Historical Perspectives: The Fascinating (And Totally Geeky) Story Of The Rolex Oyster Bracelet
The bracelet isn’t the first thing you focus on in vintage Rolexes but understanding them is key to a full assessment of any vintage Rolex timepiece.
Originally published by Louis Westphalen on HODINKEE, February 8th 2017
Why write a story about some random stainless steel bracelet that has been around for decades? I truly believe that the Oyster bracelet and the associated end links have played a significant role in Rolex’s history, perhaps even as important a role as the original waterproof case. That the Oyster bracelet is celebrating its 70th Anniversary this year is a happy coincidence.
The simple design of the Rolex Oyster bracelet blends perfectly with the utilitarian lines of the Submariner and the GMT-Master. On the wrist, it wears great, and the deceptively simple clasp works flawlessly. However, it would be a mistake to call the modern Oyster bracelet as we know it today a single stroke of genius. Its creation was more a continuous process of incremental improvements; Rolex patiently made sure that the Oyster bracelet continued to be the most functional around, with almost invisible touch-ups throughout the years. As such, the bracelets alone offer insight into Rolex’s culture, especially its obsession with the details that matter. To me, the cult status enjoyed by vintage and modern Rolex alike can be traced through the evolution of these seemingly-simple parts.
The history of the Oyster bracelet does not lack irony, since the first bracelets were in fact neither made by Rolex nor offered as a standard option in Rolex catalogs. In the early 1930s, bracelets were indeed a costly add-on, representing sometimes almost half the price of the standalone watch (in the case of a two-tone Rolex Imperial). The original Rolex bracelets were manufactured by the most renowned bracelet supplier around, Gay Frères, better know for later making the bracelet of the original Audemars Piguet Royal Oak as well as the strange hollow-link bracelet of the Zenith El Primero. The Bonklip (also nicknamed the “Bamboo”) was the most common shape then, with the narrow parallel links you can see on the very left of the family picture below.
Interestingly, many suppliers manufactured the same type of bracelet at the time, but Rolex remained faithful to Gay Frères through the 1930s and 1940s. In a beautiful twist, the prolific bracelet maker that had supplied Rolex in the first place was actually acquired by Rolex in 1998, underlining the company’s steady mission of acquiring its suppliers to constantly smooth out the production process. This industrial strategy makes total sense when you reach the production volume of Rolex – and, not a small detail, when you also have as large a cash reserve.
Looking at the same photo, you can also see the bracelet that would serve as almost a soft introduction to the Oyster. Following on from the Bonklip, you can see an unusual bracelet with double center links, though much of the same look as the Oyster.
But those were just the precursors of the Oyster bracelet, which was patented in February 1947 (patent number 257,185, in case you were wondering) and first appeared in a Rolex catalog in 1948. However, it was not the first in-house bracelet from Rolex – the Jubilee holds this honor, as it was paired with the new Datejust at the launch of this iconic line in 1945.
At first, the Oyster bracelet was mostly intended for so-called “bubble backs” and chronographs, while straps remained the much more common option across Rolex’s portfolio. The design and construction of the Oyster bracelet was left virtually unchanged for the decade and a half following its introducing, but a groundbreaking addition was introduced in 1952. Up until this date, the Oyster bracelet only came with straight ends, but finally patent number 303,005 breathed life into the vaunted end links, which completed the Rolex look as we know it today.
One can see the end link as the missing “link” in the image of the complete watch, finally closing the gap between the bracelet and the case, and allowing for a neat integration between the two elements. It also serves a practical function (as you’d expect from Rolex), decreasing the pressure on the spring bars’ edges, as it hold those parts in place and distributes any tension more evenly. Unsurprisingly, the first model to be factory-fitted with end links was the Rolex GMT-Master reference 6542, launched in 1954. This choice underlines the sporty quality of the Oyster bracelet, which soon equipped the Explorer and the Submariner too. It remained the only option available for Rolex sport watches for the next 10 years, until the Jubilee became offered with the updated Rolex GMT-Master, the reference 1675.
From the early 1950s on, the Oyster has continuously undergone significant changes, most notably gaining mass to increase its resistance, although the basic functionality has stayed true to the original idea.
The first generation is typically called the “rivet bracelet,” because of the visible rivets on the outer edge that hold together the hollow, folded links. Next we get the “folded link bracelet,” which shows the heftier links, which are created by folding a piece of metal on itself multiple times. For those bracelets, the pins are internal and not visible on the outer edge. The final shape is obviously the thickest, with truly solid links. This is the configuration you find on modern Rolex watches nowadays.
Functionality was always king here – the changes were not made for cosmetic reasons – and the more compact the bracelet links, the better it is able to sustain abuse over time. One must not forget that a bracelet that breaks can result in a lost or broken watch. It really shows how critical the resistance of the bracelet is for the mere survival of a watch, something Rolex has been adamant about. As an aside, it’s this attitude that explains why Rolex tends to replace parts to “upgrade” your Rolex with the latest feature available when you take it in for service (much to the despair of vintage enthusiasts, for whom complete originality is the aim).
Looking at any Rolex bracelet of any generation reveals how Rolex uses its obsession with details to help it ramp up to such a huge production volumes (right now estimates place the number of watches produced each year somewhere around 1,000,000). Nothing is left to chance, and for that reason each generation of Oyster bracelet came with a specific reference number, often found on the final link of the bracelet, indicating not only the generation that it belongs to but also the size of the end links that it takes. For instance, the reference 7206 is correct for a riveted Oyster with 20mm end links, while the very same bracelet with 19mm end links would be designated as a reference 7205 (and let’s not forget the ladies’ reference 7204 with 13mm end links).
To make matters even more complicated, some small variations existed in each model, often due to a local production – in order to pay less in taxes, many bracelets were produced in the USA or Mexico, respectively bearing “C&I” and “Hecho en Mexico” on the clasp. The initial rivet bracelet also offered two types of construction, one expanding links (notably the references 6634/6635/6636, again to account for a difference between end link sizes). Those quickly proved less resilient than the standard fixed-link bracelets and so were phased out (not to mention the excellent depilatory properties of the former).
The new generation with folded links appears in the late 1960s and bears the references 7834/7835/7836 (and 9315 for the Rolex Submariner, but more on that variant later), the end links themselves evolving to fit the new bracelet and the new cases better. Again, this specific part bears its own reference number, which allows someone to make sure the combination of bracelet and end links works properly with a given watch. The surgical folding proved stronger than the original rivet construction but was eventually replaced with the full, solid links. The new bracelets simply took the same reference numbers as their folded-link predecessors, but with the addition of an additional zero at the end of each (78360 for the 20mm Oyster bracelet, and so on). The solid link construction is the form factor we know today, either offered with a complete brushed look or with polished center links in the case of the Daytona and the GMT-Master II.
Obviously, the Oyster bracelet has been copied many times, and to be fair its design could not be entirely attributed to Rolex. But for the past 70 years it has remained the benchmark against which every other sport watch bracelet is judged. It can be argued that some designs proved more refined – the fascinating bracelet of the Royal Oak comes to mind – yet it would be hard to find a better function-driven tool watch bracelet anywhere. I mean, if it’s good enough for 007…
It would be unfair to stop our drill-down at the link level, since Rolex did not limit its focus to just the resistance of the links, however important that element was. Alongside the evolutions described above, the end links themselves also got thicker. In the end, we even ended up with full, solid end links rather than the folded ones from the earlier bracelets. This move actually started on the heavier Rolex Sea-Dweller, the Submariner’s even tougher cousin. Now the solid end links come standard on all Rolex bracelets, made both in precious metals and in steel, allowing for the spring bar to be even better maintained in the axis of the lug holes. Like we said, nothing is done without a true purpose.
Another significant evolution pertains to the clasps. While the folding of two curved blades and an overlapping clasp proved as efficient as it was simple, this mechanism was nonetheless susceptible to unwanted openings when a strong shock was applied. Obviously this is less than ideal on a tool watch, which is by its nature meant to experience wear and tear in tough environments (remember the dive watches commissioned for Comex and the British Army). So the Submariner and Sea-Dweller were given their own clasp design in 1969, with an extra securing buckle over the basic folding mechanism, which also hides a built-in diver’s extension system . As you could infer, this change generated its own line of Oyster bracelets, the reference 9315/9316 being the equivalent of a 7836 bracelet for a Submariner equipped with a stronger clasp (later replaced by the 93150 with full links). Note that current clasp now also offers an additional micro-adjustment system (called the “glidelock”), as you would find in the modern bracelet 93250 dedicated to the Submariner.
Far from being a random one-shot product development, the continuous devotion put into the Oyster bracelet over decades really emphasizes Rolex’s focus on going above and beyond with every little technical spec that can make its watches better. One can argue that this progress sometimes comes at the expense of the charming little quirks that make us love the vintage models, but the end-result is not debatable and the watches do become objectively better tool watches, perpetually.
Looking behind the sheer avalanche of references shown in the chart below, these bracelets reveal an underestimated side of Rolex: the extreme minutia of its product design. The emphasis put on functionality slowly shaped and reshaped the look and feels of the bracelets and watches since the 1950s, and also explains why the modern iterations feel so connected to the original pieces.
A Full Breakdown Of Vintage Oyster Bracelets By Reference
Note: Thanks to the dealer Sheartime for providing those beautiful vintage bracelets.