FEATURE

Discovering 100 Years of Rolex Chronometers and Rolex Oyster Watches


A little over a century ago, in 1914, the Kew Observatory in Great Britain granted a “Class A” chronometer certificate to a wristwatch for the very first time. This was a major achievement for the timepiece in question, a tiny Rolex watch, and it also marked the advent of the modern precision wristwatch.

In this article from the Watch-Insider.com archives, I explore the full story behind this watch-world milestone, and trace the evolution of the Rolex “Oyster” watches that resulted from it, with photos of all the major Rolex Oyster models from 1926 through 2014.

Until July 15, 1914, the “Class A” certification, which attested to the highest chronometric precision, had generally been awarded only to large marine chronometers after extremely rigorous tests. Rolex was, in fact, the first to prove that a wristwatch could be just as precise as a marine chronometer – a notion that was scarcely believable at the time.

Rolex’s first success in this area had, in fact, already come in 1910, when it obtained a chronometer certificate for a small watch from the Official Watch Rating Center in Bienne, Switzerland (as seen below).

The first Rolex precision certificate dating from 1910
The first Rolex precision certificate, dated 1910

This proof of performance would contribute significantly to the rise of the wristwatch in popularity. On the strength of this achievement, Rolex would eventually become the world’s largest manufacturer of chronometer-certified wristwatches. The Geneva-based brand perfected the concept of the modern watch in 1926 by inventing the waterproof “Oyster” case to protect the movement inside and then, in 1931, by developing the self-winding “Perpetual” rotor movement. Today, all Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches are officially certified chronometers, carrying on the heritage of the pioneering role the brand played in bringing precision to the wristwatch.

That milestone feat of miniaturized precision — the very first “Class A” rating certificate for a wristwatch from the Kew Observatory near London, occurred on 15 July 1914, and would forever change the destiny of the modern watch.

The 1914 Rolex Kew results
Rolex’s 1914 Kew Observatory results

This first chronometer wristwatch not only met but passed with flying colors the British observatory’s demanding criteria, the most stringent in the world: 45 days of tests, in five different positions and at three different temperatures (ice-cold, oven-hot and ambient). For the first time in history, a wristwatch fulfilled the requirements expected of the best marine chronometers. These navigation instruments, whose precision was used to determine the position of ships at sea (longitude), could not deviate by more than a few seconds per day without putting the safety of the ships at risk.

The tiny Rolex wristwatch that was certified by Kew 100 years ago recorded an average daily rate of only +1 second. This was the moment when the wristwatch gained legitimacy at the prestigious Observatory tests.

The 1914 Rolex Kew Certificate
Rolex’s Kew Observatory Certificate from 1914
The 1914 Kew certified Rolex wristwatch Chronometer
The 1914 Kew-certified Rolex wristwatch Chronometer

The man behind this feat was German-born Hans Wilsdorf, who founded Rolex in 1905. By obtaining this first chronometer certificate from Kew, Wilsdorf demonstrated that, in terms of precision, a small wristwatch could rival that of the best timepieces, including pocketwatches, which were the norm at the time. Thus, nearly two centuries after John Harrison designed the first marine chronometer, Rolex targeted an equal level of precision for a wristwatch.

Hans Wilsdorf the founder of Rolex
Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex

In those early days of the 20th century, no one had yet managed to design a truly reliable and precise wristwatch. Wristwatches were not in favor at the time, because their comparatively small mechanisms could not compete with the regularity and reliability of the larger pocketwatch movements. However, since the beginning of his career, Wilsdorf had been firmly convinced that the wristwatch would be future of the watchmaking industry. He devoted the energy of his youth to eliminating all the wristwatch’s weak points and made the quest for wristwatch precision his first objective. A visionary entrepreneur, Wilsdorf was firmly convinced that precision was essential to ensure the acceptance and eventual popularity of the wristwatch.

Rolex is one of the historic leaders in timekeeping and a true pioneer in chronometer wristwatches; Rolex made certified precision its signature. By the early 1950s, Rolex had manufactured nearly 90 percent of all chronometers officially certified in Switzerland since 1927, the year specific criteria for chronometer wristwatches were introduced.

When, in 1951, the regulations changed and it became compulsory to obtain chronometer certification from an official body, Rolex went further and made sure its movements obtained certificates bearing the citation “particularly good results.” This distinction gave rise to the famous phrase still inscribed on Rolex watch dials today: “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified”. Since the creation of the COSC (Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute) in 1973, special citations are no longer given on the certificates. But the signature on Rolex dials is a reminder that since the early 20th century, Rolex has played a central role in the development of the modern precision watch.

Continue your historical excursion into Rolex watches by taking a look at the brand’s major Oyster Perpetual watch developments from 1926 through 2014.

15 Responses to “Discovering 100 Years of Rolex Chronometers and Rolex Oyster Watches”

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  1. Jan Hofstede

    the new milgauss is not from 2014 but 2006 as the 50th anniversary of the original

    Reply
  2. Steve Skrobot

    I need a guarantee card or paper from 1933 to 1934. Where can I find one for sale?

    Reply
  3. Andrew Hughes

    I risk getting trolled by saying that I prefer Rolex’s early work over today’s (in the looks department not movements). There are many collectors who might agree. Anyway, this was a nice walk down Rolex Lane.

    Reply
    • Ian Woollard

      The 20s and 30s pieces are beautiful,I was surprised and agree with you.

      Reply
  4. Tom Parisi

    Has watchtime done any reviews on the new Rolex Air King or Explorer in 39mm??
    I’m very interested in both of those watches.

    Reply
  5. Dr. Bart Labiner

    Very interesting how the early Rolex watches were made to be certified as a chronometer & still uses “Superlative” on its watches today!! Also that its founder Mr. Wilsdorf had the foresight of how popular a wristwatch would become.
    I’m aware many well known & precision watches were made before Rolex; but perhaps some were “pocket watches” that were more popular back then, and the Official COSC only started in 1973.
    The photo’s are great as is this article about Rolex watches. Thank you

    Reply
  6. Ong Wie

    Why Rolex never include the Chronometre Certificate like Panerai do?

    Reply
  7. Very informative article and more informative comment section. Waiting for further conversation on the same especially from Alexander.!

    Reply
  8. Adam R. Harris

    Well of course you can read what you wish from Rolex press server.
    But fact remains that Rolex can not give one piece of evidence that they launched or sold a self-winding watch prior to Q4 CY 1933 or more likely 1934

    This is Rolex and not one shred of evidence.
    Yet I have shown much evidence in patents/adverts and the actual Didactic watch that Rolex never had, or invented or sold a self-winding watch in 1931 or 1932.

    Please you or Rolex please post one piece of evidence to dispute my points
    Rolex launched their rotor perpetual in 1934.
    Adam

    Reply
  9. Adam R. Harris

    Hi Mark
    I will contact Alexander directly.
    But fact remains
    1) Rolex did not launch a Perpetual watch until Q4 1933 at earliest.
    He should ask Rolex for any adverts prior to 1934 for Perpetual.
    and
    2) They surely did not use that movement!

    Regards
    adam

    Reply
  10. Adam Yap

    Hi, you missed out the Submariner 16610LV in 2003 and Submariner 116610LN and 116610LV in 2010, both very special to the first professional range watch.

    Reply
  11. Adam R. Harris

    Please see a letter already sent and printed in Watch time.
    Rolex never made a ‘perpetual’ winding watch until Q1 1934 or possible Q4 1933.
    I have the patent granted in May 1933 and first perpetual adverts of 1934 never in 1931 or 1932 or even 1933 did Rolex advertise an automatic watch!.

    Worse still the movement picture you show is completely incorrect. Rolex used what is termed a ‘Didactic’ movement in its first pieces.
    It was nothing like the one you show. I can post pictures of an original Rolex Perpetual from Q4 1933/Q1 1934. I own it!

    Printed letter:
    Watch Time – December 2013
    MILESTONES – Rolex
    Firstly, thanks your excellent magazine. I wanted to bring to your attention to a well perpetuated myth that Rolex patented and launched their ‘automatic’ (perpetual) watch in 1931.
    The truth is that the patent was only applied on 14 January 1932 and granted in May 1933.
    The first perpetual known as DIDACTICS were shipped Q4 CY 1933 or early 1934. Indeed these pieces were cased in a Rolex patented material trademarked ‘Rolesium’ this trade- mark was only registered in May 21st 1932
    Although later Rolex advertised “Rolex is always first” stating 1931, we can see from an advert of that time, that ROLEX “The MASTERPIECE of Watch Craftsmanship -1934” (see attached).
    I have one of these earliest ‘DIDACTICS’ a similar one dated 1933 was sold by Antiquorum on 14 May 2006. Mine is 10 serial numbers after that therefore also 1933.
    I attach also a copy of the original Rolex ‘DIDACTIC’ movement it is very different from the version depicted in the picture accompanying your article. You can see from the picture the engraved instruction to the jeweler in English and French on how to remove the rotor from the movement.

    Needless to say these first generation Rolex Perpetual are very rare indeed, and the ‘Bubbleback’ shape is very different to the 4 generations that followed later. (Pictures attached)
    Sincerely
    Adam R. Harris. – Spain

    Reply
    • Mark Bernardo

      Hello, Adam,
      Thanks for calling our attention to these issues. The author of the article, Alexander Linz, points out that these facts were taken directly from Rolex’s press server and he suggests you contact him with info and photos to illustrate your pointsso he can clear up any inconsistencies. He can be reached at alexander@watch-insider.com.

      Reply
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