Rolex Oyster case – Complete Guide & History
The name Oyster has become synonymous with Rolex. The term Oyster and Rolex have been associated for many decades, but what does it mean, and what is the history behind it? In this article, we are going to look closer at the Rolex Oyster case and the history behind it.
On all Rolex watches manufactured today except for the Cellini, you can find the words ”Oyster Perpetual” printed on the dial. We have discussed the term Oyster perpetual in detail in a previous article, so let’s focus on the Rolex case.
The history of the Rolex Oyster case
In 1926, Rolex introduced an innovation that would come to play great importance for Rolex and for the whole watch industry. This year, Rolex released a model and named it ”Oyster”. This was the world’s first waterproof wristwatch, enabled thanks to the waterproof design of the case, referred to as the Oyster case. It was achieved by two core features – by using screws and seals.
Rolex quickly patented the case of the Oyster, which was waterproof thanks to a case structure which meant screwing down the bezel, case back and winding crown against the middle case. Furthermore, the crown of the watch – which otherwise is the weakest link and most delicate part when it comes to water resistance – was made with a screw-down function. The birth of the iconic fluted bezel was actually the result of the Oyster. Rolex equipped the Oyster with a fluted-style bezel, but this was not done for the aesthetics but to enable screwing it down against the middle-case and ensuring water-resistance. Today, the fluted bezel is an iconic and instantly-recognized feature of many Rolex watches, but solely used for aesthetic reasons.
Rolex still to this day uses the Oyster case structure for all of its watches, although the technology has been improved and refined to make it even more reliable.
The Rolex Oyster case was a huge technological feat that helped put Rolex on the map, and which was the first effort by Rolex to establish the image the brand has today of robustness and durability.
The release of the Oyster case was also the start of Rolex’s testimonial advertising, which the company has continued to use in its marketing for decades to come.
To provide the Oyster’s reliable waterproof case, Hans Wilsdorf gave Mercedes Gleitze – the first woman to swim the English Channel – a Rolex Oyster wristwatch to use during her swim. And if the watch would withstand the swim, Wilsdorf asked her to write a testimony about its performance.
Gleitze didn’t wear the watch on her wrist but had it hanging around her neck by a riband. The Rolex Oyster proved to keep perfect time throughout the swim that lasted for more than ten hours. Thanks to the Oyster case, the watch had not leaked a single drop of water.
Following the swim, Gleitze sent a testimonial to Wilsdorf:
”You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in seawater at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. . . . The newspaperman was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it.”
Hans Wilsdorf realized the marketing opportunity and one month after her swim, the company bought the entire front page of the Daily Mail and published an advertisement that featured Gleitze and Rolex together.
This became the start of Rolex’s success with the Oyster case.
Modern Rolex Oyster case construction
To ensure water-resistance, Rolex uses the Oyster case construction for all of its watches in production except for the Cellini. Thanks to the hermetic construction of the Oyster case, all Oyster watches are guaranteed waterproof to a depth of at least 100 meters (330 feet), and up to 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) for the Rolex Deepsea extreme divers’ watch.
The name Oyster is still around some 90 years later – paying tribute to the world’s very first water-resistant wristwatch, and today, the term is synonymous with extreme water-resistant reliability – something that has been proven with the Deepsea Challenge watch also using the same Oyster case construction – which remained water-resistant to 39370 ft or 2000m.
The Oyster case construction consists of three crucial parts:
Solid middle case
The Oyster case features a middle case that is stamped and machined out of a solid block of Oystersteel, 18 ct gold or platinum. It is to this middle-case that the rest of the components are fitted to.
Screw-down case back
The Rolex Oyster case features a screw-down caseback, hermetically screwed down against the middle case. The case back has a fluting which enables Rolex watchmakers to use tools specifically developed for the Oyster case to screw down the case back. The fluting of the case back also works as a not to the Oyster from 1926 which featured a similar case back fluting.
The weakest link – the winding crown – has been refined and revised to ensure full water-resistance.
In Rolex’s own words:
”A little masterpiece of technical prowess, the winding crown of Rolex watches is made up of about 10 parts and is screwed hermetically onto the watch case. This is how Rolex, for the first time in the history of watchmaking, crafted a waterproof winding crown — a secure interface between the protected, sealed world inside the watch and the harmful elements of the outside world.”
The only thing you as an owner need to do is ensure that the winding crown is screwed-down against the case to prevent any leaking.
The Oyster case has played an important role in Rolex’s success in making a truly durable and reliable timepieces. As long as the crown is screwed down, the Oyster case won’t break a sweat. Although, since gaskets and seals dry out over time, it is advised to pressure-test your Rolex Oyster every year if you regularly swim with it. Otherwise, a pressure test every five years is a commonly-advised timeframe.