A brief history of the Rolex BubbleBack and the first automatic wristwatch The Rolex Bubbleback is a very underrated vintage offering from Rolex. I remember the first time I strapped on a Rolex Bubbleback, and thinking to myself, man this is a fun little watch!
Make no mistake, by modern standards, it is a small watch at around 32mm. But if you have small wrists like me, you can totally pull it off, especially if you pair it with some nice looking bracelets.
The Rolex Bubbleback arose from the quest for the first automatic wristwatch that started in the early 1920's.
Although there were many previous attempts, it was John Harwood from the UK, who was able to invent the first automatic wristwatch that was put into production.
These watches were the first viable self-winding wristwatches, and were introduced in the early 1920's. Notice the lack of a crown at 3. Harwood actually designed the time to be set via the bezel.
Although Harwood's watches were a success from a developmental point of view, they were a failure commercially. Because of the design of the watch, they were very difficult to take apart and service. In 1929, Harwood declared bankrupcy, and the patent he developed was no longer enforceable. This started a race among the Swiss brands to develop their own automatic movements.
While other companies were attempting to reinvent the wheel by designing automatic movements from scratch, Rolex decided to take the more patient, incremental approach. They decided to affix an automatic rotor mechanism on top the existing manual wind base movement used in their watches.
Fitting the automatic mechanism on top had a lot of benefits. The rotor could now swing 360 degrees unobstructed. Also, the rotor was not very loud as it was not being buffeted by other parts of the movement. This is why Rolex advertised the watch as the "Silent Self-Winder".
The principle disadvantage of this however, was that it made the case very thick, thus the name Bubbleback.
The bubbleback was available in a variety of models. The most notable ones are the ones with central seconds hands, and notched bezels. The price range will depend on rarity of dial, and condition, however many can be had in the $3,000-$5,000 range.
If you're a guy and think this watch will be too small for you, consider that this may be the perfect vintage gift for your significant other.