A different kind of Oyster

Rolex and the first waterproof watch.

WORDS  BRIAN M. AFUANG | PHOTOGRAPHY  CHARLIE XIA, ROLEX

That a naked, if slightly prudish, Venus emerged from a scallop should be proof enough that sturdy shells birth beauty — Botticelli proposed as much in his famous doodle. The goddess of love aside, you have nacreous iridescent pearls and that gloriously slimy stuff that sent Anthony Bourdain into rhapsodic ecstasy. Here is Bourdain waxing poetic about tasting his first oyster: “This, I knew, was the magic I had until now been only dimly and spitefully aware of. I was hooked.”

As closely associated with mollusks is Rolex, which named an entire collection after the same bivalve that changed Bourdain’s life.  Introduced in 1926, the Rolex Oyster was the first ever waterproof watch — thanks to a screw-in case developed by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf himself (who also gave the watch its nickname). Wilsdorf’s fascination continues to this day as any presentation of the company’s history stresses the significance of the Oyster case. The recent edition of The Rolex Experience was no exception: held through June and July at The Bund landmark district in Shanghai, China, the watchmaking exhibition brought to Asia the timepieces that were first unveiled at Baselworld 2016 (held in Switzerland in March).

The Bund
The Bund

In this gig, guests did not merely sit down at the table to feast on goodies: they were let into the steamy confines of the kitchen to witness the mess necessary in creating a sumptuous spread.

Not that there was any actual mess at the event’s venue, which was Rolex’s ground-floor digs at The House of Roosevelt on The Bund. Rolex’s showrooms smacked of one-percenter affluence — befitting the building’s dignified masonry — but tucked in one corner was a cavern with an oversized archway styled in the brand’s signature fluted bezel. In case this gilded piece was too subtle a marking, an equally large rendition of the Rolex crown was mounted near the mouth of dark circular corridor.

Chronologically lined on this room’s wall were Rolex memorabilia: select vintage pieces, announcement of milestone technologies, and a video bank presenting various Rolex Testimonies (or brand ambassadors). At the center of the circular hallway sat another room containing corporate literature and more recent Rolex models, including Sky Dweller, GMT-Master, and Yacht-Master. But the essence underlying the mix of ingredients in this place was the Oyster case, which is defined by its capacity to prevent the entrance of even the slightest bit of moisture. It doesn’t matter if the Rolex using it is a mere desk diver piece, or a professional model designed to be submerged 300 meters in the ocean — if it has an Oyster case, it won’t take in water. Key to this feature is a solid middle case hewn either in steel or gold alloys, with a case back, crown and crystal screwed or clamped to it, ensuring a hermetic seal. While majority of watches these days boast a certain degree of resistance to water, Rolex’s Oyster solution continues to serve as the yardstick in this area, a role it has assumed since the technology’s 1926 debut.

QUIETLY TECHIE

The Oyster case was the first in a long line of Rolex innovations. While that may sound like PR fluff, it is refreshing to note that it is only during special instances — The Rolex Experience was one — that the brand slips in a bit of techie talk. In most cases, the company’s fresh developments are noticed only by the specialized horologist press.

Take as an example the watchmaker’s Chronergy escapement, introduced in Baselworld 2015. Fitted to the new in-house caliber 3255 that powers the latest version of Rolex’s “presidential” Day-Date, this innovative take on the lever escapement transmits energy from the escape wheel to the Parachrom balance spring (another patented Rolex component) more efficiently. Combined with seemingly minor touches such as better lubricants, this leads to a sturdier, more accurate watch — qualities that have built the Rolex brand.

While the gains allowed by the new movement are marginal, they still benefit consumers. These improvements arrived sans the commercial hype that usually accompany such developments. The majority of Rolex buyers, after all, are drawn to the Crown for its aesthetics and prestige. If it chose to, Rolex could coast on these qualities alone since only hardcore horologists are titillated by techie things like new escapements. That Rolex continues to innovate bares a lot about its philosophy on watchmaking.

IN THE HOUSE

Rolex is unique in the watchmaking universe in that it builds everything in-house — apart from hands and crystals, that is, which are supplied. Rolex assembles and finishes every movement and case component; its bracelets and steel and gold alloys (thanks to its own foundry); even the machines that deliver components from one division to another, the machines that help humans assemble watches, machines that test finished watches, plus the machines that are designed to build machines that build the watch components. The operations are spread across four main facilities that respectively take care of R&D, case making, metals production, dial fabrication, gem setting, movement manufacturing, final assembly and quality control, plus the corporate offices — all in Switzerland. It’s a vast assembly line and a highly secretive one at that; two of the buildings have as much floor space below ground as they do above.

The scale was evident in this year’s edition of Baselworld, where Rolex brought out the latest pieces belonging to its Oyster and Cellini collections — nine models in all — and it’s this same feast that was laid out on the table in Shanghai’s The Rolex Experience. The Oyster Perpetual selection is composed of the Datejust 41, Lady-Datejust 28, Pearlmaster 39, Day-Date, Yacht-Master and Explorer, plus the controversial comeback of the Air-King, and one of this year’s Baselworld sensations, the new Cosmograph Daytona. Representing the Cellini line are the model’s new Time, Date and Dual Time versions.

The new Cosmograph Daytona
The new Cosmograph Daytona

While the present Cellini may be the least identifiable among the range as a Rolex, it only takes a glance back to the early-to-mid 1900s — when Rolex had yet to build its design DNA around Datejusts and Day-Dates, Submariners and GMT-Masters — to recognize the inspiration for the piece. Taking the style that has defined high-end dress watches for decades, counting cues such as subdials for the date or second time zone readouts, the Cellini this year has gone even more classical with new dial finishes (white lacquer for the basic Time, blue guilloche for the Date, and a truly vintage-y brown guilloche for the Dual Time).

Among the Oyster Perpetuals, the Datejust 41 and the Pearlmaster 39 were presented at Baselworld 2016 with the fewest updates, and that’s because the pair were earlier outfitted with Rolex’s new caliber 3235 which, like the aforementioned caliber 3255, also benefits from the Chronergy escapement, among a host of technologies for which Rolex has secured 14 patents. Where the Datejust 41 remains a relatively subdued affair (even considering its inflated 41-millimeter case size), the diamond-festooned Pearlmaster 39, also labeled a Datejust, is ostentatious and quite an unabashed display of Rolex’s expertise at gem-setting.

Datejust 41
Datejust 41

A less conspicuous proposition is the Lady-Datejust 28. Housed in a new 28-millimeter case finished in either yellow or Everose Rolesor (Rolesor is Rolex’s combination of steel and 18-carat gold), the piece isn’t short on techie items too as it runs on the caliber 2236. This movement drew attention upon its release in 2014 for Rolex’s use of Syloxi, the brand’s proprietary name for hairsprings made of silicon — a material that in the last couple of years has been adopted by big-name watch brands for its rigidity, lightness, and non-magnetic and friction-free qualities.

Lady-Datejust 28
Lady-Datejust 28

Celebrating a milestone at the last Baselworld was the Day-Date, which marks its 60th anniversary this year. Available in 40-millimeter or 36-millimeter cases and a variety of dial treatments that include a full-on bling diamond décor, the model’s larger version gets to wear Rolex’s signature green color on its dial — one of the brand’s traditional methods in identifying special editions.

On the surface, there seem to be no significant changes to the Yacht-Master and, especially, the Explorer. The former has gone vintage (and subtle) by way of an Everose Rolesor case and bracelet that are combined with a “tropical” dial, the latter sees longer hands and its trademark 3, 6, and 9 numerals, as well as its hour markings and hands, coated in a lusher luminescent material called Chromalight.

Yacht-Master
Yacht-Master

But, just like all of Rolex’s Baselworld releases this year, the Yacht-Master and Explorer now carry the brand’s latest — and higher-standard — certification for accuracy, which Rolex calls “Superlative Chronometer” rating. First announced at the annual Swiss watch spectacle in 2015, the new designation proves that a finished Rolex piece has passed through several of the company’s testing processes determining accuracy, power reserve capacity, waterproofing, and self-winding operation. The series of tests, Rolex asserts, sets more stringent standards than those observed by the watchmaking industry — and every new Rolex is tagged with this stamp. Now what does this rating says about a watch? That it will be accurate to within two seconds every 24 hours.   

Obviously, such a Superlative Chronometer rating — getting an industry-recognized chronometer certificate alone is already daunting — does not hurt the reappearance of the Air-King in Rolex’s menu. Long regarded as the entry-level Rolex, the Air-King has now shed this tag, returning this year in a large 40-millimeter, soft-iron anti-magnetic case. With prominent military-style markings on the dial, it is now pitched as an aviator’s watch.

Air-King
Air-King

However, it is not the Air-King’s re-positioning that created a buzz in the watch community, rather the adventurous design of the watch’s dial. Mixed with the five-minute-interval countdown markings are large, Explorer-type 3, 6, 9 numerals and an inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, as well as a green second hand and Rolex typeface. A bright yellow Crown logo then adds another layer to the black dial. For many Rolex purists and watch forum denizens, the mishmash of elements is jarring.

But it’s in instances like this when personally seeing and holding a particular timepiece proves invaluable, and thankfully The Rolex Experience generously offered this. Because served up on the table the new Air-King isn’t as raucous as photos (or even videos) might otherwise suggest. The polished white-gold numerals usually reflect surrounding images, and so are wont to blend with the satin black dial. The effect is that the five-minute markers stand out as these do not have to compete with the larger numerals. The green-and-yellow color scheme provide contrast to the package, not competition. If Rolex had intended to hype up the new Air-King’s introduction, it succeeded.

In contrast, there was nothing equivocal regarding the arrival of the new Cosmograph Daytona — rarely are the horologist press and watch guys as gushing over a new timepiece. Credit here goes to Rolex, which, for the past five years or so, had teased the market on whether it would build this latest version or not.

The buzz started in 2011 when Rolex, after having finally updated the 2000 version of the Daytona, fitted its new-at-the-time ceramic bezel on the watch. Immediately, the clamor for a steel “panda” version — recalling the coveted “Paul Newman” piece — began and only got louder with each passing year. Though the new Daytona has finally been released, it appears Rolex isn’t done with teasing. The first 2016 Daytonas are only beginning to trickle into the marketplace. The fact that samples were presented in Shanghai, made available to guests for up-close scrutiny and obligatory wrists shots, only raises their desirability.

Such a reception is phenomenal, considering that the updates for the 2016 version, which sports the succeeding reference number from the 2000 model, are cosmetic. The new model gets a ceramic black bezel and black subdials (black-on-black and blue dial versions are available, too), but powering it is the same caliber 4130 that saw duty in the 2000 update. Of course, that the watch is now housed in steel — as opposed to the more recent Everose Rolesor or platinum — and an Oyster case at that, only adds to its purity. Sturdy shells do birth beauty, especially when this beauty takes the form of really precise, utterly waterproof wristwatches. Rolex offers a different kind of oyster, but like Bourdain, you’ll be hooked.