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The next generation of Rolex Calibers

by Jordan Ficklin

My boss recently came to me with a very interesting question: He was trying to sell a new Rolex to a gentleman who had a Rolex with a 3035 inside. He wanted to know what improvements had been made in the 3135 movement. That was a tough question.

I often hear people say that Rolex is due for a new gentleman’s caliber, because the 3100 series is now well over 20 years old. Well, age isn’t a very good reason. What improvements need to be made? I didn’t receive any answers to the question when I posed it last week, perhaps because the 3135 does it’s job pretty well. I can think of a few improvements that should be made and I’ll include them at the end of this article.

I’ll begin by referring everyone to my last article which included links to some good “reviews” of some great watch movements.

Now to compare some Rolex Gentleman’s calibers:

Way back in 1957 Rolex produced their first really “in-house” movement. This was the Rolex 1500 series of calibers. This movement was really a work horse and could be found in some movements as late as 1990, although it had been replaced by the 3000 series in most models by 1977. In many ways the 1500 series was a very traditional wristwatch movement. Without the automatic module attached it has a similar layout to most wristwatch movements of the same period. It has an indirect drive center seconds pinion, and no quick set for the date — these are the two major downsides to this movement, but it works. I estimate that probably a third of all the Rolex movements I see for service are still from this generation. They are extremely durable and have well outlasted their 30 year projected life span. (That’s what happens when you take care of them, they last a really, really long time.)

The automatic unit on the 1500 series in many ways resembles what we have today. This is where Rolex introduced its famous red reversing wheels and really their have been some great tweaks to improve the winding capabilities and durability of this unit but the principles involved have not changed.

The 1500 series was available in chronometer and non-chronometer rated versions ranging from 18000bph to 19800bph and from 17 jewels to 26 jewels. In addition there are versions with flat regulated hairsprings, flat free sprung hairsprings and overcoil free sprung balances.

The last noteworthy area of the 1500 is their instantaneous date change. Although there was no quick set mechanism the cam and jewel system which creates an instantaneous and very precise date change appeared in this caliber and has continued to be used by Rolex until today.

This brings us to the caliber 3035 which began replacing the 1500 series in 1977, first in the Datejust an Day-Date. In 1981 it appeared in the Explorer II and GMT-II. The basic 3000 (non-date) caliber didn’t show up until 1990 when it replaced the 1570 in Air-King models (note: this was after the release of the 3100 series in 1988). Essentially the 3000 series had an 11 year run.

The 3035 introduced a quick-set date feature, a direct drive center seconds, and a high-beat oscillator operating at 28,800bph. In addition we saw a transition to micro-gearing throughout the movement and a fast rotating barrel. In order to help improve timing the oscillator was completely re-done without screws, but with microstella timing nuts on the inside of the wheel, which allowed the balance to have a greater diameter and therefore keep even better time.

These improvements made for some real changes that the customer would notice including a much smoother tick (or roll) of the seconds hand, a watch that was more accurate, and one on which it was easier to set the time and date. Because of the micro-gearing and some overpaid engineers, the 3035 began to deviate from the traditional layout of the wristwatch some. While the 1500 can be serviced following standard watchmaking procedures, a little inside knowledge and technical information will definitely yield better results on the 3035.

The 3035 wasn’t without problems but Rolex quickly rectified some of the small issues with this movement and it operates, still today very reliably and robustly. So, why did they eliminate it in just 11 years time? I dont’ knkow but lets look at some of the changes which took place with the release of the 3135.

The 3100 series of movements began to appear in 1988 in all date models from the Datejust, Day-Date, Explorer, and GMT but didn’t appear in Air-King or O.P. models until 2001.

The 3135 had an increased jewel count from 27 jewels in the 3035 to 31 Jewels in the 3135. This included jewels for the barrel arbor and in the automatic module – decreasing wear in two key areas. In fact nearly all the changes in the 3100 series were most likely effectuated in order to improve durability & reliability, or in order to facilitate the service or production procedures and are nearly invisible to the customer. One big exception is the quick-set day feature of the Day-Date.

Some of the technical changes include:

  • A change to the overall layout which facilitates service procedures
  • A balance bridge supported from two sides with keyed nuts for adjusting endshake.
  • A balance protection bridge to protect the balance from damage caused by the oscillating weight when it receives a large shock.
  • A date jumper less prone to misadjustment.
  • A more reliable & robust quick set mechanism.
  • In addition the following items have been added recently:

  • Parachrom hairspring
  • Improved 24 hour mechanism in the GMT & Explorer 3186

So, it has its improvements, but it also has a few downsides. Should it get replaced? I don’t know. It has been 21 years since Rolex first introduced it. This is a pretty long run for a watch movement for any company. Should they decide to replace it here are a few things they should really consider:

  • The setting wheels can really cause a lot of damage when the watch isn’t serviced at the correct interval because of their extremely small diameter.
  • The oscillating weight really bounces around. This is because of the small axle on which it rotates. The small axle allows for greater torque and more efficient winding, but also makes it more likely to flex and break. I’d like to see a ball bearing system, like appears in the Daytona Caliber 4130.
  • How about an annual calendar, or at least a mainplate which allows for an annual calendar on some models.

In conclusion, Rolex has produced three very reliable Gent’s calibers in a row and should they replace the 3135 it should resolve any durability issues and provide some real improvement for the customer. I don’t think I could recommend upgrading from a 3035 to a 3135 purely on a technical basis, but it isn’t a bad trade if you are also getting a better watch, which is certainly the case because Rolex has made tremendous noteworthy changes to the design of their cases and bracelets over the last 20 years.

Thank you all for reading. I know I haven’t been writing very often lately but I will continuing writing for the blog, even if the posts get farther apart, so stay tuned. Oh, and of course, if you like what you read feel free to donate. A nice donation, always inspires me to keep writing.

One Comment

  1. Posted December 14, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    The integration of Rolex’s new Parachoc anti-shock system, in place of the KIF system is another notable change that has occurred with the introduction of the new 3136 calibre et al. I was surprised that they didn’t re-engineer the intermediate setting wheels, though. That is one change I would certainly second on your list.

    As for the oscillating mass, I deeply appreciate the simplicity and smooth motion of the oscillating mass axle, when properly maintained, and wouldn’t personally opt for a ball bearing system.

    I’d second the annual calendar in higher end models and can definitely understand any delay on Rolex’s part in launching one. The finely tuned precision of the Datejust system would be challenging (to say the least) to implement in an annual calendar.

    I recently had the pleasure of taking a peak under the hood of the Yachtmaster II and was blown away to see two LIGA cut wheels at work in the 4160. Rolex doesn’t make any mention at all of the use of this breakthrough technology in their watches in their marketing for the Yachtmaster II, which I was very surprised about, but can also understand to a degree. It’s sublime. I could write a whole article on this, but the long and short of it is that Rolex has devised a means to completely eliminate any play or “backlash” between the gears used to drive the countdown hand of of the 4160, by essentially hollowing out each individual tooth of the gears leaving two spring-like flanges that flex to absorb any play that would otherwise exist between engaged teeth and pinions. What blows me away the most is they have been doing this en masse for close to two years, relatively under the radar. That said, I can see the potential for more LIGA components being put to work in future calibres.

    To steal another page from Patek’s arsenal (the first being the annual calendar), the only other suggestions I would have would all be based around the escapement and oscillator. Namely, Patek’s ultraflat Spiromax hairspring and banking-free pallet fork.

    Even without any of the above changes, Rolex’s 3135 family currently remains (in my books at least) the most precise, robust, and easy to service family of watch calibres on the planet.

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