Stella for the People: The 2020 Rolex Oyster PerpetualBy Wei Koh
Nine months into 2020. Seven months since the world has been forever changed by our collective experience with the global Covid-19 pandemic, and Rolex may have just launched the exact watches we needed, now more than ever.
No, I’m not talking about the impressive new Submariner family with its slimmed down, recontoured more elegant case, with a more open and visible dial and hands, and for the first time in 67 years, a 21mm in width bracelet. No. I’m taking about the other watch that was launched. A watch that I’m calling the Stella for the People. But unlike the 1970’s when the Stella was created as an exuberantly extroverted timepiece, targeted at an elite demographic, Rolex has taken the chromatic vibrancy and cult collectability behind the Stellas, created a range of dials that are both uplifting amid what has been a year of unremitting gloom, and placed them inside of what is one of their most accessibly priced timepieces. The watch in question is made in five sizes, 28mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm and, lastly, 41mm (replacing the 39mm model) and is known to collectors by the minimalistic acronym “OP.”
Yes, that’s right I speak of the Oyster Perpetual, the most paired backed, simplistic, pure, reductionist Rolex around. Rolex themselves, have described this watch as, the Quintessential Oyster. It is devoid of date. But does all a Rolex should do, which is to work with charming perfection. And at a hair over four thousand Sterling, five thousand US dollars and seven thousand Singapore dollars, they are amongst the best horological values around. Don’t get me wrong I know in the context of reality and, in particular 2020, that’s a hell of a lot of money. But my point is that at this price range the OP pretty much beats out all of its competition.
No Corners Cut
Because Rolex doesn’t believe in cutting corners. That means, the case of this OP is made of 904L Oystersteel. What’s the big deal about this? Well, 904L steel features much higher corrosion resistance, as well as, higher surface hardness than the 316L that is used by the vast majority of the industry.
How did Rolex come to use 904L steel? Since inception the tradition at Rolex is to always research the way their watches wear over time. And they found that with hard use, their sports watches like others made from traditional stainless steel would experience corrosion in the threads of the caseback, and the caseback itself because of the buildup of sweat and moisture.
So, 904L was selected for a new steel because of its resistance to acids. Further, its greater surface hardness not only improved the resistance of the cases but enabled them to be polished to a greater luster. In addition, 904L is received by Rolex and then scanned with an electron microscope for any imperfections, including any structural or surface defect. After inspection the steel is re-melted in a vacuum, to purify it and remove inclusions that would compromise its corrosion resistance. Because Rolex’s focus is on creating watches that endure forever. Why do other brands not use 904L, because it is much harder to machine and requires special tools to do so. By 2003 all Rolex steel watches were using 904L based Oystersteel.
OK but that’s just part of it. Because ticking inside of the OP is the new Calibre 3230, based on the game changing Calibre 3235, introduced back in 2015. The 3230 is essentially the same movement, minus the date. It is the movement powering the new Submariner No-Date, launched this year. I’ve said it time and again. Each time I take a plane I make sure that I have a Rolex on my wrist. Because, God forbid, should the plane go down and I manage to swim to some remote island. I know that my Rolex, first of all, will survive the swim thanks to its Oyster case, which harks back to 1926, when Rolex first perfected the waterproof case, thanks to a screwdown caseback, screw down crown and screw down bezel. Second, I know that as long as I have the watch on my wrist it will convert my movement into power to wind itself because it features possibly the most reliable automatic or ”Perpetual’ (term Rolex used when it patented self-winding watch back in 1931) movement around.
Third, I know it will continue to tell time faultlessly, as long as I am stuck on said island, such is Rolex’s well-earned reputation for accuracy. That’s even if I use my OP to bash open clam shells and thump marsupials or the head with for my dinner. I know it will shrug off all inclemency and continue ticking with total bad ass equanimity, and flawless chronometry, as long as I am still alive. And all of this comes down to Rolex’s focus on perfecting the most reliable, shock resistant and accurate movements in the world.
The 3230 features Rolex Parachrom hairspring made from a patented combination of niobium, zirconium and oxygen. Niobium is a bad ass refractory metal with high heat, wear and an incredible memory. Zirconium is a highly malleable metal extremely resistant to corrosion. The metals are bonded together at 2400 degrees and drawn through a series of dies. The final spring (1 foot of Parachrom makes 10,000 springs) is 150 microns wide and 45 microns tall. It is coiled, then separated by hand and has a Phillips terminal curve, made by a special machine created by Rolex, before being fixed to a balance wheel, where it will beat in your watch, shrugging off shock, temperature variation and everything else that life has to throw its way, with total bad-ass reliability. Parachrom has the additional significant advantages of not being affected by magnetism and is up to 10 times more shock resistant than other metal hairsprings.
The hairsprings are fixed to balance wheels, which are free sprung, meaning that they are not adjusted by an index but rather have “Microstella” adjusters on their rim to alter their inertia — a much more reliable and stable system for regulation. These balance wheels are friction fitted onto staffs, which are mounted onto full traversing balance bridges that are secured on both sides for better stability. This bridge even has a special gold screw to micro adjust the height of the balance relative to the escapement for ideal engagement between these two vital components. It should be noted that the balance staff is retained on either side by jewels fitted with Paraflex shock absorbers that bisect the jewels diagonally and retain it with a rectangular frame. These shock absorbers were designed and patented by Rolex in 2005 and aid in increasing shock resistance by an incredible 50 percent. They are also much easier to service.
But it is in its Chronegy escapement that the 3230 distinguishes itself from its predecessors. The Chronergy escapement is Rolex’s proprietary design for a better Swiss Anchor style escapement. What sets it apart? (1) First, the geometry of the lever is offset to better optimize leverage on the pallet fork. (2) Second, in the Chronergy escapement the pallets are 50 percent thinner than on previous units, while the contact surfaces on the escape wheel have doubled in size. (3) Third, the escapement wheel is made using LIGA (galvanically grown) from Nickel Phosphorous, which means it is impervious to magnetism, as well as significantly lighter than a steel escape wheel taking less energy to restart each time. Rolex tells us the Chronergy escapement increases efficiency by 15 percent.
Rolex has also increased the power reserve of the new movements first through the gain in 15 percent efficiency thanks to the new Chronergy escapement. And second, because Rolex reduced the thickness of the barrel walls by 50 percent meaning the mainspring could be longer and hold 10 more hours of charge for a total of 70 hours.
Finally, each Oyster Perpetual undergoes Rolex’s in-house Superlative Chronometer test. As opposed to other test such as COSC (Control Officiel Suisse de Chronometres), which used to only tests movements (the criteria has changed recently) Rolex prefers to test entire watches. Further, while COSC certification requires movements to test within -4/+6 seconds maximum deviation per day, Rolex’s criteria is much stricter at -2/+2 seconds. Which means every OP has its movement tested first at COSC for 15 days, in three positions and 4 temperature variations. These movements are hence first COSC certified. They are then sent back to Rolex and retested inside complete watches and certified for a second time before they come to the consumer. Rolex does this with every single watch it makes.
The Stellar Details
Still not completely blown away by the extraordinary value proposition that each one of these vibrant dial, five thousand US dollar Oyster Perpetuals present? Well then look at the dials because every one of these dials are made in-house at Rolex. Which means, while they may look like the old Singer manufactured enamel lacquer dials of the Stella’s from the 70s and 80s, they aren’t. God the knows, the visual similarity is extraordinary, as demonstrated by Rolex expert, Eric Ku when he posted a picture of his white gold yellow dial Stella Day-Date next to the new 36mm OP yellow dial, “Pikachu” as he has nicknamed it. Says Ku, “I’m just blown away by how good the dials on the new watches are.”
So, what’s the difference then? It is safe to say with Rolex’s slavish obsession to increase longevity of their watches, while these dials demonstrate a stunning visual similarity, you can be certain it is without the fragility demonstrated by the older dials. Want another two reasons the new OP watches are so awesome? First, the hands and indexes are made from white gold. Second the luminous material used is Rolex’s Chromalight, which glows blue instead of green and up to 8 times longer than the SuperLuminova ubiquitously used by the rest of the industry.
So, why is it that I feel these stunning watches offered this year in charmingly lush, vibrant colors clearly reminiscent of the Stella Dial Rolexes of the 1970s and 80s have a totally different objective than their predecessors? Because in a year where we clearly need some kind of win in terms of being uplifting, Rolex took some of their most beautiful dials based on an object of cult collectability and put it in their most accessibly priced model. Was their objective meant to raise our spirits through this charmingly democratic act? Well, no one truly knows the minds at the upper management of Rolex, but I like to think this was the case. And whether they planned these watches to a symbol of chromatic resistance against the prevailing darkness of 2020 or not, to me this is the net result and I like it. Which was not the objective behind the Stellas when they were first launched, either.
What do I mean? Well look at it from this perspective. Stella Dials, it is believed named for Frank Stella one of the great legends of the post Abstract Expressionist New York art scene and his love for vibrant energetic color fields, which he would array in simplistic but powerful curved or straight patterns, emerged in the 1970s. And this, during a period when the world was reeling from two crisis. The first was the Quartz Crisis, brought on by the Seiko Astron in 1969, where the Swiss watch industry was decimated by the veritable deluge of inexpensive battery-operated timepieces originating from Japan.
Some Examples of Rolex Day-Dates With Stella Dials
Some Examples of Rolex Day-Dates With Stella Dials
The second was the worldwide economic crisis brought on by the Oil Crisis. From 1973 to 1975, the world was in freefall recession. How did Rolex, respond to this? Like the best Swiss watch brands through enhanced creativity, which saw the creation of the first Rolex Beta21 watch in 1970, the creation of the Explorer II in 1971, the release of the Oyster Quartz in 1977 and the first sapphire crystal equipped Submariner, the 16800, which was introduced in 1979.
The point is: when the going got tough, Rolex got going, focusing on being as innovative as possible. While the Day-Date, which was launched in 1956 had already become an icon for the Geneva based manufacture its unique display of day and date on the dial, making it instantly recognizable from the wrists of wheel heeled clients around the world, you would have to be successful to own one as they were offered exclusively in precious metal. But the watches could not be considered whimsical or playful. Not at all, they were serious bits of horology, kit from a serious manufacture whose innovations in water-resistance, automatic winding, shock resistance and reliability had a direct hand in shaping some of the most seismic events of the 20th century.
So, it would be when the veritable cavalcade of visually arrested colored dials made from enamel lacquer, characterized by a wonderful translucent opacity, thanks to the multi-layered technique used in their creation, first saw the light of day, many Rolex loyalists were struck dumb with baffled amazement. These dials were ostensible targeted at the Middle East but soon found themselves on the wrists of only the boldest clients. Their dials were offered in purple, oxblood, blue, green, turquoise, yellow, pink, salmon, red, orange and peach. These watches were unfortunately not successful and as such were eventually discontinued accounting for their rarity today. They later resurged in popularity and are today amongst the most collectable Day-Dates around.
However, these watches made exclusively in precious metal and often combined with diamond set indexes were created for a jet-setting, high-society, disco-dancing, playboy and playgirl of the era, stalwarts of Regines, Studio-54, Tramps and Les Bains Douches and the other seminal night clubs of 70s and 80s, replete with gold spoons bouncing in chest hair or décolletage of Halston evening gowns.
The new Oyster Perpetual are less overtly hedonistic or sybaritic. But they too come to us amid a crisis. An economic and financial crisis sure. But also, a spiritual crisis. A crisis of the perennial malaise of the soul. As we have seen the world around us erupt into friction and discord concurrent with the greatest pandemic of the last 100 years.
So, to me these simple watches have one important effect on our collective spirts. Because, the effect of color on the human mood or more specifically the capacity of certain hues, like turquoise, yellow, pink, green and red to uplift, embolden, calm, or inspire us during challenging times cannot be understated. And so, it seems Rolex has made the exact watches we needed, amid the time we need them most.
My one message to Rolex would be this. Make a lot of these. Make them in multitudes so plentiful than anyone that wants one, or perhaps more importantly needs one, can get it without waiting for an eternity of resorting to the secondary market, where their position as a value proposition become compromised by the corruptible greed of resellers. This is the watch that can change all that. It can be more than a watch but a symbol of hope. I urge you to recognizes its importance and act accordingly.