Watch Cases

"Dear Spazz,

Rolex is famous for their cases (apparently). Can you discuss how relevant that is? Aren't most luxury brand watch companies making great cases? In fact, you can easily search online for watch cases, and what look like great cases are not that expensive.

So, what's the point? Or what's the relevance of a watch case in terms of a brand's image?

Thank you,

Sebastian"

 

Hi Sebastian,

Thank you for the question.

You are right that most manufacturers make good cases, especially today. And you are right that Rolex has earned a reputation for making great cases since the introduction of their Oyster case. A case design, which has defined them as a 'tool watch' company and how Rolex continues to define themselves as a brand today.

And to me, the importance of a case is extremely high, and this goes beyond the fact that the watch case is the most visible part of a watch that most demonstrates a watch company's design capabilities, etc.

To illustrate, think about how the Oyster case came to be.

It all started in the early 1900's. Up to that point only women really wore wristwatches. Men wore pocket watches.

And the big 'innovation' with the Oyster case was that it was supposedly waterproof. 

It was an inevitable invention, kind of like inventing 'the door', but since men were wearing pocket watches, the connection to wear a watch in the water didn't make sense to anyone else -- not unless (it was thought), men planned to wear vests to the beach... sounds funny, but thats just as silly as wearing a dive watch in street clothes or to the office, but I digress...

In other words, it was the vision that all people would eventually adopt wearing wristwatches, and therefore, waterproof wristwatches as well, supported by pure marketing genius (more than innovation) that led Rolex down this path.

The construction of such a case would inevitably need to be very robust and thick. So Rolex started working with different grades of steel that could prevent oxidation and pitting as much as possible. They added the screw-down crown, the screw-down caseback and the cases used fewer parts in general. They moved in the direction of machining cases from solid pieces of steel as opposed to having multiple parts forged that were assembled together.

The end result isn't just a case that can resist water, but one that could endure all kinds of trauma and felt really solid in your hands.

And that solid feeling is key. It's a feeling that automatically leads to a connection of high quality that all people would desire even for non-water resistant watches. 

As an iconic, not-meant-for-diving example, think of the Omega Speedmaster. 

It has a 50m water resistant rating, resistant to rain or washing your hands, and *maybe* light swimming, but not for diving of any kind. Yet, it is extremely durable and feels substantial in your hands. Certainly good enough for space exploration.

Now contrast that with a very nice Omega Geneve from the early 70's (I happen to own one).

It's case feels a lot less solid and is a lot lighter. And quite honestly made me believe it when I read that the Geneve was meant to be the Omega "entry" level watch among their line of dress watches of that era. 

And that's a shame, because it's movement, the 565 is no where near "entry" level.

Some will even argue the 56x series of automatic movements are Omega's best ever, and arguably much better than the 15xx series of movements found in Rolex DateJust's from the same era (but in Oyster cases). 

In fact, the 56x series can be found in many legendary Omega watches too. But with the Geneve, it's tin-like case, and the feeling that comes from that, let it down.  

Of course, the Rolex policy to never change anything has a lot to do with their case-making success too. Because once they invented the oyster case, that was it. Every Rolex since then has an Oyster case (please do not bring up the Cellini, talk about defining 'entry level'). 

In other words, Rolex doesn't look to truly invent anything new, whether it's cases, movements, etc., they just keep trying to evolve and improve what they had (that was good) from the beginning. 

As a result, their reputation as a company that makes tried, tested and true watches that will last a lifetime is set.

It's a classic example of  taking the "don't fix what ain't broke" approach to a whole new level, and their cases are a huge part of that.