If one watch could be said to have made the Rolex reputation, it would have to be the Oyster—the world’s first successful waterproof wristwatch that was introduced by Rolex in the 1920s. But that would only be half the story. The next refinement of the Oyster was the watch that truly established Rolex as a world leader manufacturer way ahead of the herd of other watch makers. That watch was the first Rolex Oyster Perpetual—the one affectionally called the Bubbleback. It was their desire to prevent Oysters going in to rolex watch repair centers prematurely that caused Rolex to develop the Bubbleback, but we get ahead of the story.
The Rolex Oyster was a game changer. A true waterproof watch was an amazing achievement in the decade that saw the first solo flight across the Atlantic by a man young man named Charles Lindbergh. The Oyster employed a screw down case back with rubber gasket and a screw down crown to achieve a hermetic (airtight) seal to keep moisture and dust at bay. There was only one problem: customers kept forgetting to screw down the crown. That allowed moisture and water into the case and sent damaged watches back to Rolex for repair before their recommended service interval. Wily Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf knew the answer was to keep the crown screwed down all the time, but that would require a reliable internal self-winding mechanism. The watches were already so accurate, the crowns only needed to pulled out once or twice a month to change the time. The answer was an automatic, self-winding mechanism that bolted directly onto the old manual wind movement. Wilsdorf—ever the brilliant advertiser—called the new movement “Perpetual.” It was more reliable than the competition, and could still be manually wound if desired. That was something else the competing automatics couldn’t do, and important in the days when many still distrusted self-winding watches. The year was 1934 and Rolex had changed the game again.
Why a Bubbleback?
The only downside was the thickness of the new watch, required by the bolt-on mechanism’s rotor swinging back and forth as it wound the watch. This gave the new Oyster Perpetual its English nickname of “bubbleback” and an Italian one of “ovetto,” which means little egg. This was a small price to pay for the world’s first automatic, waterproof watch. The Bubbleback gave Rolex a watch that was the envy of the world’s other watch makers and one soon embraced by many top celebrities of the age like Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway. For those who wanted and could afford the best, it was the only option.
The watch went on to form the bedrock of the Rolex lineup, and still lives on in greatly enhanced form today. The Bubbleback is long gone, its mechanism obsolete. But the words Oyster Perpetual can still be found on all top-of-the line Rolex models. A waterproof, automatic watch is still a fine idea and nobody makes a better one than Rolex…but the Bubbleback was the first.
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