Rolex And Quartz – The Watch That Ticked Differently
Watch & Bullion21 April 2018 | 5 min read
“Albert Einstein failed elementary math”, “Shaving causes your hair to grow back faster”, and “A Rolex that ticks is fake”.
These are the kind of statements which circulate based on how catchy they are, rather than their actual substantive quality. It is a bit like Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Albert Einstein is a topic I will leave for someone else, and the hair argument has already occupied too much time of my life. That is why today we will look at Rolex and their affair with quartz watches.
But first, a bit of History. Things started off with the Rolex reference 5100, also know as The Texan. It was driven by the beta 21 movement which was introduced in 1969. It was the successor of the Beta 1 movement from 1960 which was a product of the Centre Electronique Horologer, a group of Switzerland’s most prominent watchmakers. Sold between 1970 and 1972 and with a rumored production number of around 1000 pieces it is one of the rarest Rolex ever to exist, and also the first Rolex which ever had a sapphire crystal. The Beta 21 movement was also seen in Patek, IWC, and Omega watches but it is to this day most connected to the 5100. These watches are not very reliable, and clearly a very early version of the reliable cheap quartz watch we know today. Ironically though these very first models lacked the one trait identified with quartz watches, they had a sweeping seconds hand.
So on our hunt for a Rolex that ticks we have to look elsewhere. The 5100 despite its shrewd history and ridiculously low production numbers was successful enough to warrant a successor. Rolex being Rolex, however, they wanted to do their own thing and offer a unique movement that they didn’t have to share with other producers. After the 5100 stopped selling in 1972 Rolex decided to work on their own quartz movement. Full five years later in 1977, Rolex released calibers 5053 and 5055 for the date and day-date version respectively, and with that created arguably to this day best quartz movement ever made.
Rolex doesn’t do things half-heartedly, so if they were going to make a quartz watch they had to make sure it lived up to their brand reputation. Taking with them the experiences from the Beta 21, Rolex concluded that a higher frequency oscillator and a way to compensate for changes in temperature would be critical for the perfect quartz movement. Consequently, the 5035 oscillates four times faster than the Beta 21 and has a thermistor which can sense temperature and uses the data to regulate the voltage to the quartz crystal. To allow for fine-tuning Rolex included a trimmer, a little screw that you can turn in order to speed up or slow down your watch to get the accuracy just right. The result of all this work was a +/-60 seconds accuracy rating per year which was groundbreaking.
The movement is largely based on the mechanics of the automatic 3035 movements, something Rolex acknowledges in the name of the caliber. The best example of this is the drive mechanism which works in the same way as a mechanical watch escapement, just at a slower rate of 1 tick per second. This mechanical basis makes for arguably the most identifiable seconds hand in the quartz world. If you have never before been around an Oysterquartz, let me tell you that you’ll probably hear it before you’ll see it. This is not because it is obnoxiously loud, but it is a sound that never leaves and marches forward with a consistency and confidence of a Prussian general. And to put the icing on the cake, Rolex built in a mechanism to counteract the force of the second’s hand and prevent a backlash that can be seen on cheaper quartz watches.
The earliest models of the Oysterquartz can be identified by lacking COSC certification, a true rarity for Rolex. This was evidence of the two slightly different versions Rolex released. The mark 1 featured a basic quartz crystal, and the 18 months later introduced mark 2 sports a new crystal shaped like a tuning fork for better accuracy and COSC certification identified on the dial. And for the next two decades that was it. In 2002 the Oysterquartz left the stage of the Rolex ADs. It was graced by the wrist of Tupac, Reinhold Messner, and John Huston in an iconic Apple Ad.
The Rolex Oysterquartz is a bit like those ridiculously over-engineered German cars of the 70s. Yeah, maybe they don’t get as many looks as a Ferrari, and sure repairs can be a pain in the rare event that you break it, but you have to forgive these things as it was built in a different time. A child of the 1970s, this watch comes from a time period where the Beatles had just disbanded, the Concord put the world in awe, and the floppy disc revolutionized business. Since then the world population has doubled, and while everything else seems to have sped up, the Oysterquartz is in its own cocoon ticking on in the 1970s having lost nothing of its appeal. This is a special watch, an outlier the likes we will likely never again see from Rolex.