The 1970s…. a decade remembered for Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the death of Elvis Presley. A little less well-remembered but no less important for the people involved was the Quartz crisis. After decades of reigning supreme at the top of the watchmaking hierarchy, Swiss matchmakers were suddenly bought down to earth with a bang when the Japanese got in on the act. Mechanical watches (up till then the primary focus of the Swiss) were suddenly old hat. The world was changing at the speed of knots, and quartz watches were the new kid in town that everyone wanted to be best buddies with. And with their LED displays, fancy styles, and precision accuracy, who could blame anyone for abandoning their mechanical old faithful for one of these little beauties? Well, the Swiss could. And they did. Some Swiss watchmakers carried on banging out the same old mechanical watches they always had, adamant that the blingtastic Quartz pieces coming from the likes of Seiko, Citizen and Casio were just a passing fancy. But others were wiser. Sensing a turn in the tide, Rolex was determined not to be left behind. While it had no intention of abandoning its century’s old tradition of producing mechanical watches, it also had no intention of seeing the entire Swiss watchmaking community get absorbed and annihilated by the Japanese quartz watch. So what did it do? Produce one of its own, naturally.
And thus the Rolex Oysterquartz was born. With its perfect blend of contemporary Quartz technology and classic Swiss craftsmanship, it was a watch that was almost guaranteed to be an instant hit. Which made its slightly lackluster reception in Europe something of a surprise. But almost 40 years down the line, it’s proved itself a classic, occupying a prized position in the collections of watch fanatics and inspiring drooling envy from others. So, what exactly makes the Rolex Oysterquartz so special? And why are we still talking about it almost 20 years after it went out of production? Here are 20 reasons for starters.
1.It can be traced to the 1950s
It may have taken Rolex a little while to finally enter the Quartz market, but they’d already been exploring the territory for a good 20 years. In the early 1950s, the brand started researching electronic timepieces. In 1952, they got their first patent for an electro-mechanical watch design. By that stage, it was only a matter of time before the Oysterquartz was born.
2. It was 5 years in development
The idea for the Rolex Oysterquartz was formed in 1970 (or 1971, depending on which sources you believe. Suffice to say it was at a time when people were still wearing flowers in their hair and wishing the universe a pleasant day). Either way, it wouldn’t be until 1976 that the watch saw the light of day. Keen to get everything just so, Rolex spent 5 years tweaking and refining its initial concept until it felt 100% satisfied with the result.
3. Its case was new… but not completely
How would the world react to a brand new type of watch from one of the most established brands in the Western world? It was a question Rolex no doubt asked itself on numerous occasions before the launch of the Oysterquartz. But it wouldn’t be true to say they were entirely in the dark about the answer. Not only were they fully aware of the public demand for quartz watches, but they’d also been savvy enough to test the market with some pre-release ‘feelers’. The 1530 (steel) and 1630 (two-tone) were released in 1974. Although the movement in each was still mechanical, it came encased in the brand’s new waterproof Oyster case – the very one, in fact, it was planning for the Oysterquartz. The pieces were released in limited edition (only around 1500 pieces were put out to market) but the positive reception they enjoyed gave Rolex the greenlight to continue apace with the Oysterquartz.
4. It was as beautiful as it was practical
Regardless of whether or not you buy into revolution.watch’s description of the Rolex Oysterquartz as ‘one of the funkiest watches to ever come out of Wilsdorf’s World’, you can’t deny it’s a thing of beauty. With its clean dial layout, stunning finishing, and innovative technology, it’s little wonder it’s managed to achieve such a coveted status among collectors.
5. It received COSC certification in less than a year
With the release of the Oysterquartz, Rolex proved in one fell swoop that the Swiss could still compete in the new landscape forged by the Quartz Crisis. When the precision accuracy of the Oysterquartz’s caliber was awarded COSC certification (the condition of which is that the annual error is under one minute) just one year after its launch, the message was clear: Seiko, Citizen, and Casio might have started the trend for Quartz, but Rolex was going to lead it.
6. The Datejust came first
The first Rolex Oysterquartz was a Datejust. And so things remained for several years. But a brand like Rolex isn't known for sitting on its laurels. With a view to taking the “everyman” qualities of the Datejust (which was (and remained to be) available in steel or Rolesor (Rolex’s special name for its steel/ gold combo) only) and jazzing it up, it released the all-gold (and only gold) quartz-powered Day-Date model. The two versions continued to live side by side in suspected harmony for the rest of the Oysterquartz’s run.
7. It was released in 11 different models
The Oysterquartz came in 11 slightly different editions, all with their unique selling points but all underpinned by the same classical features and innovative Quartz tech. For those interested in each and every one, here, courtesy of Wiki, they are: 17000 Oysterquartz Datejust, 17013 Oysterquartz Datejust, 17014 Oysterquartz Datejust, 19018 Oysterquartz Day-Date, 19019 Oysterquartz Day-Date, 19028 Oysterquartz Day-Date, 19038 Oysterquartz Day-Date, 19048 Oysterquartz Day-Date, 19049 Oysterquartz Day-Date, 19068 Oysterquartz Day-Date, and last but most certainly not least, the 19148 Oysterquartz Day-Date.
8. The cheapest version was the first
The baby boomer generation doesn’t know how lucky they had it. Not only did they have access to everything from cheaper education to cheaper housing, they also had the chance to get their hands on a Rolex for the tiny price of just $3,025. That was the price of the Oysterquartz when it was first released. But things were soon to change….
9. The most expensive version was the last
With each new model of the Oysterquartz released, Rolex hiked the price. But the last hike was by far the biggest. The penultimate version, the 19068 Oysterquartz Day-Date, was expensive enough at $27,500. But the 19148 Oysterquartz Day-Date was in another league altogether. At $60,000 per piece, this was a watch for the Rockefellers of the world only. Although with its 18K yellow gold case set with 8 brilliants, 18K yellow gold bezel set with 44 brilliants, dial set with 8 brilliants and 2 baguettes, and 18K yellow gold integral Karat bracelet with hidden clasp set with 308 brilliants, there was little question in most people’s minds that it was worth the blowout.
10. The boxes are just as coveted as the watches
Did you know that people actually collect Rolex boxes? Yep, according to italianwatchspotter.com, the boxes the watches come in have just as much (well, almost) of a market as the watches themselves. The boxes for the Oysterquartz happen to be one of the most coveted, featuring as they do a quartz crystal-inspired badge on either the outside or inside of the box, depending on the watch model.
11. It came with a very generous offer
If you’re going to spend a small fortune on a watch, it doesn’t harm to have a little sweetener for the deal. In the case of the Oysterquartz, Rolex offered, very generously, some might say, to replace the battery of the watch for free if ever it ran down.
12. It’s climbed the highest mountain
How many watches can say they’ve mounted Everest? Not many, we bet, but the Oysterquartz certainly can. As millenarywatches.com notes, 1978 was the year famed Italian mountaineer and explorer Reinhold Messner became the first man to ever reach the summit of Everest without oxygen tubes. Whether the Oysterquartz strapped to his wrist helped with the whole oxygen situation, we doubt it, but at least he managed to keep track of time.
13. It ran for 25 years
For most of the 1970s and 1980s, the world thought the future of watchmaking lay in Quartz. Rolex thought similarly. Although it never abandoned its interest in mechanical watches, the Oysterquartz occupied a prized place in its line for the best part of a quarter of a century. And then, after 25 years in production, it was out. Although it continued to appear in the Rolex catalog until 2003, 2001 marked the official death bell for the Oysterquartz.
14. The end of its production sparked new interest
When the Oysterquartz was first released, the reception it received in Europe was a little muted. The Asian and American markets lapped it up, but there was something about the piece that never quite managed to wangle its way into the hearts of Europeans. Until Rolex stopped making it, that is. As soon as they did, the very same people who’d always been a little sniffy about the watch suddenly started outdoing themselves over who could pay the most for one at auction. If you ever needed proof that telling people they can’t have something makes them want it more than ever, the post-production popularity of the Oysterquartz is just that.
15. It was tiny
These days, any watch less than 43mm is a rarity. But back in the 1970s, the trend for big watches had yet to catch on. By the standards of today, the Oysterquartz’s diameter of just 36mm is considered tiny. Back then, it was absolutely standard.
16. Its technology was streets ahead
Whether you were a fan of the Oysterquartz when it was first released or not, there was one thing you couldn’t deny. The tech was good. Really good. Some might say ‘revolutionary’. Hidden in its slick case was, as beckertime.com puts it, ‘one of the most advanced quartz movements yet created’. The 3,600vph, 11-jewel caliber was one of the first-ever thermocompensated models, capable of regulating ambient temperature through its ability to regulate the frequency of its crystal’s vibration.
17. It had limited options
Rolex’s Datejust watches have enjoyed massive popularity in almost all their various incarnations. Why? Well, for one, the vast number of options each comes in. Whatever a customer wants in terms of color, band, metal, or bezel type, they’re likely to find it. Except if they’re looking at the Oysterquartz. Unlike other pieces in its collection, Rolex, for reasons known only to itself, decided to cut the number of available options down to its bare minimum. Customers were thus offered the narrow choice of champagne, black, white, blue or silver dials. And that was it. The Day-Date gave a wider variety of choices, but still only a fraction of those available with Rolex’s mechanical pieces.
18. There were plans for an Oysterquartz Perpetual Calendar
In 2004, a mysterious Oysterquartz turned up at an auction house in Geneva. On close examination, the auctioneers discovered this was no ordinary piece. It was, instead, a prototype of the never-released Oysterquartz Perpetual Calendar. According to oysterquartz.net, only 11 prototypes were ever made. Touted for release in 2000, it was for some reason abandoned before finalization, going the way of the rest of the collection when Rolex sent the Oysterquartz out to pasture in 2001.
19. It had a deliberately space-age look
While Rolex was happy to jump into the Quartz craze with both feet, it didn’t want its mechanical pieces to be pushed aside, overlooked, or even worse, confused for a Quartz. So what did it do? What else but house the Oysterquartz’s movement in a bold, futuristic case with sharp angles and integrated bracelets and absolutely no similarity to any piece it had ever made before.
20. The Mark I is more collectible than the Mark II
The Oysterquartz comes in two varieties: Mark I and Mark II. The difference between the two? Mark I came before the watch earned COSC certification; Mark II came after. And which of the two is the most collectible? The altogether rarer Mark 1.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker