A few weeks ago, as one does, I was browsing Instagram for vintage Rolexes. I came upon a photo of a 1946 Rolex Bubbleback with a tropical dial and pink gold case. It was love at first sight. It looked nothing I'd ever seen from Rolex, and I was confident that I had seen a lot. It seemed to represent a cool side of Rolex we haven’t seen in a while, one in which the Swiss brand was daring and couldn’t keep up with its own innovations. Although I must say I had heard of the Bubblebacks before—all I knew is the fact that they predated the first Explorer 1—I didn’t know much about this elusive family of watches. So, having come across the 1946 Bubbleback I thought it would be time to do some research and share my results with you. Source: www.windvintage.com
What is a Rolex Bubbleback?
“Bubbleback” is a nickname watch collectors gave to this family of watches. Because as we know, Rolex doesn’t like to name things, and they especially don't give nicknames to their creations. “Bubbleback” refers to the first self-winding wristwatches Rolex produced starting 1933, all the way through the early 1950s (1952 according to some and 1955 according to others.) Before 1933, Rolex only produced manual-wind watches. Making a caliber self-winding meant adding a rotor which required additional space to fit inside the case. Instead of making the cases thicker, Rolex decided to make the case-back deeper with a rounded shape. Hence the name “Bubbleback.”
Characteristics of Rolex Bubblebacks
As described above, Bubblebacks had a deep case-back, so deep that with some models, it was as thick as the case and acrylic crystal put together (see photo below). At the time, Bubblebacks were the brand’s most advanced models as they were equipped with Rolex’s patented Oyster case that was resistant to water and dust ingress. One problem all watch manufacturers had to face before 1933 was the fact that winding a mechanical movement every day increased the chances for dirt and/or dust particles to find their way inside the case. With the self-winding (perpetual) movement, Rolex made their watches completely resistant to external elements.
The development of self-winding calibers was therefore necessary. It explains the creation of these enormous case-backs. In other words, Rolex created Bubblebacks out of necessity, not for aesthetic reasons. It's easy to spot Bubblebacks by looking at their enormous case-backs which, according to some, made these watches look like eggs seen from a profile (personally, they look more like turtles to me). Luckily, future refinements of Rolex’s automatic calibers made it possible to do without these types of case-backs, closing the chapter on this happy yet bizarre family of models.
The First Bubbleback, ref. 1858
The year was 1933 when Rolex released the first “Bubbleback” Oyster, ref. 1858. Given that it was the first model to be equipped with an automatic caliber, the 1858 was de facto the brand’s first Oyster Perpetual. That’s an important fact as the Oyster Perpetual is perhaps the oldest collection of watches Rolex has ever produced. Even though modern models look nothing like the 1858, they do share one key characteristic: they were robust everyday watches. In 1933, most wrist watches were produced for the military. Therefore, it is not surprising to see a full stack of Arabic numerals and a small seconds register on the 1858. Actually, doesn’t it remind you of something else?
My New Horological Crush: the Rolex 3696
Here we come full circle to the watch that grabbed my attention and prompted me to write this article: the 3696 from 1946. Throughout the almost 20-year period during which Rolex made Bubblebacks, the brand created myriad variations of its first self-winding Oyster Perpetual models, using different dial layouts and case materials. The 3696 is particularly striking to me for two reasons. First, I absolutely adore the combination of the California dial and the blued Mercedes handset. Second, the patina that gave this model a Tropical coloration perfectly matches the pink gold case. If in 2023 Rolex wanted to recreate a vintage looking Bubbleback, they could not make it as cool as this one.
According to experts, Bubblebacks are not the most popular vintage Rolexes amongst collectors, primarily due to their odd-shaped cases. Given how old they are, I’m pretty sure they are not easy to come by. However you feel about their appearance, there is no denying that Bubblebacks produced between 1933 to 1955 were important for the brand. They not only paved the way for decades of self-winding Oyster Perpetual models, perhaps what Rolex is the most known for, but they also demonstrate how sometimes, even a giant like Rolex had to find work-arounds for their most advanced technological innovations. In the case of the Bubbleback, form clearly followed function.Featured image: www.lunaroyster.com