An automatic watch is a watch that uses an automatic movement. An automatic movement features a rotor. This rotor in turn rotates by the movements from the wrist. When the wrist rotates, the rotor rotates and generates energy for the mainspring. This provides the watch with energy without having to manually wind it. This is why the term ”perpetual” was ”invented” by Rolex to highlight the fact that the watch will continue to tick year after year as long as you wear it - without having to manually wind it, or replace its battery for that matter.
Rolex and automatic movements have a close relationship. In fact, Rolex is proud of having invented the first self-winding mechanism with a Perpetual Rotor. Whilst some brands and watchmakers had previously invented mechanism that were the start of automatic movements, Rolex perfected and improved it by creating a movement with a bidirectional rotor.
The birth of the perpetual rotor
The perpetual rotor was invented and patented by Rolex in 1931. This invention marked a huge milestone for Rolex but would also come to influence the watch industry as a whole in the coming decades.
In Rolex’s own words:
”By capturing the energy generated by even the slightest move of the wrist, this self-winding system breathes life into the movement so that the heartbeat of the watch never stops.”rolex.com
During this time, and the decades before, essentially all mechanical watch movements were manual hand-wound movements. This means that the wearer had to manually wind the watch on a regular basis (and remember to do so) in order to keep the watch ticking. Rolex and Hans Wilsdorf saw this as an issue as it is inconvenient and impractical. If the wearer forgets to wind the watch, it will stop and it has to be reset to the correct time again. Bear in mind that in these early years, the quartz movement was not invented either.
Some watchmakers had invented automatic mechanism prior to Rolex’s invention of the perpetual rotor, but their mechanisms were not perfected.
The first self-winding pocket watch was invented in around 1770 and is credited to Abraham-Louis Perrelet or Hubert Sarton. Opinions differ about who was first. The issue was that because a pocket watch is in a pocket, it is not subject to enough movement so that the watch can be wound by the rotor.
Hans Wilsdorf had a vision to create a self-winding system with a rotor pivoting freely 360 degrees which, in his opinion, would be much more suitable mechanism for a wristwatch.
Upon the launch of Rolex’s perpetual rotor, it gained immense success and became a crucial invention for Rolex.
From this point, Rolex started to rollout the perpetual rotor for all its watches in the coming decades.
Are all Rolex Watches Automatic?
The answer to this question is no, not all Rolex watches are automatic. The correct answer is that all watches that Rolex manufactures today are automatic and use the perpetual rotor. Rolex simply deems the perpetual rotor the most suitable and practical option for a wristwatch. Over the decades since its launch, Rolex has naturally consistently improved and refined the perpetual mechanism to improve its performance and longevity.
But before 1931, Rolex, for obvious reasons, only made manual watches. Later on, Rolex also introduced a few Oysterquartz watches that are powered by batteries (quartz movements) and not the automatic rotor. So whilst most of Rolex’s watches are automatic, some have also been quartz.
Whilst Rolex began rolling out the automatic movements after the inventing of the perpetual rotor, it would take many decades until Rolex exclusively made automatic watches. Rolex discontinued the manual wind models around the 1970s and 1980s but the Oysterquartz was in production until 2003. As such, we can say that from 2003, all Rolex watches are automatic. But prior to this, Rolex made both quartz watches and manual wind watches, even though the latter became fewer and fewer over the decades since the launch of its automatic movement.
Today, Rolex watches are synonymous with automatic movements and all of them use automatic movements. This is a very practical feature that means you can simply ”set and forget” the watch on your wrist without having to worry about having to manually wind it to keep it ticking.
Automatic watches can also stop
Whilst Rolex calls its movements ”perpetual”, it’s not completely true. Nothing is perpetual and the same goes for automatic watch movements. Whilst it is true that automatic Rolex watches will continue to tick whilst on your wrist, when you take them off, they no longer have any source of energy and will therefore ultimately stop if you’re not wearing it.
As a result, Rolex has worked consistently to improve the power reserve of its movements over the years. Today, Rolex’s power reserves range from about 48 hours to 72 hours, depending on the model. This means that you can leave the watch for up to 72 hours when fully wound and still have it ticking if you return to it within that timespan. If the watch has stopped, Rolex advises that you manually wind it to ”charge” the watch with energy.
”Before being worn for the first time, or if it has stopped, a Rolex watch must be wound manually in order to function correctly and precisely. To wind the watch manually, unscrew the winding crown completely, then turn it several times clockwise”.rolex.com
Rolex advise that you should wind the crown 25 turns for adequate partial winding.
This is a practical feature because all automatic Rolex movements now have both a perpetual rotor but also a manual-winding function so that you can occasionally wind it if you’re not very active, or if you are not wearing the watch and wants to prevent it from stopping. The manual-winding function therefore gives you the ability to occasionally charge it with energy by winding the crown.