In a surprising move, Rolex entirely reshuffled their dress watch offer with the Perpetual 1908. As the luxury sports watch sits front and centre, an entire span of watchmaking is being overshadowed, verging on irrelevance. The past five years have been so focused on the likes of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual and Day-Date that an entire generation of customers has all but forgotten dress watches (the popularity of casual style, even in business and evening wear, in Singapore means that the sports watch has been dominant for far longer than five years – Ed). They do not seem to be aware that the new Perpetual 1908 is but the latest avatar in an almost century-long history of Rolex classic timepieces.
And yet, this new Perpetual collection is nothing short of a revolution in the way it has been devised, designed and positioned. The 1908 symbolizes this constant re-examination of what has been achieved while setting tradition in motion. Behind its understated looks and 39mm gold case, the 1908 is, to put it simply, a great watch, which we have ascertained after a week-long test on the wrist.
To the untrained eye, the Perpetual 1908 is nothing extraordinary. What could be extraordinary in a classic-looking Rolex after all? The Geneva watchmaker has been making such pieces for its entire history. Case in point, the 1908 takes its name after the year the Rolex brand name was registered. It can also be argued that the first self-winding Oyster, launched in 1931, served as inspiration for this contemporary one. Several design cues do link these two watches, even though they are 90 years apart. To the trained eye, though, the inaugural piece in the Perpetual collection is extremely special. Yet this fact may go unnoticed, because 2023 will go on to be an earthquake year in the brand’s timeline.
It is the year Rolex released the first exhibition caseback Oyster watch (ref.126506 Cosmograph Daytona), a Day-Date that displayed neither day nor date (ref.128238) but Emoticons instead, and its first full titanium, current collection timepiece (Yacht-Master 42 ref.226627). Much of what were deemed rules, dogmas, unshakable notions of technique and design have been upended (this does not take into consideration the biggest news in watchmaking in years but that is about business – Ed). The way the Perpetual 1908 has been designed is one of them.
Rolex is not an explicit brand; one has to read between the lines when presented with news. Bearing this in mind, we think it is more than mere coincidence that the 1908 appears just as the Cellini collection vanishes. Cellini had been the name for Rolex’s entire dress watch collection.
Launched in 1968, it had featured all sorts of non-Oyster pieces, all of them in gold or platinum. Some were pocket watches, which were available until around 2016. They were small, slim and mostly hand- wound. One of them deserves special mention as it turns out to be a forerunner of sorts to the 1908.
In 2005, Rolex had released the Cellini Prince, named and shaped after the Prince collection from the 1930s. It was a rectangular watch, with the only see-through caseback in the brand’s history, up until today that is. It revealed a hand-wound movement with an extraordinary set of finishings. It had a small seconds display, it was thick and it was effusive – a striking departure from the design language at the time. The Cellini Prince’s movement was reference 7040. The 1908’s movement is called calbre 7140, and in Rolex’s book, it is not a coincidence.
The Perpetual 1908’s white and black dials feature an extremely finely grained texture, which provides a matte effect, a far cry from the usual sunray finish and what is expected from a classic piece. It is interesting to see how far Rolex tailored its most profoundly grounded design details to fit classic timepiece requirements. The design of many of its elements is a throwback to another, older model. This is Rolex’s way of designing: everything has to have roots somewhere; a reference point if you will. The hour hand, for example, is distinctive for the circle just before the tip, while the minute hand is shaped like a two-edged sword.
This type of hand, the Breguet or apple hour hand, had already been used on the 1926 Octagonal Oyster, among other watches, so the Perpetual 1908 is in fact going back to the company’s roots here. The hour markers tell another story. These are a direct reference to the aforementioned first Oyster Perpetual model, dated 1931. The first self-winding Rolex had eight straight hour markers, three Arabic numerals at 3, 9 and 12 and a small seconds display at 6 o’clock. The Perpetual 1908 has upgraded them to solid gold appliques, as is the brand’s custom, and realigned them. And from the octagonal 1926 Oyster, it has retained the now-ubiquitous fluted bezel, although in this instance, it is also domed, and much thinner than that on an Oyster case.
The other Cellini the Perpetual 1908 takes after is the series first released in 2016. Four models, with reference type 505xx, were available in either white or rose gold, with fluted bezel, centre second hand, were self-winding and equipped with various unusual complications. Their run ended to make way for the 1908. The disappearance of an entire collection is a most rare occurrence at Rolex. This is especially true when said collection is in fact replaced by another, with a new name, new ambition and to boot, an entirely new movement. In a way, many of the defining characteristics of the 1908 can be read as an evolution of the Cellini collection.
Comfort on the wrist is one way in which the 1908 impresses, and this is due to a relatively slim case profile. This is possible thanks to the aforementioned new movement, which deserves some space all its own.
Rolex is nothing if not pragmatic. The firm realized a dress Rolex needs its own dedicated movement, to be kitted out in a purpose-built case. And thus calibre 7140 was born, although the name reminds us of the aforementioned calibre 7040. The 7040 was hand- wound, rectangular, with pattern-engraved bridges of elaborately decorative shapes, which reflected and matched the different dial finishings. The 7140 is round and self-winding, bearing similar finishings to other Rolex calibres.
What the two movements have in common is a small seconds hand, no date, a dress watch destination and a chronometer certification. The latter is of course only a part of the larger Rolex certification process, since the brand’s entire line-up receives the in-house and extremely demanding Superlative Chronometer rubberstamp. As a result, the Perpetual 1908 will offer a – 2/+2 seconds daily running error, a tremendous feat considering the Rolex manufacture’s massive production scale.
As a whole, calibre 7140 is special in the brand’s offer. It is the slimmest in-house automatic movement the brand has designed in decades. It is only rivalled by ancient (relatively speaking) and much smaller references such as the 1600. But the latter was meant to power petite timepieces, was hand-wound and would most likely fail Rolex’s current test procedures, thus defeating the purpose of any point-by-point comparison. The 7140 has a bona fide openwork oscillating weight, sporting the new design seen on the exhibition caseback platinum Cosmograph Daytona also released this year. And just like it, it is made of solid 18 ct yellow gold.
In order to reduce every possible bit of thickness, the movement features a Syloxi hairspring. Thus far, this silicon regulating spring has been confined to smaller timepieces. Among many benefits, it is flat, as opposed to the standard Parachrom hairspring, which has a Breguet terminal overcoil (its two planes make it more than twice as high). Even though it sits at only 4.05mm, calibre 7140 offers an approximately 66-hour power reserve, managing to come very near Rolex’s now-standard 70- hour mark.
Once a slim enough movement was ready, there remained the matter of designing a slim case. On paper, as well as on the wrist, the 9.5mm-thick Perpetual 1908 does indeed give off that specific vibe. The watch is also comfortable, with a 39mm diameter that helps stabilize it on just about any arm. It is secured with an alligator strap, which has a particularly interesting design. Its lining is entirely green, while the outer matte brown alligator leather displays tone- on-tone stitching. Its clasp goes on to show that Rolex decided to make the Perpetual collection one with its own design attributes throughout. Called Dualclasp, it is a double folding clasp that is extremely comfortable against the skin. A welcome evolution on the folding buckle found in the defunct leather strap of the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date ref.11813x, its parts are so discrete it looks like a pin clasp.
More notably, the moves required to open the new Dualclasp are absolutely counterintuitive. Appearances can be deceiving as this, without a doubt, goes in the plus column. A watch that sits more securely on the wrist is definitely worth it. Although not the most newsworthy feature of the Perpetual 1908, this one sings with the choir: this is truly a well-conceived dress watch, designed with ergonomics, exclusivity and a true sense of identity in mind. Such thoroughness is supported by a surprisingly competitive pricing policy, given the brand’s absolute cult status. This is not the least exciting part of this soft and unspoken revolution.
The genesis of this story was my admiration for David Chokron’s writing for the now- defunct WatchAround magazine, and my own longstanding love of the Rolex Prince. Well, it emerged that we both happen to appreciate the dressier side of Rolex. While I do own a Prince, as mentioned, I only bought it last year and never expected to see the Perpetual 1908 at Watches and Wonders Geneva this year. Thus, I sat down later
with David in Paris and tried to get this story going, since I knew he could get the watch on his wrist. I have it on good authority that the Perpetual 1908 will be sold in Singapore, and it might even be in as you read this. Give it a try because it is unlikely that you have ever tried a dress watch from Rolex. It is my sincere hope that even in a sports watch- obsessed market such as Singapore, the Perpetual 1908 will find many fans – Ed.
This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue