasing the beautifully-finished Rolex caliber 7040. These watches were produced from 2005 to 2014 and were available in four configurations: two in white gold, one in yellow gold, and one in Rolex’s proprietary Everose gold (rose/pink gold). These quirky rectangular watches often fly under the radar, but pose excellent value in the $8,000-$15,000 range. You’re getting a beautifully-sized, hand-wound, COSC-certified, precious metal Rolex with some serious history. Better yet, you can ogle at the stunning 7040 movement through a sapphire exhibition caseback (that did indeed exist before 2023).

Final Thoughts

Rolex Daytona Le Mans

Image Source: hodinkee.com

I love that Rolex is bringing back the exhibition caseback. In addition to the platinum Daytona ref. 126506 and Perpetual 1908, they included one on the ‘Le Mans’ Daytona ref. 126529LN in June of 2023. I hope to see exhibition casebacks included on future Rolex models. However, given the modern track record, I would only expect to see them on higher-end, precious metal examples. Let us know what you think of Rolex exhibition casebacks in the comments below.


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