Oyster cult

The material world

Jonathan Glancey
Friday 09 June 1995 23:02

In 1908, Hans Wilsdorf, a German merchant from Kulmbach, Germany, founded the Rolex watch company in Switzerland. The timepiece that made him famous, the Rolex Oyster, began ticking 18 years later. It was the first genuinely waterproof wristwatch (the name suggesting that it might be worn by deep-sea pearl divers - very rich ones).

You might have thought its history was longer. At one point in Stanley Kubrick's The Vikings, one of Kirk Douglas's horny lieutenants raises a muscular arm to reveal not a solid gold Scandinavian bangle, but a very Swiss gold Rolex Oyster Royal.


The Rolex became fashionable by looking good and getting wet. On 7 October, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze, a stenographer, swam the English Channel in 15 hours and 15 minutes, timing her swim by Rolex Oyster; on 24 November, Wilsdorf bought the front page of the London Daily Mail to celebrate. The Oyster became instantly chic among those swimming in money. It has been a symbol of ostentatious wealth ever since.


The cheapest Rolex Oyster costs pounds 1,155; gold watches are pounds 8,000 to pounds 9,000; top-of-the-range ones can top pounds 60,000. For this, you get a watch that takes one craftsman a whole year to make, and receives admiring glances from thieves. Each watch is entirely hand- made - cogs, springs, the lot.

Clued-up punters can pay up to 40 per cent less by shopping around. Christies buy hundreds of brand-new gold Oysters every year, many given as presents to mistresses. They buy these dismissed love tokens for about pounds 3,000, then sell them on for about pounds 4,000 to traders, who make a quick profit selling them on again to people who really want a heavily discounted, brand-new gold Rolex.


Rolex refuses to say how many Oysters are made, but production is reckoned to be about half a million a year. Philippe Patek ("the true Rolls-Royce of watches", according to Christies, which compares a Rolex to a Rover) makes just 15,000 watches of all types in the same time. Of course, not all Oyster watches are made in the Rolex factory: hundreds of thousands of fakes are sold on street corners all over the world. These are considered perversely chic by those who consider the real thing to be vulgar.

Oyster crime

A spate of Oyster crime hit London last year. Alexandra Heseltine, 28, was robbed of her pounds 8,000 Oyster, a wedding present from her husband, in a west London car attack. Lisa Sachs, 35, a "part-time interior designer", was knocked to the ground by two heavies in Hampstead, who took her pounds 4,000 Oyster, also a wedding present from her husband. A female BBC executive had her pounds 15,000 Oyster snatched from her at a roundabout in Shepherd's Bush.

Police have no statistics for Rolex crime, but Rolex's rival, Cartier, got into the act when former Page Three girl, Jilly Johnson, had her pounds 5,000 Cartier Panthere forced from her wrist at traffic lights in west London. It was widely assumed by the press to be a Rolex Oyster - the generic for an expensive watch

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