In a previous article, we discussed vintage rectangular Rolexes which few know about, or should I say, not many collectors nowadays highlight whenever talking about the pre-Submariner era of Rolex (because yes, it seems that in some aspects, the Swiss brand didn’t exist until 1954). Upon further inspection, it appears that rectangular Rolexes were very popular in the 1920s/30s and, even more so surprising, constituted the most expensive watches the Swiss giant made at that time. There are a few reasons for this which we’re going to discuss today by looking at a few Rolex Prince references from that time period -- in other words, before World War II -- which had a profound impact on the brand.
History of the Rolex Prince
Something Rolex has been doing for longer that I had previously thought is making purpose-driven tool watches: they started doing this in the early 1920s. If you are a fan of the brand then you will know that Rolex developed the water-resistant Oyster case in 1926 which was something of an engineering marvel that changed the horological landscape forever. Little did I know that the rectangular watches Rolex made during that time period, with their elegant and Art Deco appearance, were in fact tool watches for doctors. The first Prince was released in 1928 and heavily advertised to doctors as they were equipped with precise chronograph movements which made it possible, amongst other things, to check the pulse and breathing rate of the patient using the small-seconds register at the six o’clock.
Rolex in fact released two Prince models in the late 1920s, ref. 1343 which had a sober appearance and rectangular case (see picture above), and reference 1490 endowed with a more intricate case design referred to as “Brancard” which is French for “Stretcher.” (see picture below). The distinct visual element of the Brancard are the curved case sides which flare out and match the shape of our bony wrists. These models were paired with a small dial on the top section showing the local time and a large small-seconds sub-register at the six. There existed many versions of the Brancard that came in cases made of stainless steel and gold, and some with surprising complications as we will see below.
The Avant-Garde Rolex Prince Ref. 1491
Say what you must about Rolex—and I’m guilty of having said many things about it in both good and bad terms—there is something about Hans Wilsdorf that made him always be ahead of the competition (to know more about who Wilsdorf was, I recommend checking out this article I wrote a few months back). This can perhaps be best illustrated looking at a series of Prince models that came out starting 1930 with ref. 1491. Indeed, these models were equipped with a jumping hour complication as can be seen below. The hour is indicated at the 12 while the rest of the dial shows the minutes in 5-minute increments.
We, modern watch enthusiasts and collectors, are more familiar with this dial layout for pilot watches and not for everyday luxury timekeeping devices—although, as I mentioned above, the Rolex Prince were de facto tool watches. For example, the iconic Type B German pilot watches from World War II put the emphasis on tracking the minutes and not the hours so that conducting precise military operations was made easy. In these instances, they had more interest in knowing at which precise time to drop bombs and not how long they’ve been flying for. (To simplify something much more complex.) Source: www.tajan.com
The Ultra Rare Rolex Prince “Century” Ref. 1490
As you may already know, Rolex releases numerous versions of the same model under one reference number, which makes finding the exact model sometimes a bit difficult. Earlier I mentioned the 1490 as being the more elegant of the two versions of the first Rolex Prince, but under the same reference number, we can find variants that come with different dials. One in particular that caught my attention is the 1490 named “Century”, as it has "Century Club" spelled out around the dial in lieu of the hour markers. Little is known of why this model existed but I thought to highlight it in order to showcase the breadth of Rolex’s vintage collections.
I continue to be amazed by how many vintage nuggets one can find when consulting Rolex catalogs, books about the brands, or one of the hundreds of articles available online. Personally, the more I look into what Rolex used to do before World War II, the more impressed I am and the more respect I have for the brand. This is not to saw that Rolex didn’t deserve praise, but I had become jaded by the contemporary catalog of the Swiss household name as I find most current models to more or less look the same. But, looking at not only the history of the Submariner but also of what kind of watches Rolex made even earlier, then I do not cease to be amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of Hans Wilsdorf and his teams of designers and engineers.
Featured image: www.windvintage.com