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How the Oyster changed the World

by Jordan Ficklin

Clearly, I’m a fan of Rolex watches. If you haven’t figured that out yet you haven’t been reading this blog enough. Most watch enthusiasts will know that Rolex invented the “water-proof” watch. The very first model had a crown inside a two piece case and you had to unscrew the bezel to access the crown to set the time or wind the watch. Since then Rolex has made a lot of changes, but so has everyone else.

This post turned out to be longer than I intended but it is a good one. I’m not going to focus on the water-resistance of modern watches, or how the Oyster case made Rolex the brand they are today, but rather the dust-proof qualities and the general advantages to modern case design.

Ladies Hamilton Diamond WatchBesides Rolex watches I also work on lots of vintage watches. The iconic vintage wristwatch is the tiny ladies Bulova wristwatch. These watches were inexpensive in their day, but very stylish and every “lady” had one – or a similar variety. These little movements are housed in “dust-proof” cases and are generally accurate to only within 30 seconds a day or so. But mature ladies still love them. You just can’t find a tiny ladies watch anymore, unless you want to spend a lot of money. JLC makes the caliber 101 which is the smallest mechanical movement in the world and you can of course get it in a tiny case if you would like. While in Las Vegas I also noticed that there are a few high end brands that still make little tiny movements. Rolex however discontinued their 24mm wristwatch about 2 years ago (which was already large when compared to these vintage watches.

Hammy-insidesThe watch pictured is a ladies Hamilton wristwatch in 14K white gold and covered with beautiful diamonds. I’ve worked on it before (about 2 years ago) and in fact it has a history of being serviced every couple of years. This is in fact normal for these watches. They were designed with “dust-proof” cases, which really means “this case lets dust in slower than if the case weren’t there at all.” Let me show you the inside of the watch case.

The diamonds are set with enough space to allow lint and dust to enter and reach the movement. A dust-proof crown has a spring loaded metal cylinder which rests against the case to cover the crown opening with no gasket. The crystals are usually glued into place. When I opened this watch up (which was serviced two years ago) it is completely full of lint. There is more lint in there than in your belly button and between your toes combined! Of course it doesn’t run well. It needs to be serviced. The service expectation for these watches was that they would need an annual cleaning and this is why the “swish and lube” was born. Watchmakers were cleaning 20 or 30 of these a day to keep up with the work load.

So, how does the oyster fit into this? The waterproof watch, and even the water-resistant watch, is also dust proof. By protecting the movement from dust, debris & moisture modern watches can go much longer without service. The modern oyster case can withstand the pressure at 300m below the surface of the ocean, but even a watch rated water-resistant to 30m will keep out dust and dirt.

For quartz watches keeping out dust and dirt is even more important than mechanical watches. A mechanical watch may keep running if it is a little dirty (but not as well) but a single spec of dust can bring a quartz watch to a grinding halt. Without modern cases with gaskets for both the back and the crown quartz watches could never be reliable. In fact I have seen many of these old lady watches converted to quartz watches in an effort to appease the customer only to find that the quartz movement needs to be replaced every couple of years because it has been destroyed by the dust and dirt which enters these cases. — The oyster changed the world!

The innovations which Rolex began have made possible:

  1. Quartz watches
  2. Longer service intervals
  3. Better service practices by watchmakers
  4. So, for your enjoyment I am including a picture of a Rolex Submariner case disassembled into all of the parts which make it a marvelous force field against dust, debris & moisture, even at great depths.

    Oyster Case

    You will see that it has no fewer than 8 gaskets to protect the movement. Even when the crown is pulled out for time setting there are two gaskets protecting the tube entry point. When fully screwed down there are 4 gaskets at work. No dust gets into one of these guys. These watches run until the oils have evaporated or broken down. Which with modern synthetic oils takes about 5 to 7 years.

    So, if you have an older “dust-proof” watch the service interval is shorter than a modern water-resistant watch because the movement is not as well protected from the elements.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 17, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Can I repost your exploded Submariner picture on my website with credit to you. It is a great image illustrating the amount of water resistance measures Rolex takes for their oyster cases.

    Thanks,

    -Sheldon

  2. Posted April 18, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Great exploded image, J.Peter! At first glance I thought it was a computer generated image. Fantastic.

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