Are Vintage Rolex Watches Waterproof?

MORNINGTUNDRA | September 2020

First The Semantics

There is an important distinction between water-resistant and waterproof, and this is particularly relevant to vintage Rolex watches.

  1. The US Federal Trade Commission argues that it is impossible to protect a watch from water under all conditions. Since the 1960's watchmakers have dropped the term "waterproof", replacing it with the term "water-resistant", to a specified dept.
  2. In 1990 the International Organization for Standardization introduced standards that prohibit the term "waterproof". This was aimed at watches worn for casual daily use, including exercises like swimming. A second set of standards were introduced in 1996 specifically for Dive Watches.

Oyster Case Drawing
The iconic Rolex Oyster waterproof case

Now Onto Vintage Rolex

Rolex originally designed the Oyster case in 1926 long before the semantic debates. The Oyster was claimed waterproof to 50 meters. Subsequent revisions to the iconic Oyster case and screw-down crown have extended this waterproof rating well beyond 100m in the Sea-Dweller.

Triplock Crown Types Prototype
Modern Sea Dweller
Triplock Crown Types

The vintage Oyster case is recognizable by the screw-down case back, screw-down crown, and case profile. It is these we are concerned with when considering the water-resistance of any vintage Rolex watch.

Antique Rolex Prince
Antique Rolex Prince,
Definitely NOT Waterproof

An Oyster case is nearly always indicated by the word Oyster on the dial. As with any rule, there are exceptions. Some early Oyster cases did not feature this branding on their dials, and other non-Oyster Rolex watches such as Cellini models, have modest but respectable water resistance without the Oyster caseback and crown.

As a general rule of thumb, vintage Rolex from the 1950's onwards can handle a casual drenching from rain, hand washing, or a dunking while washing the dishes (a most un-Rolex domestic chore). Anything more demanding (hot-tub, steam room, swimming pools, scuba diving) is ill-advised unless regularly well-serviced and pressure tested.

Care should be taken with antique Rolex watches. Early pocket and trench watches are not waterproof and have very limited moisture resistance. This would include the antique Prince and Brancard models with their rectangular cases.

Some early chronographs (pre-Daytona) had Oyster cases but did not have waterproof pushers. These should be kept away from water. Later iterations had screw-down pushers. Chronographs should NEVER be activated underwater.

Vintage dress watches with snap-on (not screw-down) case backs should be assumed to have no water-resistance. Such as the Rolex Precision ref. 9708 and others with the 1970's UFO-style cases.

The Super Oyster crown was not-screw-down but advertised as water-resistant. It was used on early Oyster references such as the Oyster Precision and Oysterdate. Super Oyster crowns are rare and were often replaced during service.

Triplock Cross Section Drawing
Sectional Patent Drawing of
Triplock Screw-down Crown

The Rolex Submariner dive watches debuted in 1953 with the Twinlock winding crown. It had two rubber O-ring gaskets rather than the previous single metal gasket. This creates two sealed zones hence the name Twinlock. Case corrosion (pitting) can be the biggest obstacle in maintaining good water resistance in these vintage dive watches.

In 1970, Rolex released a third-generation winding crown called Triplock. It has three sealed zones and debuted on the Sea-Dweller dive watch. These are landmarks in the Rolex journey towards highly water-resistant watches.

Conclusions

  1. Some vintage Rolex were designed to be waterproof, while others were not.
  2. Oyster cases are a typical mark of water resistance but should be pressure tested by a watchmaker before being used in water.
  3. Corroded, desiccated rubber gaskets are not waterproof, and should be changed at service time.
  4. Case corrosion and pitting will also compromise water resistance. Particularly around the case back opening (mid-case) or the upper case where the crystal and bezel meet the case.
  5. Keep vintage Rolex non-Oyster watches out of the hot tub, sauna, swimming pool, and ocean. And if you’re going to dive with a vintage Rolex Oyster watch, have it serviced and pressure tested first.

If serviced well and worn responsibly, vintage Rolex Oyster cases are sufficiently water-resistant for any daily wear. With some preparation, this can include snorkeling and amateur sport diving.

Rinse your watch under the tap every time it’s exposed to anything other than freshwater. Chlorinated swimming pool water and salty hot tubs are particularly harsh on rubber gaskets and will dry them out, reducing their effectiveness.

If you want to dive with a watch, you can buy a 200m ISO-certified watch like the Seiko SKX009K1 or the Citizen Promaster BN0151‑09l for less than $200. There is no practical or responsible reason to subject a precious vintage watch to sustained submersion in water.


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Weight: 2.5 lbs
Format: Hardcover
Published: 2020


196 vintage models
1,400+ distinct references
Timelines, charts, tables
Examples, photos, history
Watchmakers, restorers, dealers

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