Let's recap the last time I felt like a naive idiot with a laptop rather than a watch "expert". It's been auction season in Geneva these last couple of days and it's normal that some of the results will surprise you but there has been a pair of watches that got under the hammer at Antiquorum that left me completely flabbergasted: A Rolex reference 3877 with an "Empire" style Oyster case. Something I didn't take into consideration before...

May 15, 2024

The Deceptive Oyster - Meet The Rolex "Empire"

  


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


  

[Highlights] The Oyster that doesn't look like one
- Between 1938 and 1944 Rolex produced several "Oyster Perpetuals" with so-called "Empire" cases -
- At a diameter of 32mm these were perfectly round and not c-shaped -
- They came as four references, all very rare, all Chronometer certified -
- We haven't even scratched the surface of embracing "Rolex Sports Watches" -

 

Let's recap the last time I felt like a naive idiot with a laptop rather than a watch "expert". It's been auction season in Geneva these last couple of days and it's normal that some of the results will surprise you but there has been a pair of watches that got under the hammer at Antiquorum that left me completely flabbergasted.

I remember browsing through the Antiquorum catalogue a couple weeks back and seeing two 1940s Rolex time-only watches that looked relatively odd, one in rosegold and one in steel. An uncommonly round case shape with an "Oyster Perpetual" signature on the dial*. Telling from the photos, the condition looked great, but I still felt the estimate is pretty steep at 6,000 to 10,000 CHF (for the rosegolden). You can only imagine my facial expression when I found out it actually sold for over 5x the high estimate! Over 50,000 CHF for what I thought - at the time - is a relatively pedestrian watch. Oh boy, was I wrong!

 

The rare Rolex "Empire" Oyster ref. 3877 sold at Antiquorum - Courtesy LoupiosityThe rare and unusual Rolex "Empire" Oyster ref. 3877 sold at Antiquorum. Photo Courtesy of Loupiosity.

 

1) The Empire "Oyster"

The two Rolex pieces I'm speaking about are the steel ref. 3548 (lot 477, sold for 9,375 CHF) and the rosegolden ref. 3877 (lot 87), featuring the so-called "Empire" Oyster case. These pieces came in 32mm and were classically round in shape, with elongated, rectangular, sloped lugs. And, quite importantly, they were automatic watches (Chronometer certified!). As you may know, adding these early rotors to the movement architecture meant to over-proportionally add height to the profile; hence, the nickname "Bubble-Back". A Rolex ref. 3131 - the earliest automatic reference - for example came in at over 13mm height.

 

The Original Rolex Bubble Back - the reference 3131The OG Rolex Bubble Back - reference 3131. Photo Courtesy of Bulang & Sons.

 

And while particularly early manually-wound Rolex Oyster cases displayed quite some variability in case shape, the Automatic models were commonly C-shaped - the shape we nowadays most associate with a Rolex Oyster case[1]. However, the height of these early Bubble-Back Oyster cases wasn't exactly up-to-date as the popular demand was still going after small and slim dress watches.

The "Empire" was thus a design move to at least visually slim down the profile of these pieces a bit and add wearability. Taking a closer look from the side angle we can see that the case-back on these "Empire" models is conic with a flat surface and milled edges. These cases were made predominantly from gold (51% rosegold, 24% yellow gold, case maker Genex) and relatively rarely in steel (25%, made by RWC)**. For a study on case structure, finishing and angles take a look [here].

 

Case profile of a 1940s Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Empire" ref. 3548Case profile of a 1940s Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Empire" ref. 3548. Photo Courtesy of Caso Watches.

 

2) The "Empire" References 

So far I could identify 5 references sporting the "Empire" Oyster case. All come in 32mm x 13mm dimensions, sport the Automatic M. 9 3/4''' caliber from Rolex (cal. 620) and were regulated to Chronometer specifications. In other words, these were high-end pieces, top-shelf Rolex production at the time. Speaking of time, "Empire" models were produced over various batches approximately between 1938 and 1944.

The two standard references were the 3548 (center-second) and 3716 (sub-second). On top, you can find small variations of the classic design with the ref. 3877 (sub-second, coin-edge case), and the ref. 4548 (center-second, domed bezel).

 

Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Empire" reference overviewFigure 1. Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Empire" reference overview. Photos Courtesy of Monaco Legend Group, Loupiosity, & Antiquorum.

 

The overall production is extremely tough to estimate but we can see that the corresponding case numbers within each production batch are always very close together - on an order of a few dozen pieces - so that the overall production probably didn't exceed 2,000 examples, but very likely a lot less. Publicly known are - as far as I can tell - only 23 ref. 3548, 18 ref. 3716, 8 ref. 3877, and only 2 ref. 4548 pieces.

 

3) The "Empire" Dial Design

There's not one classic design you can attribute to these references but one can find a few commonalities**:

Signature: The dial are signed from top to bottom "Rolex - Oyster Perpetual - Chronometre*** - Swiss Made".

Hands: There's quite some variety with the most common hand-style bing the slim Baton hands (~57%), followed by Mercedes (~14%), Leaf/Feuille (~10%) Pencil (~10%), Alpha and Dauphine hand styles.

Numerals: Numerals and hour markers are almost exclusively painted and only very rarely applied on these pieces. About a third of them come with Arabic numerals (48%), 42% with Roman numerals and another 10% with an Error-Proof/California dial. The layouts are with numerals at the Quarter- (44%), Even- (35%), or All positions (21%).

Color: The dials come in three main flavors namely White (47%), Black (18%), and Golden/Salmon (35%).

 

Various different dial executions for the Rolex "Empire" modelsFigure 2. Various different dial executions for the Rolex "Empire" models. Photos Courtesy of Monaco Legend Group, Antiquorum, Caso Watches, & Sotheby's.

 

4) Conclusion

Rolex collectibility goes beyond steel sports watches! Yes, these have been trending the last decade or so but don't be fooled to think that's all vintage Rolex has up its sleeve. With the surge in demand of jewelry and bracelet watches over the last year or so we can see also a Rolex King Midas gaining popularity again.

Trends come and go and it's only a matter of time until these little gems get fashionable again. It also wasn't that long ago that you could find a handful of Bubble Backs in each major auction sale. And the same goes for the "Empire" by the way:

 

Distribution of Rolex "Empire" Oyster Perpetual watches offered at auction over the last 35 yearsFigure 3. Distribution of Rolex "Empire" Oyster Perpetual watches offered at auction over the last 35 years. The pieces are grouped according to reference (top) and material (bottom).

 

These trends are somewhat cyclic. As you can see most "Empire" timepieces hit the market in the early-to-mid 1990s (20 lots) and the mid-to-late 2000s (17 lots). It's not very uncommon to see a shift in popularity with sometimes only one good result. And those 52,500 CHF at Antiquorum do look tasty...

 

A steel Rolex Empire ref. 3716 sold at Monaco Legend Group in 2022Another stunning example of a Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Empire" ref. 3716 in steel with salmon dial and applied dot markers. The case has seen better times but what a dial! Photo Courtesy of Monaco Legend Group.

 

But all pricing aside, I would just be stoked to see that the collector community - or rather the louder social media community - is starting to look at the full vintage Rolex catalogue. Those classic Oyster-case watches are arguably one of the most important designs of the last Century, Period. However, seeing the evolution of these pieces better represented in the market and the collective mind of the watch world would make me an even happier vintage advocate.

 

5) Addendum

Wanna see more? There are other non-Oyster Oyster Perpetual references floating around - including a rectangular ref. 8126, a mysterious round hooded example[1], & the cushion-case ref. 4961. Hereby, the rectangular and cushion cased references were not Chronometer certified.

 

 

* I initially thought it must be a redial, because ... it isn't an "Oyster", right?

** I'm drawing from a small sample size of 52 watches publicly sold over the last decades - not to mention the uncertainty about originality of all the parts. So even though I try to be as rigid as possible, please take all these information with caution.

*** The "Chronometre" text can come in different flavors: Chronometre & Officially Certified Chronometer - not sure whether the English/German short format "Chronometer" exists as well. You will also find some pieces signed "Fab. Suisse" instead of "Swiss Made" at 6o'clock.

 

References

[1] The Best Of Time - Rolex Wristwatches; James M. Dowling & Jeffrey P. Hess, Schiffer (3rd Edition).

 

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