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The Complete Buying Guide to the Rolex Oyster Perpetual

If you've ever enjoyed a water-resistant, automatic wristwatch, you have this model to thank.

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The distinction between tool and dress watches arguably began in 1926 when Rolex released the Oyster, the world's first mass-produced and commercially marketed water-resistant wrist watch. With the Oyster, the public had for the first time access to timepieces that could go anywhere and do anything — though it was manually wound.

Despite a reduced winding interval on certain military watches with 8-day power reserves — read: once wound, these special mechanical watches kept time for over a week — leaky crown threads remained a concern in the trench wars of WWI, through the 1930s, and straight through WWII. In 1950, Rolex released the first water-resistant, automatic-winding wristwatch in which the winding rotor moved through 360 degrees, called the Oyster Perpetual. Combining water resistance and automatic winding meant that one almost never had to unscrew the watch's threaded crown, which otherwise wore down and caused leaks.

The Oyster Perpetual served on many peacetime missions, including the first successful summiting of Mount Everest. To commemorate that British win, in 1953 Rolex rebranded a particular Oyster Perpetual variant as the Explorer, and for all intents and purposes even today's Explorer, as well as the Air-King, can be reasonably thought of as special editions of the Oyster Perpetual.

Alas, the good old Oyster Perpetual is not as exciting or collectible as Rolex's mission-specific tool watches like the Submariner, yet the "OP" without date — today's only version — remains the essential time-only, do-anything, go-anywhere watch. It's long been Rolex's wolf in sheep's clothing.

Below we'll look at a number of key historical references, and then we'll explore the entire modern catalog of Rolex Oyster Perpetuals for men. Unfortunately, we can't cover ever single development or model in the OP's history: Attempts to form a coherent taxonomy of these watches are overwhelmed by the chaos and poor record-keeping of Rolex's high-output industrial practices during the 1950s through the 1970s. However, a good place to begin for a more thorough discussion of this time period is The Vintage Rolex Field Guide.

Before we begin, here's some background on the OP's construction:


Bezels

The original Oyster watch of 1926 used a fluted bezel to screw the crystal into the case. By 1950, Rolex had integrated the bezel into the case, removing that potentially leaky threading. The fluted bezel lived on as a functionally superfluous precious metal decoration on Oyster Perpetual Date models, the Datejust, the Day-Date, the Ladyjust and now, the Sky-Dweller. The Oyster Perpetual no-date models, however, have always sported a low-key smooth or engine-turned stainless steel bezel, which is all you'll find in the catalog today.

Crowns

All modern Rolex sport watches are rated to at least 100 m/300 ft of water resistance. A rating of 100m/300 ft indicates that a Rolex possesses the Twinlock Crown first introduced on the Submariner in 1953, which uses two seals. The Twinlock is typically indicated by either a straight line or two dots under the crown logo on the outside of the knurled winding handle. Rolex developed the 3-seal unit called Triplock Crown for the Sea-Dweller in 1977 — and which has since proliferated to other sport models — but that technology has never been used in the Oyster Perpetual.

Movements

The somewhat bulky automatic Rolex movements of the 1940s and 1950s added a winding rotor to a stock manually wound movement. This design pushed the OP case back out and earned certain of these watches the nickname "bubbleback" or "semi-bubbleback." Later flatter automatic movements, such as the calibers 1560 and 1570, provided for thinner watches, and were in production for over 25 years. In 1977, Rolex introduced calibre 3035 into the Oyster Perpetual line, sometimes referred to as a "high-beat" movement because the beat rate was upped to 28,800 bph — a modern standard. All modern movements powering the OP line since then have been "high-beat" and chronometer-certified.

Crystals

Rolex used acrylic crystals until the late 1980s, at which point they switched to sapphire. While an acrylic (plastic) crystal can be polished to remove scratches, a sapphire crystal is largely scratch-proof. However, a sapphire crystal can shatter.


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Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Bubbleback"

The Oyster Perpetuals of the 1940s and 1950s are often called "bubblebacks" — or "semi-bubblebacks," as the case may be — by collectors because of the way their case backs bulged. This is because Rolex originally added an automatic rotor to a more conventional, manually wound movement. Diminutive by modern standards at roughly 32-34mm, these beautiful Oyster Perpetuals come in so many variations, it's largely impossible to keep track of them all.

Diameter: 32-34mm

Price Range: $3,000-$10,000

Rolex "Ovettone"

Between the age of the "bubbleback" through the 2000s, the Oyster Perpetual was available largely in 34mm — with one exception. Or, several exceptions, within one overarching classification: the "ovettone" or "little egg." This oversized Oyster Perpetual was made in several references and featured a 36mm case — quite large for the 1950s and 1960s. Today they're rare and expensive — especially, the ref. 6298, the so-called "pre-Explorer." (See Ross Povey's excellent in-depth analysis on Bulang & Sons for more info.)

Diameter: 34mm

Price Range: $6,000-$20,000

Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002

The ref. 1002 was in production for well over 20 years, and as such can be found with a range of different dials, and even different handsets. (Earlier models from the 1960s featured alpha hands.) Otherwise, it shipped with a chronometer-certified movement, a smooth bezel, and, generally, a silver or gilt black dial, though occasionally a beautiful "linen" or "mosaic" version will turn up. 

Diameter: 34mm

Price: $3,000-$5,000

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date (Various)

In the mid-1950s, Rolex introduced the Oyster Perpetual Date model. It's important not to confuse the Date with the Datejust (1945-present), the key differences being that the latter snaps the date wheel into place just before midnight and, potentially, the size. These watches can be easily mistaken for each other at a glance — or, at least, some of them can, such as those with fluted bezels.

Diameter: 34mm

Price: $3,500-$13,000

2014-Present: A New Beginning
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Rolex introduced 26mm, 31mm, 34mm, and 36mm Oyster Perpetuals in 2014. In 2015, they introduced a 39mm model, making the OP the most versatile lineup within the Brand's catalog.

Then, in 2020, Rolex replaced the Oyster Perpetual 39mm with the current 41mm model. These OPs are available only with smooth stainless steel bezels, stainless steel cases, and stainless steel Oyster (3-link) bracelets. (Rolex calls their especially bright modern steel "Oystersteel.") All of these models are rated for 100 m/300 ft and, thus, use the Twin-Lock crown system.

Movements have all been upgraded to include a number of a-magnetic components, proprietary lubricants, and so on, making today's Oyster Perpetuals the most precise and reliable models yet. Going beyond standard COSC certification, these watches are now part of Rolex's Superlative Chronometer program, promising +2/-2 seconds per day of precision and 55 hours of power reserve.

Diameters: 34mm, 36mm, 39mm (men's sizing)

Price Range: $6,000-$15,000

Rolex Oyster Perpetual 34 Ref. 124200

Today's OP34 is a tasteful take on this classic design. Available in one of four radially brushed dial options — Radiant Black, Rose, Bright Blue, and Silver — it features single-stick markers, which some folks might prefer for the symmetry. With the smaller format, comes the calibre 2232, which is effectively equipped with the same technology as the cal. 3230 used in the larger models. 

Diameter: 34mm

Price: $5,300

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Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36 Ref. 126000

The "OP36" is perhaps the perfect Oyster Perpetual model, as its size makes it an appropriate watch for a variety of wrist sizes. Today's OP36 uses the same 3230 movement as the OP41, the same dual markers, all-steel construction (including on the Oyster bracelet), and identical dial color options, with the addition of Candy Pink. 

Diameter: 36mm

Price: $5,600

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Rolex Oyster Perpetual 41 Ref. 124300

A thoroughly modern watch, this Oyster Perpetual is large and in charge. The calibre 3230 has all of Rolex's current technology and achieves the impressive Superlative Chronometer rating of +2/-2 seconds per day. It's also offered in an array of dial colors, including the latest rainbow of options that Rolex brought to us in 2021. One distinguishing feature of the Oyster Perpetual 41 is the use of double-markers at 3, 6 and 9, which is not found on all modern Oyster Perpetual models.

Diameter: 41mm

Price: $5,900 

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