Nowadays, watch collectors often associate the word “quartz” with cheap, undesirable watches. Mechanical watches are, by far, what watch collectors geek out about the most. But the quartz movement should be appreciated for what it is: a game-changing innovation in horology that enabled people around the world to own incredibly accurate watches at affordable prices. Too often this is taken for granted. Along with Omega, Rolex jumped on the quartz train early, and produced battery-powered models for longer than you might guess. Read on for the complete guide to every Rolex quartz model ever released (along with some that weren’t).
The Early Days of Quartz Technology
Quartz watches weren’t always affordable. Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH), a consortium of about 20 Swiss watch firms (including Rolex), was formed in 1962 with the goal of making sure the Swiss watch industry didn’t get left in the dust with regards to electronic timekeeping. The Hamilton Electric 500 debuted in 1957 and the Bulova Accutron went on sale in 1960. The book Selling the Crown details just how much Bulova scared Rolex in the 1960’s. For a time, it seemed Rolex was more worried about Bulova than Omega–or anyone else.
Fortunately for Rolex, that Swiss consortium was quite successful. Armen Frei and other CEH researchers developed the first known miniaturized quartz oscillator in 1965, which led to the first known quartz watch prototype, CEH 1020, being released in 1967.
The original tuning fork-based Accutrons were at least as accurate as any high-end mechanical watch of their day (within a few seconds per day), but they weren’t quartz accurate (within a few seconds per month). CEH first developed two prototype movement designs–Beta 1 and Beta 2–and the following version (Beta 21) incorporated lessons learned from both. The Beta 21-powered Swiss watches hit the market in 1970. The Omega Electroquartz was first, with the Rolex “Texan” ref. 5100 not far behind. However, the Swiss had been beaten to the market by the more secretive Seiko, who released the Astron in late 1969 without ever having announced any prototypes.
The Rolex 5100 was only made in solid gold, and not for long. It was the only Beta 21 Rolex, believed to be a “limited series of 1000 watches (900 yellow gold and 100 white gold) … sold between 1970 and 1972” according to Christie’s. Note that this is the only quartz Rolex model to ever say “Quartz” on the dial outside of the word “Oysterquartz.” Thus, any other watch that says “Rolex Quartz” or “Rolex Geneve Quartz” can be dismissed as a fake Rolex.
The Beta quartz movements were an important step in history, but they weren’t enough to keep the Swiss on top. By 1971 Bulova was already making much thinner quartz movements and the Japanese were only getting better.
The Quartz Crisis
Much has been written about the “quartz crisis” that hit the watch industry after the release of the Accutron. We can see from the chart below that Swiss chronometer output began declining in 1970, and didn’t recover to that level until 1990. We can also see that the quartz crisis hit other Swiss firms much harder than Rolex. Rolex sales seemed to only decline from 1974-1976, after which they rebounded to pre-crisis levels by 1980. Omega didn’t reach pre-crisis chronometer output levels again until about 2006!
It should be noted that “quartz crisis” is an inherently Swiss-centric term, as this exact same time was Japan’s greatest age of watchmaking glory. In the 1980’s movie The Fabulous Baker Boys, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character takes note of a cocktail waitress doing well and says “Two months ago she’s wearing a Timex. Now she’s got a Seiko strapped to her wrist.” Yes, not so many decades ago, even quartz Seikos were (somewhat) aspirational watches. Although Rolex came out fine, much of the Swiss watch industry was in shambles until it was basically revived by Swatch in the 1990’s.
Rolex is undoubtedly known for their mechanical watches, but quartz wasn’t just a quick fad for them. Various Rolex quartz watches were offered in their catalog for decades! Let’s go over all of the known production model quartz Rolexes.
Rolex Oysterquartz: 1977-2003
The Oysterquartz Datejust and Oysterquartz Day-Date both finally hit the market in 1977, seven years after Rolex’s first Beta 21 prototype. Rolex clearly didn’t want to rush out an inferior movement; it seems they already had the case and bracelet ready for their Oysterquartz watch by 1974, with room to accomodate the extra thickness of the soon-to-come quartz calibers. This is why from about 1974-1978, Rolex, who is notorious for using up available parts, produced ref. 1530 and ref. 1630 using the “quartz” case. In order to fill up the extra vertical space intended for a taller movement, Rolex gave these two models rather prominent “deep dish” rehauts that many collectors find appealing.
By the time Rolex’s beautiful thermocompensated quartz movements were ready (caliber 5035 for the Datejust and caliber 5055 for the Day-Date), the 1530 and 1630 were history and Rolex was prepared to release their lineup of quartz Oysters. Note that Rolex didn’t start sending its quartz movements for chronometer certification until 1979, so if you see an OQ with just “Oysterquartz” at the bottom of the dial instead of the “Superlative Chronometer” text, it’s an early example from 1977-1978. Quartz chronometers had to keep time to within 0.2 seconds per day!
Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust references
|17000||36mm||Stainless steel, integrated Oyster bracelet|
|17013||36mm||Two-tone with yellow gold fluted bezel, integrated Jubilee bracelet|
|17014||36mm||Stainless steel with white gold fluted bezel, integrated Jubilee bracelet|
Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date references
|19018||36mm||Yellow gold, fluted bezel, President bracelet|
|19019||36mm||White gold, fluted bezel, President bracelet|
|19028||36mm||Yellow gold, pyramid bezel, pyramid President bracelet|
|19038||36mm||Yellow gold, pyramid+diamond bezel, pyramid President bracelet|
|19048||36mm||Yellow gold, diamond bezel, President bracelet|
|19049||36mm||White gold, diamond bezel, President bracelet|
|19058||36mm||Yellow gold, square-cut diamond or ruby bezel, President bracelet|
|19068||36mm||Yellow gold, diamond bezel, pyramid President bracelet|
|19078||36mm||Yellow gold, rainbow sapphire bezel, President bracelet|
|19148||36mm||Yellow gold, diamond bezel, diamond President bracelet|
|19158||36mm||Yellow gold, gradient sapphire (semi-rainbow) bezel, President bracelet|
|19168||36mm||Yellow gold, baguette gem-set bezel (ruby, diamond or blue sapphire), Octopussy bracelet|
|19188||36mm||Yellow gold, alternating pattern of 6 rubies and 5 diamonds on the bezel, diamond President bracelet|
|19198||36mm||Yellow gold, alternating pattern of 3 rubies or sapphires and 1 diamond on the bezel, diamond President bracelet|
Rolex Cellini Quartz: 1989-2012
For about a decade, the Oysterquartz models, which were all 36mm and marketed as men’s watches, were the only quartz watches in the Rolex catalog. But in the late 1980’s, quartz models finally entered Rolex’s Cellini line. If you’re looking for a vintage Rolex quartz ladies watch, these Cellini quartz models are your only option.
Quartz Rolex Cellinis, powered by caliber 6620 or 6621, are all simple two-hand watches. The minute hand “ticks” once every ten seconds.
Often Rolex collectors get the impression that Rolex Cellini watches are usually quartz. That’s not really the case; the majority of Cellinis historically were manual-wind. Only Cellini references that start with the number “6” are quartz. In total, Rolex made 24 quartz Cellini references, all made of solid 18k gold. Surprisingly to some, Rolex Cellini quartz watches were still in the catalog as late as 2011/12.
Quartz Rolex Cellini references
|6110||25mm||Classic model, round case with straight lugs, leather strap|
|6111||25mm||Classic model, round case with rounded stepped lugs, leather strap|
|6201||23mm||Orchid model, flying saucer case with hidden lugs, large bezel set with multiple rows of gems (diamond, blue sapphire, or ruby), leather strap|
|6221||23mm||Orchid model, flying saucer case with hidden lugs, large bezel set with multiple rows of gems (diamond, blue sapphire, or ruby), exotic diamond-set 5-link bracelet|
|6229||24.5mm||Danaos model, angular sporty case, leather strap|
|6311||25mm||Cestello model, movable lugs, diamond-set bezel, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6321||31.5mm||Cestello model, movable lugs, diamond-set bezel, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6621||26mm||Cellissima model, round case, diamond-set bezel, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6622||32mm||Cellissima model, round case, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6623||37mm||Cellissima model, round case, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6631||24mm||Cellissima model, squared-off elliptical case, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6633||30mm||Cellissima model, squared-off elliptical case, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6651||29mm||Cellissima model, round case with unusual integrated bracelet made of both white and yellow gold|
|6661||36mm||Cellissima model, round case, diamond-set bezel, integrated Oyster-like bracelet|
|6663||36mm||Cellissima model, round case, diamond-set bezel, integrated Oyster-like bracelet|
|6671||26mm||Cellissima model, round case, 2-row diamond bezel, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6672||26mm||Cellissima model, round case, hinged diamond-set hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6673||26mm||Cellissima model, round case, 2-row diamond bezel, hinged diamond-set hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6681||31mm||Cellissima model, round case, 2-row diamond bezel, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6682||31mm||Cellissima model, round case, hinged diamond-set hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6683||31mm||Cellissima model, round case, 2-row diamond bezel, hinged diamond-set hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6691||24mm||Cellissima model, squared-off elliptical case, 2-row diamond bezel, hinged hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6692||24mm||Cellissima model, squared-off elliptical case, hinged diamond-set hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
|6693||24mm||Cellissima model, squared-off elliptical case, 2-row diamond bezel, hinged diamond-set hooded lugs, leather strap or 5-link bracelet|
As you can see, Rolex was able to produce several models with their few quartz calibers. Developing next-generation quartz technology was time-consuming and didn’t always pay off. Twice in Rolex’s history, they devoted significant resources to innovative quartz movements that never saw the light of day.
Rolex Perpetual Calendar Quartz Movement
Rolex developed a quartz perpetual calendar movement and even patented it, but they never released it to the public. However, a prototype perpetual calendar quartz Rolex Day-Date was sold for over $250,000 in 2020.
These perpetual prototypes are extremely rare. James Dowling believes that “around 20 were made, with the vast majority being Day-Dates.” The perpetual calendar Day-Dates were powered by caliber 5355 while the few such Datejusts were equipped with caliber 5335. Apparently these movements were extremely quiet, and had a jump-hour function. They represented a major upgrade that seemed poised to hit the Oysterquartz lineup in the early 2000’s, but Rolex must have decided their image was better off if they ditched quartz altogether.
FAN Prototype Rolex Quartz Watch
Decades earlier, Rolex developed another innovative quartz watch that, ultimately, didn’t fit with their image. The Forme Analogique project (or “FAN”) set out to develop a “pseudo-analog” watch with an LED dial.
The cutting-edge electronics necessary for this project were largely sourced from California. According to WatchTime, “the FAN-dial module was supplied by Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, and the multiple-layer connection module for the light emitting diodes was designed by Ceramic Systems in Sorrento Valley.” Unfortunately, all the prototypes were likely destroyed and this grainy photo is all that remains.
Do you think it was a mistake for Rolex to ever bother with quartz watches? Or was it a mistake to ever stop making quartz watches? Let us know in the comments!
More Rolex Guides:
How to Spot a Fake Rolex: The Ultimate Guide
How Does The Rolex Waiting List Work? Can it Be Avoided?
How Much Does a Rolex Day-Date Cost?
Rolex Serial Numbers: The Ultimate Guide
How Much Can I Get for My Used Rolex Submariner?