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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.

rolex perpetual watches
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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Below we'll look at a number of key historical references, and then we'll explore the entire modern catalog of Rolex Oyster Perpetuals for men.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"
Rolex "Ovettone"
Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date (Various)
2014-Present: A New Beginning
rolex oyster perpetual watch
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SHOP PRE-OWNED

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
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36 Ref. 126000
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 41 Ref. 124300
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