If you have looked at Rolex watches, you may have thought to yourself ”why does none of them have see-through case backs?”.

In other words, why is the case back not covered by glass so you can actually see and admire the movement?

None of Rolex’s modern watches are indeed made with see-through case backs that would otherwise allow you to see the movement inside. But it’s not true that Rolex has never made watches with open case backs before.

It’s not that Rolex isn’t capable to produce beautiful movements. If they wanted to, they could easily (relatively speaking) develop stunning Haute Horlogerie movements with striking decorations. It’s just that they don’t want to. It doesn’t align with the ethos and concept of the company. At least not for the moment.

So why doesn’t Rolex make watches with open case backs? In this article, we’ll go to the bottom of everything you need to know about see-through case backs and why Rolex doesn’t use them whilst other manufacturers do.

Why doesn’t Rolex use see-through case backs?

The answer is rather simple. Rolex watches are designed as tool watches. Rolex’s foremost goal is to create durable, functional, and long-lasting timepieces. Rolex chooses functionality over the visual every time, and the use of open case backs does not support this mission and vision.

When you consider the fact that all Rolex watches are built as tools, see-through case-backs do not make much sense. Functionality-wise, they serve no real purpose. The only real purpose is that they make it possible to view the movement. And in that sense, you need something beautiful to make it worthwhile.

Everything that Rolex do, they do with the idea of longevity and functionality. For example, the ceramic bezel was added to avoid the problem of fading and scratching which happened to the aluminum bezel inserts that were used earlier. The steel hour markers were exchanged for white gold to prevent tarnishing, and the luminous material was changed to Superluminova to ensure they never aged, changed color or stopped glowing. The list can be made long.

And adding a see-through case back actually comes with two key downsides:

First and foremost, exchanging a solid case back for a glass case back will affect the strength of the construction and ultimately create more points of potential failure. The water resistance can be compromised. Of course, this isn’t really an issue for a dress watch that isn’t meant to be worn close to water. But bear in mind that Rolex does not focus on making dress watches.

Secondly, having an open case back will reduce the watch’s resistance to magnetism. This said, Rolex would have to compromise form before function and this is something that, at least, for the most part, goes against their mission and focus.

Rolex movements

Whilst Rolex’s movements are in no way ugly, they are not built to be beautiful either. At least that’s not on the top of Rolex’s priority list. Unlike what some people believe, it’s not that Rolex is trying to hide their movements because they are not beautiful. If you look at a Rolex movement, you’ll see that it’s not the case, even though it does not have anywhere near the level of finishing and decoration that other top-tier brands have. 

Rolex frequently promotes its movement and showcases pictures of them because they are proud of the movements and their performance. It’s also important to remember that Rolex makes mass-produced watches. If you make, for example, just a few hundred pieces of a model, it’s much easier to put more time and energy into decorating every single one to a very high standard. But if you factor in that Rolex makes around 1 million watches per year, you’ll realize that Rolex makes some of the most beautiful mass-produced movements that exist.

When Rolex develop their movements, they develop them for functionality, durability, performance, and longevity. In general, there’s always a balance between design and functionality. For example, because Rolex has focused on the above things when developing its movements for decades, that’s also what they have become experts at. Rolex does some level of finishing to its movements, but it’s not anywhere near the finish that Haute Horlogerie brands like Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet.

Other brands, for example, A. Lange & Sohne or Patek Philippe put a lot of focus on making beautiful, Haute Horlogerie movements, but they will never come anywhere near the durability and longevity of Rolex watches. Because these brands invest so heavily into designing and creating beautiful movements, it’s only natural that they want to showcase them via see-through case backs.

And the fact is that Rolex isn’t really trying to compete in this segment. Rolex focuses on functionality whilst the other brands focus on fine watchmaking, craftsmanship, and art pieces, even though both of these types are focusing on the luxury segment

The only Rolex model with an open case back

There will always be exceptions to rules and this exception is that Rolex has, in fact, made watches with open backs throughout its more than century-long history.

This exception is the Rolex Prince, which was made in a few different references and iterations.

The Prince model line is one that was first introduced in the 1930s, but it was eventually discontinued in the late 1940s. In 2005, Rolex reintroduced the prince line under its Cellini Collection by the name Cellini Prince.

This is the only model that has been made with an open case back.

Rolex made the Cellini Prince in four models:

  • White gold (available with two dial designs)
  • Yellow gold
  • Everose Gold

For this model, Rolex used the in-house COSC certified 7040 caliber. The movement is hand-wound and therefore has to be manually wound. Today, it is unthinkable that Rolex would make a hand-wound movement ever again considering the fact that all of its watches are automatic.

It’s safe to say that the Cellini Prince is a bit of an odd bird in Rolex’s collection of watches. Whilst Rolex has made thousands of different references, only three have been made with see-through case backs.

Considering what the Rolex brand is all about, it’s unlikely that we will ever see a new model with a see-through case back again. But Rolex has surprised us before, so never say never…

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