Why Rolex Oyster Quartz Matters

History of Oyster Quartz

In 1928, Warren Morrison of Bells Labs discovered that the natural frequency of quartz could be honed for timekeeping purposes, but the early quartz devices were too big for practical use as pocket or wristwatches. The Swiss opened the Center for Electronic Watchmaking in Geneva 34 years later in 1962 and manufactured the Beta 1 Swiss Movement—also too clunky and unreliable. A later version called Beta 21 was created in 1969 and Rolex used it in the Ref 5100, a large all-gold watch. Only 1,000 of the Ref 5100 were made and production ended in 1972. Patek Phillipe was among the 20 Swiss manufacturers that made use of the Beta 21 movement.

Rolex 5100 Quartz With Caliber Beta 21 Movement, Credit to Haut Horlogerie

After Ref 5100, Rolex embarked on the development of an in-house quartz watch. In 1977, after five years of research design and development, Caliber 5035 Rolex movement was launched. That particular caliber, while over 40 years old, is to this day the finest quartz movement ever made and unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon. The two breakthrough achievements of the in-house 5035 were the higher frequency oscillator (four times as fast as its predecessor) to increase accuracy, and use of thermo-compensation to stabilize the effect of ambient temperature changes on the oscillator. A thermistor sensor sends temperature data to a regulator that adjust the voltage to the quartz crystal, thereby keeping a constant rate under varying temperatures.

Rolex intended the Caliber 5035 DateJust (and its companion 5055, with an additional day indication) to be "lifetime" movements, designed to be serviced and maintained just like their mechanical counterparts. In fact, apart from the electronics and the pulse motor, the mechanics of the 5035 are the same as the 3035 automatic movement that was also introduced in 1977 and used in the Submariner and other Date/DateJust models for over a decade. The 5035 movement is understated and beautiful and it is the only quartz movement to be finished with the Geneva stripes and fine finishes. It is also water resistant to 100 meters (330 feet).

Decorated to higher standard than their mechanical watches, Rolex made less than 25,000 Oysterquartz watches in 25 years. To put the rarity in perspective, Rolex makes 50,000-70,000 Submariners each year. In the end, despite all the resources spent to develop the movement and its unique engineering achievements, Oysterquartz went down in history as Rolex’s least successful watch, because in 1970s the Japanese made a vast number of more compact quartz movements much less expensively.

The Superlative Chronometer Certification

The first generation of this new quartz Mark I, as it was called at Rolex, was only produced for 18 months. Thereafter the quartz crystal in the oscillator was reconfigured to a tuning fork shape. The Mark II movement was submitted to COSC for chronometer certification. The very early and rarer variant of the movement (like the one we have) is identified by the absence of "Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified" on the dial.

Rolex 17000 with Caliber 5035 Movement, 2nd Generation with Chronometer Certification

Case Design

One has to handle the Oysterquartz to appreciate what a beautiful oddity it is. The first impression is that it is a heavy and hefty watch, not at all what you would expect from a quartz watch, and perhaps the reason why it didn’t succeed. The size and weight of the watch is much closer to that of an A. Lange Sohne wristwatch than a modern Omega Seamaster Quartz.

The design is at once characteristic of the 1970s, very different from the typical Rolex aesthetic, and reminiscent of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Indeed, there was a shared style around the introduction of the Ref 17000 between the Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Nautilus and the IWC Jumbo Ingenieur. All have a cutting-edge design with hard corners and flat metallic planes, round dials on square block cases and integrated bracelets. The Oysterquartz was the only one of the four that was not designed by Gerald Genta.

The dial sits on an immense cushion case that appears much larger than its nominal 36mm measurement. At 12.5mm, the DateJust case is as thick as a 1940s manual wind chronograph, which begs the question: Isn’t the whole point of a quartz watch to make a compact timepiece? Perhaps not, because as previously mentioned, other than the sensors and the pulse motor, the rest of the watch is a highly finished mechanical movement with 11 jewels.

This is a connoisseur’s watch—made for one who appreciates the quirky twists and turns in the history of fine timepieces.

Rolex 19019 with Caliber 5055 Day-Date Movement, For Sale at Parthian Watch Company
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