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Rolex 101: Your Horological Crash Course

Rolex is the most known name in the watch industry. Strangers on the street may know nothing about watches, but they undoubtedly know the name Rolex, and profess it to be the best watch. If you are one of those people, and wish you knew more about Rolex than that it allegedly is “the best”, we can help. This is your crash course in Rolex.

Rolex Rainbow Daytona 116595RBOW
Rolex Rainbow Daytona

History

Rolex was founded by Hans Wilsdorf in 1905 in London. As a distributor of watches, Wilsdorf’s dream was to create a wrist watch that would be supremely accurate. At the time, wristwatches were not yet in vogue, and Rolex played a large part in the fashion shift in favor of wrist watches. To help realize this dream, Wilsdorf began purchasing incredibly precise third party movements and placing them within Rolex watch cases for the wrist. In 1910, Wilsdorf’s aspirations paid off, and Rolex was the first watch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision.

Rolex GMT Master II

In 1920, the manufacturer moved to Geneva to be situated at the heart of the Swiss watchmaking trade. In 1926, Rolex created the world’s first waterproof and dustproof watch, the “Oyster” case. This Oyster innovation helped to catapult the brand to new heights, and the system became one of the iconic elements of Rolex watches. While the Oyster was a big leap for the brand, the next major innovation came with the “perpetual” automatic movement in 1931. These two significant contributions are in large part the reason for the brand’s popularity to this day.

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Rolex Submariner “Lapis Lazuli”

While we could spend a book’s-worth of pages detailing the in-depth history of each model, the significant model lines were born in the following years: the Datejust in 1945, the Explorer and Submariner in 1953, the GMT Master and Day Date in 1955, the Milgauss in 1956, the Cosmograph Daytona in 1963, Sea Dweller in 67’ and Explorer II in 1971. There are certainly more model lines of note, but that is beyond the scope of this article for now. 

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Rolex Yacht Master II

Design Details

Rolex has done an especially good job of crafting a unique design DNA that is intrinsically linked throughout the (vast) majority of their models. From across the room, there are certain hallmarks of Rolex styling that can make their watches identifiable even without getting close and cuddly with a watch. 

Rolex Submariner Small Crown Reference 5508
Rolex Submariner Small Crown Reference 5508

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Beginning with the case, the classic Oyster design is characterized by a flowing, yet sporty case with polished case flanks and lightly brushed lug surfaces. A classic Rolex screw-down crown with thicker knurling and, of course, the Rolex coronet. Continuing to the bracelet, Rolex has three fundamental bracelet designs (although there have been others). The first is the Oyster bracelet. The simplest of the three, the Oyster is a classic three link bracelet design occasionally with the center link polished. This was the brand’s earliest design. In 1945, with the release of the Datejust (which celebrated 40 years of Rolex), the brand introduced the Jubilee. The Jubilee has become an icon from Rolex, with outer wide links and several small links in the center. Lastly, the President style bracelet, found on the Day Date models, with three semi-circular links. Each of these designs makes it easy to identify a Rolex (or a well-made knockoff). 

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Rolex Datejust Palm Dial with Jubilee Bracelet and Fluted Bezel

Another design feature very common on Rolex timepieces is the fluted bezel. Found originally on the Datejust, Day Date models and several of the other casual/ dress offerings are often outfitted with fluted bezels.  

Inner Workings

Rolex movements have always had the quality of being supremely robust and reliable. Built to last, while Rolex movements may not have the aesthetic intrigue of a Lange or a Patek, they are dependable and easy to service. Plus, there is a vast network of parts on the market that make it easy for the brand to source components during the service process. 

Throughout history, Rolex has had a number of notable movements, but we will highlight some of the most popular and significant we have encountered. 

The Caliber 3135 became the industry standard for automatic winding time and date movements. It’s a simple movement, but it has been incorporated in Submariners, Datejusts, Sea Dwellers and Yacht Masters. This base has also been used as inspiration for some of the other movements from the brand on other model lines. 

Caliber 3156 became one of the brand’s high performance contemporary movements as it replaced the 3155 to outfit Day Date references with an in-house shock absorption system and hairspring. This caliber represents the movement of Rolex towards more technically innovative movements in recent years to aid in reliability and resistance to magnetism. 

Finally, caliber 4130 marked an important milestone for Rolex. Introduced in 2000 to replace the last remaining third-party movement in all of the Rolex collections (the El Primero on the Daytona), the 4130 became Rolex’s go to automatic winding chronograph movement. 

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Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Leopard Dial

Personality

Rolex appeals to a diverse range of collectors, particularly when segmenting its customers into different categories:

Some choose to collect vintage Rolex, obsessing over the details of the references of old and reveling in the fine distinguishing details that separate even two watches of the same reference. The plethora of idiosyncrasies with vintage is mind boggling, from spider dials to ghosted bezels to nipple indexes. This type of collector is quite the opposite from the alternative:

For every collector that loves the vintage details, there are at least two that are buying a piece for the hype. The sad reality is that a culture of flipping and flash has consumed the minds of those unaffiliated with the watch world, and as a result, rather than remaining in the hands of watch collectors, Rolex watches often end up on the wrists of those merely grasping for status symbols. Investing as a concept is relatively new to the watch space (at least with this level of popularity), and the concept of waiting to buy a watch at retail and then flip it has become a cultural norm. 

There’s also a subset of watch admirers who buy Rolex because they simply love the way the watches look. There’s no doubt that Rolex has become so popular in part because the watches themselves are gorgeous. In spite of the cultural magnetism of the “Crown”, many can still separate the reputation from the brand, and merely assess watches on their individual merit. All told, Rolex watches are impressive, and that’s a strong selling point without any of the hype pushing a purchase decision. 

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Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36

Final Thoughts

Rolex is a brand surrounded by allure, mystique, and passion. No other company within the industry has placed such a hold on society, appearing in music, movies, and everyday life with such frequency and persistence. Behind this commotion rests a truly historical company that has made significant contributions to the industry and continues to manufacture some of the most beautiful and desirable watches in the world. Hopefully this article has helped you understand a bit more about the brand and demonstrated why it’s so significant.

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