One of the first tricks that a horological neophyte learns is that, if the second hand on a Rolex ticks, it is a fake. While this may be one way to immediately identify a cheap fake, it is not a rule that always applies. Just as there are fakes equipped with automatic movements, there are also real Rolexes with quartz mechanisms! We are talking about the unique “Oysterquartz,” a line of watches that has accompanied the Rolex catalog for more than two decades.
Let’s look back together at the special history of the most precise Rolex… in history!
From a fridge to a penny
If there is one word that seems to terrify collectors and split opinion in two, it is definitely “quartz”. Traditional Swiss watchmaking was in danger of being completely wiped out by the advent of this tiny mineral, with many companies forced to declare bankruptcy.
Initially developed in the 1930s, quartz watches were used to measure time with extremely high precision in the world’s most advanced laboratories.
Their size, equal to that of a modern refrigerator, and astronomical prices, however, made it impossible to even imagine carrying this technology inside a wristwatch.
Things changed, however, in the 1960s, when enormous developments in science and technology made it possible to begin experimenting with miniaturized versions of quartz movements.
Texan: a first try
Before talking about the Oysterquartz, we should say that it was not the first quartz watch sold by Rolex.
As we mentioned, in the 1960s, interest in new mechanisms that could replace the old mechanical gears led to major investments. Threatened by the progress set in motion by the Japanese Seiko, more than 20 Swiss companies joined in a consortium aimed at developing the world’s first quartz mechanism for wristwatches.
Among the founding maisons of the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH), we find Rolex. CEH engineers immediately set to work and presented their end result, the Beta-21, in 1967. It was Seiko, however, that released the first quartz wristwatch available to the public, in 1969.
If you are curious to read the full story of this extraordinary project and the challenge between Switzerland and Japan, you can explore it in our dedicated article here.
In 1970, the founding maisons of CEH introduced their quartz watches. The size of the new mechanism made it necessary to equip the new watches with substantial cases that could accommodate it, and so the Rolex Quartz, ref. 5100, was born.
Because of its opulent appearance and astronomical price, it was quickly nicknamed “the Texan,” imagining that only an American oil tycoon could afford such glitz.
The new watch, produced in only 1,000 pieces and the first Rolex ever to boast a sapphire crystal, had an accuracy of +/-0.003 sec/day. Consider that in order to receive Rolex’s typical COSC certification, an error of about 6 seconds per day is tolerated.
Contrary to what we have become accustomed to today, for reasons of battery life, the second hand does not tick, but rather resembles a traditional mechanical watch.
Impossible not to remember, then, that with the purchase of a Texan, Rolex invited the buyer to join the “Rolex Quartz Club”: with this special invitation, the owner obtained unlimited access to the Geneva headquarters and a tour of the manufacture.
In short, there is a reason why we voted it among the coolest watches of the 1970s. (Want to discover the others? Find the article here.)
And now, the Oysterquartz
After experimenting with the Texan, of which all examples were pre-sold, Rolex decided it wanted to dedicate itself to the development of its own quartz mechanism, entirely designed and made in house.
In 1977, Rolex presents the result to the public. Two movements were introduced: the 5035 for the Datejust models and the 5055 for the Day-Date models.
The new mechanisms would thus go on to equip Rolex’s most famous models, which, to mark the special occasion, were given new cases and bracelets. While recalling the original models, they feature very pronounced edges, thus heralding the entry into the 1980s.
But this mechanism is definitely far from the one inside from a quartz watch of today, which can be bought for ten euros. We must first say that it is not “entirely” quartz, but rather a quartz-mechanical hybrid, where the regulator is yes quartz, but the rest of the components retain the traditional mechanical construction. We can also say that, if we exclude movements from the early 1900s, Oysterquartz movements are the only Rolex calibres to feature decorations.
A unique canvas
These peculiar models have been used as a canvas by Rolex to create some of the most extravagant watches made by the maison.
Just as with some of the siblings in the “ordinary” Day-Date line, special requests from wealthy clients have led to the creation of Oysterquartz with every extravagance imaginable.
As a result, we find octopus bracelets, pyramids, stones of all kinds: needless to say, each of these examples represents, practically, a piece unique…
That of the Oysterquartz has been a stable presence in the rolex catalog for twenty-five years. From 1977 to 2001, customers had the possibility to opt for the most precise movement ever offered by Rolex, as well as being able to request virtually any aesthetic modification that the wallet would allow. Despite the long period of production, it is estimated that only about 25,000 Oysterquartz left Rolex boutiques.
The history of the Oysterquartz family is definitely fascinating, but the market has long forgotten the existence of these extraordinary models.
We speak in the past tense, fortunately, because today collectors are regularly battling to acquire the rarest and most unique Oysterquartz examples. After all, how many other models can we find such customized versions of?
However, we believe they have not yet reached their full potential, which is why we are pleased to present a curated selection of the rarest one-of-a-kind pieces made by Rolex. We therefore invite you to browse through our Collection to find some of them or contact our experts to book an appointment in our boutiques to see the off-catalogue ones live.
written by Lorenzo Spolaor