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Blog: Oyster Watch Co.

First published: 9 August 2023, last updated 30 October 2023.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently but, because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages, the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.

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This entry is from the page about Wilsdorf's Other Brands, which is about the myriad of other brands and companies that Hans Wilsdorf created in addition to Rolex.

As always, if you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

Oyster Watch Co.

Oyster Watch Ltd, 31 August 1928
Oyster Watch Ltd, 31 August 1928: Click image to enlarge

The Rolex Oyster waterproof wristwatch was the watch that transformed Rolex from just another London based British company importing Swiss watches into a hugely successful and recognised name. With Wilsdorf's extensive and expensive advertising campaign, people began asking for Rolex Oyster wristwatches by name, which enabled Wilsdorf to insist that every watch had Rolex Oyster on the dial. British retailers didn't like it, but to refuse to stock the watches was to lose out on sales, and no retailer wants to do that.

With the tremendous success of the Rolex Oyster wristwatch after its launch in 1927, in 1928 Wilsdorf decided to create a similar watch that could be sold at a cheaper price point. The Oyster Watch Company was created on 31 August 1928. The extract from the registration reproduced here shows that it was formally named Montres Huitre S. A., translated into English as Oyster Watch Limited, a public limited company with its registered office in Geneva. The purpose of the company was the manufacture, purchase and sale of waterproof watches related to various patents that were listed in the statutes and which the right to use was granted to the company free of charge. The first board of directors was made up of three members: Hans Wilsdorf, Marguerite Gagnebin and Cécile-Antoinette Gagnebin. At the meeting of 31 August 1928, May Wilsdorf (Hans Wilsdorf's second wife) was appointed as a director.

This meant that Oyster Watch Limited was legally a completely separate company from the Rolex Watch Company and not just another sub-brand. Watches branded Oyster Watch Co. have movements made by ébauche manufacturers other than Aegler S.A., the company which made the movements for the “real” Rolex Oyster watches. However, the obvious connections between the Rolex Watch Company and Oyster Watch Limited together with the free use of the critical patents for the oyster case and screw down crown meant that the means of waterproofing and even the appearance of the cases were, in the eyes of customers at least, essentially indistinguishable.

Another strange feature is that silver and gold Oyster Watch Co. cases are marked with an incuse RWCLTD within an incuse oval surround, which is recognised as a Rolex mark, leading to the erroneous assumption that the watch is a Rolex watch. The RWCLTD mark is a actually sponsor's mark, a mark that has to be registered with a British assay office and applied to an item before it is submitted for hallmarking. Although the mark shows that an item was submitted for hallmarking under the responsibility of the Rolex Watch Company, it is not an identifier of a Rolex watch.

It is curious that Wilsdorf and Rolex created a completely separate, legally incorporated, Swiss company in the Oyster Watch Co. but didn't bother to register a separate sponsor's mark under that name with British assay offices. It is most likely that this is because the Oyster Watch Co. was not registered in Britain, and perhaps they didn't expect RWCLTD to become well known and recognised.

The Oyster Watch Co. was not a great idea. There was little attempt to hide the link between Rolex and the Oyster Watch Co. - how could there be, when the watches were virtually identical and both used the Oyster name. Indeed, it might even appear to some that the Rolex Oyster was made by the Oyster Watch Company for Rolex, which was certainly not what Wilsdorf had in mind.

The confusion created by this marketing blunder continues to this day, with Oyster Watch Company watches being advertised as Rolex Oyster watches, which also was certainly not what Wilsdorf had in mind. The ultimate test of whether a watch is a Rolex watch is whether Hans Wilsdorf would have called it a Rolex watch, and he certainly wouldn't have gone to the trouble of creating a completely separate company, Oyster Watch Limited, only to call its products Rolex watches.

Wilsdorf's idea was evidently that people would recognise the similarity of Oyster Watch Company watches to Rolex Oyster watches, which would make them easier to sell, but that they would realise that they were a similar but cheaper product without affecting sales of his premium Rolex Oyster watches. Of course what actually happened was that people thought that they could just get a Rolex Oyster cheaper. Today marketing companies avoid this “contamination” of the main brand like the plague, but marketing was not so sophisticated in the 1920s. Sales of Oyster Watch Co. watches inevitably hurt sales of the real, more expensive, Rolex Oyster. The Oyster Watch Co. name was dropped at the end of the Second World War, when Rolex dropped all the other non-Rolex brand names apart from Tudor.

Because Montres Huitre S. A. ( Oyster Watch Limited) was a legally constituted company, when use of the name Oyster Watch Co. was dropped the company did not just simply disappear. On 28 August 1940, the company ceased to be active and Fernand Lilla and Lucie-Cécilc Berger were appointed administrators, replacing Marguerite Gagnebin and Cécile-Antoinette Gagnebin. On 21 June 1943, a Foundation of the social and relief works of Montres Huître S.A. was constituted to create a relief, mutual aid and assistance fund to provide direct or indirect assistance to the staff of Montres Huître S.A. (Oyster Watch Limited). The registered trademark Oyster Watch continued to be renewed by Montres Rolex SA into at least the 1990s, presumably to stop anyone else from using it.

Oyster Watch Co. Watches

Oyster Watch Co. Movement showing FHF trademark: Click to enlarge.

Oyster Watch Co. Movement: Click to enlarge.

Most Oyster Watch Company watches have movements made by the ébauche manufacturer Fontainemelon. Although Oyster Watch Company watches were sold at a lower price point than Rolex Oysters with Aegler movements, there was probably not a lot if any difference in the basic cost of these ébauches. Many of the parts came from the same external suppliers used by both companies - the assortiment, the balance, lever and escape wheel, all came from one of a small number of specialist manufacturers, jewels came from another, mainspring barrels already assembled with their spring came from another, etc. Making the plates and wheels and assembling all the parts into a movement did not leave a great deal of scope for price variation: one mass-produced 15 jewel Swiss lever escapement movement must have cost much the same as any other to manufacture. However, Rolex watches were carefully adjusted for timekeeping, which an ébauche like this one would not have been. The adjustment adds significant cost to a watch but leaves no visible sign on the movement.

The movement and case back shown here are branded Oyster Watch Co. The case back has the same list of patents found in the case backs of Rolex Oysters, and the SAR under a coronet trademark, so there is no attempt to conceal its connection to the Rolex Watch Company. But this watch has a cheap injection moulded case and was intended to sell at a much lower price point than a Rolex Oyster wristwatch.

There is very little hard evidence on which to base a date for this watch. There are no mentions of the various numbers of world's records that are found in the case backs of Rolex watches, because of course this is not supposed to be a Rolex watch. Details of the Oyster Watch Co. are few and far between and there are no obvious clues from the watch itself. The US patent listed, No. 1661232, was the last to be granted in 1928, and use of the Oyster Watch Co. name was dropped before or during the second world war. It appears that most Oyster Watch Co. watches were made in the 1930s.

The bottom plate of the movement has the FHF trademark of Fontainemelon showing that they manufactured the ébauch. It's a 10½ ligne FHF 30 movement ticking at 18,000 vph. It has a Swiss straight line lever escapement and fifteen jewels, so it is a good quality basic movement. Fontainemelon mass produced ébauches so perhaps this would have been a little cheaper than an Aegler ébauch, but similar in quality to Aegler's own 15 jewel movements. This one is marked "unadjusted", which was put onto movements to make them cheaper to import into America, adjusted movements being charged a higher rate of import duty.

Oyster Watch Co. Case Back: Click to enlarge.

Oyster Watch Co. Case Back: Click to enlarge.

This Fontainemelon movement was also used in Tudor watches, when it was called the Tudor calibre 59. There was also a centre seconds version called the 59(SC). The Fontainemelon reference for this movement was FHF 30-1. Although the Tudor version is usually described as being “based on” the Fontainemelon movement, the only modification seems to be the engraving of the Tudor name on the bridge. This was almost certainly done by Fontainemelon as the ébauche was being made, it would not be practical or cost effective to engrave onto a completed movement.

The case of this Oyster watch is made from the "Snowite" injection moulding zinc alloy. This is a very poor quality material and, although it is chrome plated, the back very heavily pitted on the outside. I don't have the other parts of the case so I don't know how well they survived; the case back was against the wrist and some people's perspiration can cause corrosion damage, even on some grades of stainless steel. This case is particularly bad.

Later watches with Snowite front parts to their cases have stainless steel backs to avoid this. However, even the front parts of Snowite cases can suffer from heavy corrosion. It is not a good material.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated October 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.