“The Timeless Watch”

Aesthetic timelessness is often sought, rarely achieved, and always up for debate.  Functional timelessness: an object’s ability to remain useable in the real world, is much rarer still.  This is what makes today’s marvelous machine, the Rolex Oyster wristwatch, so special.  It’s just about the only mechanically complex object designed in 1926 that you can still go into a store and buy today. 

These days, many people see a Rolex watch purely as a wearable ego inflator; but in 1926, Rolex was the first company to offer a production watch that was legitimately waterproof.  The Oyster case (technically speaking) was unlike any watch case that came before it. The Oyster was the first wristwatch made with a bezel, pack plate, and crown that all screwed into the watch’s subframe; creating an airtight and watertight cavity to house the movement and dial.

Patent drawing of the waterproof Oyster case. Source

The signature fluting on the bezel and backplate actually originated from technical necessity, as only a Rolex-produced tool could properly screw these pieces onto the body of the watch. The interior of the watch was hermetically sealed; impervious to both water and particle contaminants, which had been troublesome for watch mechanisms in decades past.  While the Rolex watches were pricy for their time, they offered a substantial technological advantage over their competitors. If you wanted to go for a swim in the English Chanel, your Rolex would still be working when you got out; and in 1926 that was nothing short of a miracle. 


While the inception of the Oyster case is interesting in of itself, the far more impressive aspect of it’s design (for me at least) is that it remains the industry standard for waterproof watches.  I think just about everyone views Rolex watches as rarities, but this is somewhat of a false perception.  Rolex manufactures roughly a million watches annually, the vast majority of which still use the Oyster case.  Today’s oysters feature bezels and back plates that are press-sealed into position.  But the materials, manufacturing process, and level of functionality have been mostly unchanged for decades.  During my childhood, I was always dumbfounded that my father would wear his old Rolex in the pool, in the shower, even out fishing.  It amazed me that the darn thing would never break, and always kept good time.  But that’s exactly what it’s done for almost 30 years now… and it still looks brand new!

Rolex makes watches for divers, sailors, aviators, mountaineers, and just about any kind of “enthusiast activity” that looks good on a billboard outside the Galleria.  But the reality is most Rolex watches are owned by bond traders, construction company owners and doctors.  The largest vessel most Rolex owners have commanded is typically a Lexus, not a 200 foot schooner.  Almost nobody that owns an Oyster case Rolex actually takes it diving, but that’s missing the point entirely.  Just like my dad, Rolex owners aren’t afraid of taking their watches in the shower, to the pool, on the beach, or even fly fishing in the Colorado river.  For me that’s what makes the Rolex Oyster watch a marvelous machine.  These watches aren’t complicated or cutting edge by any means; they just do exactly what they’re supposed to, and they’ll keep on ticking long after their original owners have stopped.  Can you say that about your Apple watch?

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