The case maker C.R. Spillmann is the masterful artisan that brought us the very first Oyster cases in 1926 and was ultimately swallowed up by Rolex in the 1980s. However, in between those two impactful events they were making cases for all sorts of Swiss watch manufacturers - from Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin to Universal Geneve, IWC and Doxa... Their portfolio was almost limitless.

May 29, 2024

C.R. Spillmann - The Making of the Rolex Oyster & Beyond

  


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


  

[Highlights] C.R. Spillmann - Artisans behind the Original Oyster Case
- Founded in 1884 and swallowed up by Rolex in 1988 -
- Nevertheless, were further supplying over a dozen different Swiss manufacturers -
- Classic Spillmann DNA: Screw-down case back, recessed crown, 2-part case construction -

 

 

Let's make a quick experiment - Close your eye and imagine any Rolex -

Open your eyes again. I'm pretty sure the watch you have in mind looks something like this:

 

The classic Rolex Oyster case in yellow gold in a reference 15000The classic Rolex with an Oyster case - a sporty yet elegant look. Photo Goldammer Shop.

 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is of course a watch with the classic Rolex Oyster case. Rolex stands for many things but their case shape has definitely been a household name for almost exactly 100 years by now. In 1926 Hans Wilsdorf launched their first waterproof wristwatch: Impermeable to dust, water and the elements. The "Oyster" was the first case construction to feature a screw-down crown and case back[1-2]. Importantly, this iconic case has been originally made not by Rolex themselves but a third-party contractor - C.R. Spillmann[2-3]

 

a 1928 vintage Rolex advertorial including the Oyster ModelA 1928 vintage (British) Rolex advertorial including the cushion-cased "Oyster Model" with screw-down onion crown - and also highlighting the patent No. for the crown and case. Photo Courtesy of HIFI Archiv. 

 

1) The History of C.R. Spillmann & Rolex

The La Chaux-De-Fonds based case maker started operating in 1884 under the common ownership Spillmann & Rothen, before in 1888 the company was renamed into C.R. Spillmann[4]. The founder went by the name of Charles Rodolphe Spillmann and held the reigns of the company until his death in 1938. His son Jules and nephew Rodolphe went on to lead the business the following years[4] (you can find the family tree [here]).

The company - that went with the hammerhead hallmark #136 from 1934 onward - became most famous for their work with Hans Wilsdorf. It went even so far that in 1988 Rolex bought the Spillmann workshop to finally move all the case production in-house. However, as relevant as Rolex has been for the success of the Spillmann brand, their influence on the watch world clearly transcended this partnership.

 

Hallmark No. 136 inside a stunning Vacheron ConstantinHallmark No. 136 inside a stunning Vacheron Constantin. Photo Goldammer Archives.

 

2) C.R. Spillmann & the Utilitarian Elegance

Overall, Spillmann made cases for several Swiss watch manufacturers including Rolex, Longines, Piaget, Audemars Piguet, IWC, Vacheron Constantin, Universal Geneve, ZenithDoxa, Bovet, & even for school watches[5].

Now, when a third-party supplier is making cases for so many watch brands you start to wonder: What's the Spillmann DNA? The important aspect is that - unlike today - the watch brands did not themselves design the cases but the case maker! Thus, the case maker you reach out to, will define the look of your final product[6].

 

Writshot of a vintage 1950s Vacheron Constantin manually wound dress watch with Spillmann caseOne of my favorite pieces I ever had the chance of handling... A stunning 1940s Cal. 454 Vacheron Constantin dress watch with radially guilloched dial, recessed dotted outer minute track and - of course - a Spillmann case! Photo Goldammer Archives.

  

And my take on the Spillmann DNA is exactly as the headline reads: utilitarian elegance. With our modern eye these pieces may look extremely dressy and rather posh but during the middle of the last Century a screw-down case back already makes the defining factor for a sports watch!

C.R. Spillmann further integrated small tweaks to their designs that improved the sturdiness of their product line. The 2-part case structure is one aspect - this means that the bezel and the case were made from one block of metal and only the case back was detachable, improving on stability. Further, most cases would display a slightly recessed crown, to protect your winding stem against accidental dings.

 

Several example Vacheron Constantin vintage dress watches with Spillmann casesFigure 1. Four example cases from C.R. Spillmann made for Vacheron Constantin from the 1940s and 1950s. All feature the screw-down case back, a slightly recessed crown and a 2-body case construction. Photos Goldammer Archives.

  

3) C.R. Spillmann & Their Flagship Chronograph Case

There are too many designs to highlight all of them. The Oyster is by far the most popular yet not the only Spillmann accomplishment. And one of the most recognizable of these other styles in their portfolio must definitely be the chronograph with angled lugs:

 

Zooming in on a vintage Universal Geneve Compax with angled lugsThis is that one detail that makes this watch so special! The angled lug, a clear sign that this case has been made by none other than C.R. Spillmann. Photo Goldammer Shop.

 

You will find these very unique cases with for example several Universal Geneve, Doxa, and Bovet chronographs of the time. The case design is clearly distinct from the Rolex Oyster but still got a fair share of similar features: Spillmann chronograph cases mostly come with the signature screw-down case back and a 2-body case construction (The Spillmann DNA). However, with 38mm these Spillmann-chrono cases were slightly larger than for example all the Oyster Pre-Daytona models (36mm).

 

vintage 1940s Universal Geneve Uni-Compax chronograph with Spillmann caseLet's study the Spillmann case on this vintage 1940s Universal Geneve Uni-Compax ref. 12482 chronograph: It is a marvelous example with angled lugs and the utilitarian elegance that comes with such a case. Photos Goldammer Shop.

 

4) Conclusion

It is probably not news to anyone out there that my heart beats for the vintage watches that are sturdy yet elegant; intricately designed yet wearable - and C.R. Spillmann was the manufacturer that stood for exactly these values. Catering to the visions of several Swiss watch manufacturing power houses their own DNA was still evident in all those pieces - particularly through the case back, the crown integration and their overall case construction.

My personal conclusion is hence quite simple: When you find a watch with the 136 hallmark you hold on to it! These Spillmann cases are of utmost quality, some of the finest pieces made outside of Geneva. And as important as it is to celebrate them for being the maker of the first Oyster case, their very own style still shines so uniquely through many highlight pieces of the last Century!

 

Wrist shot of a vintage 1940s Universal Geneve Uni-Compax chronograph with a yellow gold Spillmann caseA beautifully preserved Universal Geneve Uni-Compax (ref. 12482). Photo Goldammer Shop.

 

 

References

[1] The Complete History of the Rolex Oyster Case; Paul Altieri, Bob's Watches [Link]

[2] Hans Wilsdorf And Rolex; David Boettcher, Vintage Watchstraps [Link]

[3] How Rolex Became Rolex - The Oyster Case Study (Part 1); Owen Lawton, WindVintage [Link]

[4] Swiss Poinçons de Maître; David Boettcher, Vintage Watchstraps [Link]

[5] The Guide to Watch Case Makers - The Hammer & La Chaux-De-Fonds; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage [Link]

[6]  SDC Weekly 36; Établissage; Kingflum, ScrewDownCrown [Link]

 

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