Tuesday, March 19, 2013

1935. Durban Rolex

A couple of years ago a watch came in as part of a modest estate sale. It was rectangular shaped, with a steel case, and signed "Rolex" on the dial. Not a model I've seen before - so I decided to examine it closely at some later stage.

Going through bits and pieces today, I've "found" it again. It turned out as a perfect candidate for a "show and tell" segment of my blog.

The first question one has to ask when examining a vintage piece is one related to originality. Is the watch made by the maker who signed the dial? Is it completely original or a well put-together fake? Has it been restored at some point in time and did the restorer use components which are original or aftermarket?

Obviously this requires serious detective work and especially so with models not previously handled. With this particular watch, I had a few concerns.

The dial was definitely an original one, a typical 1930s style. However the "Rolex" writing was slightly too bold for my taste.

The case back was signed RWC Ltd which stands for Rolex Watch Company. However, the absence of usual markings (like for example, "25 world records") was another puzzling detail. But the worst of all was the movement itself: it was completely blank with no markings, calibre numbers, serial numbers or anything that would associate it with Rolex company.

At best, the watch looked like a well put-together piece, made to deceive.

But then again, who would fake a rather modest timepiece which even if all-original could not be sold for more than a few hundred dollars? And most importantly, if the watch was a fake, why did the scammer not engrave the mechanism with the word "Rolex"? After all, this is what an untrained eye is looking for - a definitive and convincing 'proof' of originality.

There was yet another possibility: that the genuine Rolex dial was at some point in time attached to an unknown, generic movement, or, even worse, that a completely anonymous watch would have the word "Rolex" written on it (and case back stamped with RWC) - which would be the worst scenario of all.

Obviously, in order to solve the mystery, I needed to dig deeper - to do more research and pull the mechanism apart.

The first evidence that the watch is a genuine piece came after removing the dial and hands. There, on the main plate was a nicely engraved "Rolex Geneve".

Not only is the engraving identical in shape and size to many I've seen before, but it was partially oxidized, to the same degree as the rest of the movement - which was proof that it has not been engraved at some later stage. This was good news indeed.

However, it was still puzzling why this particular movement had no serial numbers nor Rolex calibre number. It was time to pull out from my cabinet a book of old Swiss movements catalogue from 1954

While the identification took a bit of time, I was able to determine that the mechanism was actually manufactured by Fabrique d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon (FHF). And more precisely, it was calibre FHF 29.

FHF is one of the oldest and largest Swiss movement manufacturers. Rolex used FHF blanks for their export models. For example, Rolex 59 was a modified FHF 30, which, was exported to Canada from 1935-1945.

The movement identification process itself is a unique one, and worth mentioning. Universally, the identification of a movement is based on the mark and number engraved on the back plate, either beneath the dial (like in my case) or beneath the escapement. The Swiss movement catalogue from 1954 provides further help: "If there is no mark or number engraved on the dial-side of the plate, identification is performed in the following way: the 3 setting parts exposed on the dial side of the plate are the so called "fingerprints" of a movement. In order to facilitate identification, each movement is shown with its setting parts in EXACT SIZE."

In other words, by placing those 3 setting parts (setting lever, cover plate and yoke) over the hundreds of images in the catalogue, one could identify the actual movement maker and calibre! Not an easy task! And my watch was an export model too: the dial was signed both "Rolex" and "Randles Durban". The Randles were South African jewellers who sold Rolex watches.

After the Great Depression, watch importers have done their best to keep the cost of imported watches as low as possible. And back then, Rolex was just another struggling Swiss maker. For that reason, some Rolex (modified FHF) movements were cased in the country of destination. Compared to later models or those sold in Europe, overseas cases looked far less elaborate, thinner and even less dust-proof. Rarely, they were signed with anything but RWC.

Thanks to Google, I discovered that for a short period of time, Randles from Durban sold other Rolex models, including chronographs. Unfortunately, not many watches survived to this day.

With all three crucial watch components examined and researched (watch dial, case, and mechanism), I was able to conclude that this Durban Rolex is definitely a 100% original and unaltered piece. The fact that the watch itself cannot be found in any Rolex reference books I have in my library just proves once again that our knowledge and understanding of Rolex manufacturing history is far from definite. This is especially the case with lesser popular models from the 1930s which are not sought after by Rolex collectors.

The next step was to overhaul the movement (what else one can do when movement is already in pieces!).

After assembly and lubrication - and some minor adjustment - the watch proved itself as reasonably good timekeeper. Not bad for an 80 year old timepiece!

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