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The distinction between tool and dress watches began in 1926 with the release of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first mass-produced and commercially sold water-resistant wristwatch. With the Oyster, people for the first time had access to timepieces that could go anywhere and do anything – even if it was manually wound.
Although the winding interval was reduced on certain military watches with 8-day power reserves – read: Once wound, these special mechanical watches kept time for a week – leaky crown threads were a concern in WWI’s trench warfare until the 1930s. Straight through WWII. In 1950, Rolex released the first water-resistant, automatic-winding wristwatch in which the winding rotor moved 360 degrees, called the Oyster Perpetual. The combination of water resistance and automatic winding meant that the watch’s threaded crown almost never needed to be unscrewed, which would have worn out and caused leaks.
Oyster Perpetual served on several peacetime missions, including the first successful summit of Everest. To commemorate that British success, in 1953 Rolex rebranded a particular Oyster Perpetual variant as the Explorer, and for all intents and purposes today’s Explorer, as well as the Air-King, can be considered special editions of the Oyster Perpetual.
Alas, it’s not as exciting or collectible as Rolex mission-specific tool watches like the good old Oyster Perpetual Submariner, but the undated “OP” — today’s only version — is just the thing for essential time, doing something, going somewhere. Watch. It has long been Rolex’s wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Below we examine several key historical references, and then explore the entire modern catalog of Rolex Oyster Perpetuals for men. Unfortunately, we cannot cover a single development or model in the OP’s history: efforts to create a coherent classification of these watches were overwhelmed by the confusion and poor record-keeping of Rolex’s high-output industrial practices from the 1950s to the 1970s. However, it is a good place to start for a more comprehensive discussion of this time period The Vintage Rolex Field Guide.
Before we begin, here’s some background on the structure of the OP:
The original Oyster watch from 1926 used a fluted bezel to screw the crystal. By 1950, Rolex incorporated the bezel into the case, eliminating that potentially leaky threading. The fluted bezel lives on as a functionally useless precious metal decoration in Oyster perpetual date models, the Datejust, the Day-Date, the Ladyjust and now, the Sky-Dweller. However, Oyster Perpetual no-date models always have a low-key smooth or engine-turned stainless steel bezel, which is what you’ll find in the catalog today.
All modern Rolex sport watches are rated for water resistance of at least 100m/300ft. The 100m/300ft rating indicates that Rolex has the Twinlock crown first introduced on the Submariner in 1953, which uses two seals. Twinlock is usually indicated by a straight line or two dots below the crown logo on the outside of the folded winding handle. Rolex developed a 3-Seal unit called the Triplex Crown for the Sea-Dweller in 1977 – and it expanded to other sport models – but that technology was never used on the Oyster Perpetual.
Some bulky automatic Rolex movements of the 1940s and 1950s added a winding rotor to the stock manually wound movement. This design pushed the OP case back and gave these watches the nickname “bubbleback” or “semi-bubbleback”. Later flatter automatic movements such as the 1560 and 1570 calibers were introduced for thinner watches and remained in production for over 25 years. In 1977, Rolex introduced caliber 3035 into the Oyster Perpetual line, sometimes referred to as a “high-beat” movement because the beat rate was increased to 28,800 bph – the modern standard. All modern movements powering the OP line since then have been “high-beat” and chronometer-certified.
Rolex used acrylic crystals until the late 1980s, when they switched to sapphires. Acrylic (plastic) crystal can be polished to remove scratches, but sapphire crystal is mostly scratch-proof. However, the sapphire crystal will shatter.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual “Bubbleback”
Oyster Perpetuals of the 1940s and 1950s were often called “bubblebacks” — or “semi-bubblebacks” — by collectors because of the way their case backs bulged. Because Rolex actually added an automatic rotor to a more traditional, manually wound movement. Small by modern standards at around 32-34mm, these beautiful oyster perennials come in so many varieties that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all.
Price Range: $3,000-$10,000
Between the 2000s and the “bubbleback” age, the Oyster Perpetual was mostly available in 34mm – with one exception. Or, with many exceptions, in a comprehensive classification: “ovettone“or “little egg.” This huge Oyster Perpetual was made in several references and in the 1950s and 1960s had a very large – 36mm case. Today they are rare and expensive – especially, ref. 6298, the so-called ” Pre-Explorer.” (Ross See Poways Excellent in-depth analysis (For more information see Bulong & Sons.)
Price Range: $6,000-$20,000
Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002
ref. The 1002 has been in production for over 20 years and can also be found with different dials and a range of different handsets. (The 1960s models had alpha hands.) Otherwise, it shipped with a chronometer-certified movement, a smooth bezel, and usually a silver or gilt black dial, but occasionally a beautiful “linen” or “mosaic” version. turn over
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date (various)
In the mid-1950s, Rolex introduced the Oyster Perpetual Date model. It is important not to confuse date with Datejust (1945-present), the main difference being that the latter snaps the date wheel before midnight and potentially the size. These watches can easily be mistaken for one another at a glance – or, at least, some of them with fluted bezels.
2014-Present: A New Beginning
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Rolex introduced the 26mm, 31mm, 34mm, and 36mm Oyster Perpetuals in 2014. In 2015, they introduced a 39mm model, making OP the most versatile lineup in the brand’s catalog.
Then, in 2020, Rolex replaced the Oyster Perpetual 39mm with the current 41mm model. These OPs are only available with smooth stainless steel bezels, stainless steel cases and stainless steel oyster (3-link) bracelets. (Rolex calls their particularly bright modern steel “Oystersteel”) All of these models are rated to 100m/300ft and, therefore, use a twin-lock crown system.
The movements have all been upgraded to include many non-magnetic parts, proprietary lubricants and so on, making today’s Oyster Perpetuals the most accurate and reliable models yet. Beyond the standard COSC certification, these watches are now part of Rolex’s Superlative Chronometer program, offering an accuracy of +2/-2 seconds per day and a power reserve of 55 hours.
Articles: 34mm, 36mm, 39mm (Men’s Size)
Price Range: $6,000-$15,000
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 34 Ref. 124200
Today’s OP34 is a taste of this classic design. Radiant Black, Rose, Bright Blue and Silver – Available in one of four radial brush dial options – Radiant Black, Rose, Bright Blue and Silver – it features single-stick markers that some people prefer for symmetry. With a smaller format, comes the caliber 2232, which is effectively equipped with the same technology as the cal. 3230 used in larger models.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36 Ref. 126000
The “OP36” is probably the perfect Oyster Perpetual model, its size making it a watch suitable for a variety of wrist sizes. Today’s OP36 uses the same 3230 movement as the OP41, with the same dual markers, all-steel construction (including an oyster bracelet) and the same dial color options, including candy pink.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 41 Ref. 124300
A thoroughly modern watch, this Oyster Perpetual is big and charged. Caliber 3230 incorporates all of Rolex’s current technology and achieves an impressive superlative chronometer rating of +2/-2 seconds per day. It will also be offered in a range of dial colors, including the latest rainbow options that Rolex has brought to us in 2021. A unique feature of Oyster perennial 41 is the use of double-markers at 3, 6 and 9, which is not found. On all modern oyster perennial specimens.
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