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Understanding Vintage Rolex Bracelets

The following is a short extract from my book The Vintage Rolex Field Guide, now available on Amazon. Get the book for a more detailed discussion along with model numbers and reference codes.

Until the era of Modern Classics, Rolex had been using Oyster and Jubilee bracelets from the bracelet-maker Gay Frères. This company is also known for the famous Heuer beads of rice bracelet and the bracelet for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.

Rolex used Gay Frères exclusively until the late 1940s. From the 1950s to the mid-1970s Rolex used several suppliers to create the same bracelet but for different territories.

For example, Rolex used suppliers in North America in response to US tax regulations. C&I supplied the USA-made riveted Oyster bracelets. There are also Rolex Oyster and Jubilee bracelets marked “Hecho en Mexico” on the clasp, indicating production in Mexico.

Rolex acquired the Gay Frères company in 1998, bringing all their bracelet production in-house.

Rolex introduced the Jubilee bracelet with the Datejust in 1945. The following year Rolex was awarded a patent for the Oyster bracelet (1947) which appeared in the Rolex catalog in 1948. Throughout the 1940s, Rolex did not offer a bracelet as standard, but as an expensive upgrade. Leather straps were the most common way of wearing a watch and treated as consumable and disposable — particularly in hot and humid climates where they would degrade quickly.

There were a great many bracelet styles produced, but the two most commonly recognized are the Oyster and Jubilee.

Fig. Extract from a vintage bracelet catalog (circa 1965) illustrating the wide variety of options offered on the Oyster Perpetual

Oyster Bracelet

The first generation from the 1950s was the “rivet style bracelet” with visible rivet studs on the outer edge of the hollow folded links. Links were fastened together with the rivets having a peaked, conical cap that became less pronounced with polishing. These bracelets were also offered in an expanding link style (refs. 6634, 6635, 6636), but this was phased out after proving less resilient and less comfortable.

The second generation (the 1960s) was the “folded link style bracelet” (refs. 7834, 7835, 7836, 9315). The folded link, as the name suggests is made by folding sheet metal in on itself multiple times. These ‘Swiss rolls’ result in a thicker link, but the pins holding them together are hidden.

The last and current generation is the “solid link bracelet.” These used the same numbering convention as the second generation, but with an added zero suffix. (e.g. 93150). The solid link style has proven the most robust, with even end links evolving from folded steel to solid. These are made in either a fully-brushed or partially polished (center link) finish.

The Oyster bracelet reference number is usually found on the first or final link of the bracelet. This code indicates which generation it belongs to (four-digit or five-digit) and the appropriate end link. For example, the ref. 7206 is a riveted Oyster requiring 20mm end links, while the ref. 7205 is the very same bracelet but requires 19mm end links.

Getting a comfortable fit with an Oyster bracelet and Fliplock clasp can be challenging for some wrist shapes. Half links are available as an option.
Removing a permanent link is possible, and some independent watchmakers or jewelers may be willing to perform this procedure. While an AD won’t perform this, a pair of pliers and masking tape can do the job. The process is non-reversible, damages the permanent link during removal, and should be considered a last resort. Correcting an Oyster that has had this procedure, can be done by adding back a removable link; however not all the permanent links are the same size, so such a correction may fix the length but leave a mismatched width.

Fig. Oyster bracelet with polished center links (top), stainless steel 93150 (middle) and a rare mesh bracelet.

Jubilee Bracelet

The Jubilee bracelet arrived in 1945 with the new Datejust and was later offered as an option on the GMT-Master and the early Cosmograph Daytona. Today it is reserved exclusively for the Datejust and should not be confused with the flagship President bracelet.

Each link of the Jubilee is made of five-pieces, comprising three thinner inner links flanked by larger outer links. The two different link sizes are most noticeable on two-tone Rolesor versions with the inner links in yellow or Everose gold.

The Jubilee bracelet can be fitted with a concealed folding Crownclasp, which has a Rolex coronet lever to open the bracelet and reveal the folding blades. The concealment of the clasp allows the pattern of the Jubilee links to run seamlessly around the wrist.

President Bracelet

Rolex introduced the President bracelet on the Day-Date in 1956. It is only available in precious metals and always has a concealed clasp. It is reserved exclusively for the Day-Date and available in different sizes and precious metals.
Variations include the Tridor which has center links in a mix of three shades of gold. For a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a distinctive bark finish was available as an option for the center links.

Fig. President bracelets in solid gold (top) white gold (middle) and gold with ‘bark finished’ center links.

Integrated Bracelets

These bracelets first appeared on the Oysterquartz and have a distinct angular form which complements the case features. Like the Cellini Midas, these are claimed to be Gerald Genta designs (though in this case, the claim is controversial and unsupported).

Integrated bracelets are clever and distinctive reinterpretations of the Oyster, Jubilee and President bracelets. A particularly interesting variation of the President integrated bracelet for the Oysterquartz Day-Date watches involves intricate pyramid patterns.

The steel integrated Oyster bracelet, two-tone integrated Jubilee bracelet, and solid gold integrated President bracelet are close enough to their inspiration to allow them to bear the same names.

Pearlmaster Bracelet

The Ladies’ Pearlmaster Collection first appeared in 1992. They are lavish and opulent jewelry bracelets, and often feature jewel settings up to full diamond pavé styles to match the cases. They have a rounded five-piece link construction and always have a concealed clasp. They are only available in precious metal.

Leather Straps

Until the arrival of the Tool watches in the 1950s leather straps were the norm. Vintage leather straps are seldom worth anything and usually found in unpleasant states of decay.

Modern classics are still available on original leather straps, and in particular, dress watches from the Cellini collection. In the early 2000s, Rolex offered an exclusive white gold Daytona as the “Daytona Beach.” These featured colorful dials with matching colored straps in pink, turquoise, green, and yellow leather. These Daytona Beach models are rare and quite collectible.

Classic models like the Datejust, Day-Date and the newer Sky-Dweller can be bought new with leather straps.

Oysterflex Bracelet Strap

The Oyserflex is a thoroughly modern strap introduced in 2015 on the Everose Yacht-Master. The Rolex marketing machine insists it is a bracelet rather than a strap, due to the titanium and nickel alloy blade that runs through the middle of the rubber coating. These bracelets (rubber straps) come with the Oysterlock safety clasps, which have a 5mm Easylink extension system. The Oysterflex is replacing leather options on Professional tool watches like the Daytona.

End Links & Spring Bars

Rolex introduced end links in 1952 with the launch of the GMT-Master ref. 6542. Their purpose was to reduce movement of the bracelet and pressure on the spring bars which could result in spring bar failure (and dropping or losing the watch). In addition to improving the streamlined and integrated look of the bracelet, end links increased the durability and reliability of the bracelet. This innovation was necessary for the professional tool watches designed for, and used in harsh and demanding environments.

End links are stamped with a number and are specific to the bracelet reference and case size. They also support particular spring bar sizes (diameter). Incorrect, twisted or poorly fitting end links will rattle on the wrist and scratch the Oyster case. Scratching and wear on the case by end links can be bad enough to obscure reference and serial numbers.

Incorrectly-sized spring bars will reduce the effectiveness of end links and contribute to their movement and rattle on the wrist. They can also distort the shape of the lug holes, which can be particularly bad in soft solid gold cases.
End link construction has evolved in step with the bracelets, switching from thin folded steel, to solid milled steel. The solid end link was first used on the Sea-Dweller and has become standard issue.

It is important to use the correct end links and spring bars for the bracelet and case. Ignoring this advice will accelerate wear and tear on both the bracelet and the watch case.

More detailed content with supporting dataset can be found in The Vintage Rolex Field Guide, available now at all good bookstores.