Almost defiantly simplistic, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual could be seen as the purest distillation of everything the brand’s founder Hans Wilsdorf wanted to achieve – the creation of the definitive Swiss-made wristwatch. This is Rolex at its most pure – incredibly well-made, democratically priced and with a design that manages to be both contemporary and timeless.
It’s also technically the entry point to the Rolex world, less than half the price of the famous Daytona and at least £1,000 cheaper than the Submariner or GMT. Just don’t mistake the Oyster Perpetual for anything less than stellar mechanical matchmaking.
“They are real Rolex watches through and through,” says Stephen Pulvirent, managing editor at watch website Hodinkee, “and shouldn’t be viewed as a compromise or lesser watch when compared to other models across the collections.”
The Story Of The Rolex Oyster Perpetual
Although Oyster Perpetual may seem a bit of an overly floral collection name, those two words are actually the description of its origins. The Oyster part refers to the world’s first water- and dust-proof wristwatch, which Rolex launched in 1926. Legend has it that Wilsdorf thought of the name while trying to open said mollusc at a dinner party; he figured his new case design was as hard to open as the shell in his hand and, similarly, needed special tools to do so.
The second half of the name is a nod to the self-winding movement Rolex invented in 1931, so named because it was powered by the perpetual motion of the wrist. As Rolex’s collection expanded, the name ceased to refer to one specific collection and instead became a prefix, on to which the likes of Explorer, DateJust, Day Date, Daytona, Yacht-Master and Milgauss were attached.
Oyster Perpetual denoted the watch’s water-resistance and automatic movement, while the second name alluded to the added extras such as a distinctive 24-hour hand on the 1971 Explorer II, a watch designed for cave and polar explorers who need to know whether it’s day or night. Or regatta chronographs as in the case of the 2007 Yacht-Master II. The un-suffixed Oyster Perpetual collection, with its simple three-hand design, remains the most affordable (and some would say wearable) watch in the Rolex collection.
Until very recently, due to its more diminutive sizings – 26/31/34/36mm – the Oyster Perpetual collection’s primary audience was women. While there were some Rolex aficionados who loved the 34 and 36mm for their vintage proportions, for most men it was just too small. Then, in 2015, the 39mm was announced.
Unsurprisingly, the watch world was very happy about this. Hodinkee’s founder Ben Clymer called them “simply superb but understated pieces that offer incredible versatility without costing a fortune, or showing off too much”. They got even more euphoric in 2018 when Rolex finally went full basic and added a black and a white dial across the five sizes.
Given that there are quite a few luxury watches around now that owe a debt to the Oyster Perpetual – hi, Omega – it would be easy to dismiss the design as simply bordering on bland. However, that’s a bit like thinking Curb Your Enthusiasm looks a bit cliched now because its verité style has been pushed into the mainstream.
The Oyster Perpetual that was launched in 1931 still looks markedly similar to what Rolex are producing today and, when seen alongside styles unveiled around the same time, such as Longines’ Lindbergh Hour Angle and Patek Philippe’s Calatrava (1931 and 1932 respectively) it looks almost revolutionarily modern.
The details that stood out then are still there now – the curved lines of the outer case hugging the round bezel, the slim lugs, the polished lines and brushed flat surfaces. The seconds sub dial may have gone, there are certainly more dial colour and indices options than there were in 1931 and the leather bracelet has been replaced with steel, but Wilsdorf would have no trouble recognising today’s Oyster Perpetual.
How To Wear It
Reviewing the 2015 release for Monochrome Watches, Brice Goulard said the “Rolex Oyster Perpetual sits right in the middle of two main types of watches. It’s neither a dress watch, nor a sports watch. We like to call it a casual watch. It’s like a Levi’s 501. You can mix it with your ugliest grey hoodie or with a white shirt. The same goes for the Oyster Perpetual. You can wear it during weekends with a pair of sneakers or during the week with your suit and tie.”
While we agree that it is close to the perfect all-rounder, there is something about it being steel on steel that makes it lean more towards a more care-free weekend style. It’s Armie Hammer dancing to Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Love My Way’ in Call Me By Your Name – all Converse hi-tops, blousy shirts and almost-too-short shorts. Or a Cuban-shirted Leonardo DiCaprio brooding around Verona Beach in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Louche but with a touch of the practical.
Oyster Perpetual Iterations
While there are around 30 iterations of the Oyster Perpetual, chances are you’re not going to be interested in a 26mm with purple dial, so here are the options a modern man should check out first.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 116000
While the real Rolex sticklers will say that 34mm is the correct option because that was the size of the original, it’s just too small for most men. However, if you want to channel that vintage feel in a more substantial case size then the 36mm with blue dial is perfect. It has a similar numerical configuration as the original, while the dial shade gives it a 1960s feel. Team with relaxed linens in tonal beige for a slice of Riviera cool.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 114300 (Dark Rhodium Dial)
There were three dial colours that heralded the introduction of the 39mm Oyster Perpetual back in 2015 but this was the one that got even Rolex naysayers reaching for their wallet. The use of rhodium grey adds a touch of menacing elegance to an otherwise sporty watch. If there is an argument for wearing your Oyster Perpetual with a suit then this version is the closing statement.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 114300 (White Dial)
White dial Rolexes are rare – a detail that only adds to the wow factor of this new 39mm Oyster Perpetual. Rather than opting for the white of a Hollywood A-lister’s teeth, this is something softer and more subtle, complementing the steel perfectly. If you’re embracing the Cuban collar shirt trend this season, then this exercise in restraint is the ideal foil.
There are three movements used across the Oyster Perpetual family, and all are in-house, self-winding (obviously) and COSC-certified. Of the three – 2231 for the 26 and 31mm, 3130 for the 34 and 36mm and 3132 for the 39mm – it is 3130 and 3132 that have been enhanced with some flourishes of Rolex tech-wizardry.
Both of them feature the Parachrom hairspring, which Rolex first introduced in 2000 in the 4130 movement used in the Cosmograph Daytona. It uses an alloy developed by Rolex to overcome the weaknesses of ferromagnetic hairsprings that were available at the time. Its instantly recognisable blue colour is thanks to a surface treatment process, which enhances long-term stability.
The 3132 has the added bonus of Rolex’s patented Paraflex shock absorber. First used in 2005, it replaced the KIF shock absorption system – a common system developed in the 1930s, which is identified by a golden three- or four-leaf clover-shaped spring clip around a ruby at the top of the balance. According to Rolex, its new Paraflex system absorbs 50% more shock and is easier to manufacture and service. Which is great news if your weekends incorporate some form of extreme sport.
The Build Quality
When it comes to the case construction of the Oyster Perpetual, not much has changed over the decades. This is solid, reliable watchmaking from the best in the business.
The original was comprised three parts: the central case, which includes the lugs and a separate case-back and bezel, both of which are screw-on. A metal ring, with external screwed threads, holds the movement, dial and hands. This ring has a hole at 3 o’clock and a pin at 9 so that, when the ring is inserted into the case body, the pin fits into a matching hole in the case, while the crown and winding stem are fitted into the hole. The bezel and case back are then screwed into place.
Modern Oyster cases feature a middle case made from a solid block of either steel, 18ct gold or platinum, a screwed-down fluted case back, friction-fitted sapphire crystal and bezel. To ensure optimum water resistance, Rolex has developed its own patented winding crowns – the Twinlock or the Triplock.
The Twinlock, which is used for the Oyster Perpetual and is denoted by a dash or two dots underneath the Rolex logo on the crown, is water-resistant to 100m and uses two rubber gaskets. One gasket is positioned inside the crown and compresses against a threaded tube attached to the case. The other gasket is found inside the watch tube. Between the two of them they keep water and dust from getting into the movement even when the crown isn’t screwed in properly.
The Triplock – denoted with three dots under the logo – works in a similar fashion but with a larger case tube and four rubber gaskets, the first of which is visible when the crown is unscrewed.
The strap has changed very little too, aside from the obvious move away from leather to a bracelet. The flat three-piece link construction was introduced in the late 1930s and remains an integral part of the collection today, with the only concession to progress being the more robust clasp – patented, of course. Otherwise, you don’t mess with the classics.