The twin concepts of fine Swiss watchmaking and quartz technology often appear incompatible, with the latter coming within a hair of destroying the former in the 1970s. The traditional industry, with its artistry and heritage, its microengineering dictated by impossible tolerances, seems a complete anathema to the world of quartz that, to many people, still conjures up images of cheap, plastic watches bought for comparative pennies and discarded like junk mail.

However, there have been, and in some cases still are, points at which the two meet. Luxury watch brands known exclusively for their high end mechanical timepieces have produced some stunning quartz models in the past. The likes of Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, in fact, still do. As for Rolex, they too gave us some iconic quartz-powered watches. Many of them belonged to their underappreciated Cellini collection. But the most famous were a pair of familiar names with some highly unfamiliar aesthetics.


Rolex and Quartz

Contrary to popular belief, Rolex was actually one of the first Swiss manufactures to help pioneer the development of quartz technology. As early as 1952, they registered a patent for an electro-mechanical watch and were also among the first to licence a fully quartz piece in 1969. In fact, between 1960 and 1990, Rolex was awarded a total of 50 patents, and 21 of those related to quartz in some way.

Whether or not the brand was entirely committed to the idea or could just see which way the horological wind was blowing is another question. But, with the arrival in 1960 of the Accutron from Bulova, a forerunner to quartz and the world’s first commercially available electronic watch, alarm bells started ringing in Switzerland and 21 of its biggest players decided it was time to band together and make a stand.

CEH and the Beta-21

The CEH, or Centre Electronique Horologer, was a consortium established in 1962 to develop an all-new quartz movement, containing marques such as Patek, Omega, Piaget and Rolex themselves.  By 1968 they had produced a record-breaking movement, the Beta-2, accurate to within +/-.0003 seconds a day, and the following year were able to launch their debut, mass-produced quartz calibre, the Beta-21.

Around 6,000 of the units were made, used by 16 of the different watchmaking companies of the CEH. Rolex’s allocation went inside a model called the ref. 5100 Beta-21, released in 1970. Because of the large and somewhat cumbersome dimensions of the movement, there was no existing Rolex Oyster case into which it could be shoehorned and so a new one had to be made especially. And for that job, who better in the ‘70s than a certain Gerald Genta, soon to win eternal fame for penning the AP Royal Oak and the Nautilus for Patek?

You can see his trademark styling cues in the ref. 5100 as well. It was a massive departure from standard Rolex fare, swapping their usual elegant curves for a more angular stance and came with the signature Genta integrated bracelet. It was also the first Rolex watch offered with a sapphire crystal, a hacking function and a Quickset date.  

Unveiled at the 1970 Basel show, all 1,000 units of the Texano, as it became known, were snapped up before it even went on sale. That was despite it being available only in yellow or white gold and being the most expensive watch Rolex had ever produced. One particular sweetener may have been an invite to join the ‘Rolex Quartz Club’ with each purchase, entitling the holder to an unlimited access tour of the brand’s HQ in Geneva.

The Oysterquartz

Despite its innovative nature, the ref. 5100 was not without drawbacks. It was, because of its movement, an unfashionably large watch for the time at 40mm. It also drained a lot of power and rinsed its battery in short order. The biggest problem as far as Rolex was concerned though was that the watch was using the same calibre as that found in 16 of its competitors’ models.


1988 Rolex Datejust Oysterquartz. Sold on Watch Collecting in June 2022 for £3,200.

The upshot was that in 1972 they discontinued the ref. 5100, left the CEH and set to work on their own quartz movement. It took five years, but what Rolex managed to build in that time are still considered two of the most impressive calibres of their type ever made. In 1977, the manufacture brought out the Oysterquartz Datejust and the Oysterquartz Day-Date, driven by the Cal. 5035 and Cal. 5055 respectively. The watches themselves were clearly inspired by the design of Genta’s Texano, with their sharp lines and bracelet incorporated into the case. However, these pieces measured a more era-appropriate 36mm and were, crucially, waterproof (hence the ‘Oyster’ designation) where the ref. 5100 was not.

But it was inside where the headlines were made. The Cal. 5035 and Cal. 5055 were among the first ever analogue thermocompensated movements, meaning a built-in thermistor regulated the frequency of the quartz crystal’s vibrations depending on the ambient temperature. They also used an oscillator four times faster than the one in the Beta-21.


Yet, intriguingly, apart from the necessary electronics, the Oysterquartz calibres  shared many of the components Rolex was using in the mechanical Cal. 3035 and Cal. 3055 released at the same time. These were the updated series of movements used in the newest generation of the Perpetual Datejust and Day-Date. The entire escapement—bridge, pallet assembly and gear train—were all identical. What was most definitely not the same though was the performance. Where the COSC laid down a deviation of between -4/+6 seconds a day for traditional movements to gain chronometer status, for quartz that was ramped up enormously to within +/-0.2 seconds a day. 

The first generation of Oysterquartz models were never submitted for COSC scrutiny, but in 1979 Rolex changed the profile of the crystals in their calibres to a tuning fork shape and sent them in for testing. And while they never published the results (because Rolex rarely does) it is believed they achieved a variation of less than one second a week, making them the most accurate watches the brand has ever put out by a huge margin.

The Options

One thing both the traditional Datejust and Day-Date models are known for is the exhaustive amount of variety in their collections. There is, quite simply, a watch set up perfectly for everyone’s tastes.

The Oysterquartz models are not like that. Rolex actually had them in the catalogue from 1977 all the way up to 2003. In all that time, they only made 25,000 examples; about 1,000 a year. For contrast, they reportedly build around 1,000,000 mechanical watches annually these days. Moreover, that 25,000 was split between the two models, so some are incredibly hard to find.


The Oysterquartz Datejust came in a choice of three metals; the steel ref. 17000 had a smooth bezel, while the yellow Rolesor ref. 17103 and the white Rolesor ref. 17014, both had fluted bezels. The bracelets varied too, the steel piece fitted with a version of the three-link Oyster, the other two with five-link Jubilees, the centre links of which were made from their respective precious metals. They could be had with a small selection of dials, mainly black, white, blue and silver and a tiny handful came with diamond indexes.

The Oysterquartz Day-Date officially had 11 different references, a few of which are believed to have been made by special order and consequently are so rare as to be virtual one-offs. The most prevalent on the market are the 18k yellow gold ref. 19018 and the white gold ref. 19019. Each sat on its own variant of the eponymous President bracelet, with polished centre links and brushed outers. These had a slightly wider choice in dial, but still nowhere near the Perpetual Day-Date’s range. From there, the series went typically 1970’s avant-garde and, frankly, a bit weird.


1970's Rolex Day-Date Oysterquartz. Sold on Watch Collecting in September 2022 for £11,025.

The ref. 19048 and ref. 19049 were more or less the same as the two above but with the addition of 44 brilliant-cut diamonds on their bezels. After that, we get examples like the ref. 19028 and ref. 19038 which both had eight tiny pyramids on each centre link of their bracelets and around the bezel, with some given pyramid hour markers as well. The ref. 19078 had the pyramid bracelet and a surround set with graduating multicolour gems very much in the style of the more recent Rainbow Daytonas. And the extraordinary ref. 19168 had a uniquely flamboyant bracelet known as the Octopus, set with diamonds and sapphires, a full-sapphire bezel and a full diamond pave dial.

The Oysterquartz Today

Despite their ultra-precise timekeeping, the Oysterquartz were among the least expensive watches in the Rolex collection in their day, thanks to them needing far less time and expertise to construct. As such they were excellent sellers and there is no shortage of them on the preowned market, regardless of how few were originally made.


Prices for these fascinating oddities are subsequently extremely reasonable, and they are experiencing a renewed lease of life among the collecting community. That once revolutionary styling is now retro chic, and lets the wearer stand out among the usual suspects as a daring non-conformist. Best of all, those incredible movements, created with Rolex’s customary innovativeness and meticulous attention to detail, were so well made they are still serviceable by their technicians today.

A piece of history drawn from watchmaking’s darkest hour, the Oysterquartz are well worth your consideration.

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