James Dowling is one of the world’s respected authorities on Rolex and writes for The Telegraph and Rolex’s in-house magazine. Here, he shares his lifelong love affair with his quartz Rolex Ref 5100, the brand’s first quartz model and an inadvertent predecessor of Audemars Piguet’s iconic Royal Oak
As my Instagram handle’s @misterrolex, it should come as no surprise that my favourite watch is a Rolex; however, if you knew me, it would also come as no surprise that it’s not a normal Rolex. Whenever I wear it, I hear, ‘What is that?’
The timepiece in question is a white-gold Reference 5100, which is very unusual in so many ways. It’s only the second limited-edition watch ever made by Rolex (it made only 1,000 numbered pieces, and mine is 800), it’s the house’s first quartz model and, while it could be considered a commercial failure (1,000 watches is a drop in the proverbial ocean for the brand), its design proved to be a breakthrough).
In the mid-1960s, when Rolex decided to look into the possibilities of quartz, I was at college. At the end of 1969, when Seiko launched the world’s first quartz wristwatch, I was working on an archaeological dig in the Middle East. By the following March, when Rolex launched its first quartz model, I’d returned to the UK and all of this history-in-the-making had passed me by. I’d just bought my first ‘real’ watch, a Tissot PR516, in duty-free, little knowing I’d taken my first steps into horological addiction. I fell in and out of love with several timepieces until, by the end of the 1970s, I was very satisfied with my Cartier Tank and Rolex GMT Master.
Then I was introduced to vintage watches and the die was cast. Like every other collector of the time, I had nothing but contempt for quartz. It had taken accurate timekeeping away from craftsmen and made it available to anyone who could place a mass-produced chip inside a plastic case. I didn’t see it as democratisation; instead, I saw it as akin to the barbarians sacking the library of Alexandria and destroying the knowledge of a thousand years.
In the mid-1980s, as I was writing my history of Rolex, I came across the story of the Beta 21, the first Swiss quartz watch in which the brand was an active participant. I sought one out and, when I held it in my hands, I was intrigued. This was my first encounter with the 5100, and it was unlike every other quartz watch I had ever seen. The seconds hand didn’t ‘step’ between each second – it swept in a continuous motion like a mechanical watch. It had a couple of Rolex signatures, such as the cyclops lens on the crystal (the first use of sapphire glass on one of its men’s watches) and the milled bezel. But nothing else looked like a Rolex. The bracelet was neither a President, a Jubilee nor an Oyster and, most unusually, it was integrated into the design of the watch. But what most impressed me was its size – it had a heft like no other.
The problem was that it was 240g of yellow gold. Then I discovered that around 20 per cent of the production was made in white gold, so I made it my mission to locate one. This proved more difficult than I’d thought, because, in the early 1990s, nobody cared about vintage quartz. Also, the price of gold had gone through the roof, so many of these watches were being melted down. But after three years of searching, I found one in Munich and considered myself fortunate.
About six years ago, I wore the watch while interviewing Fabrizio Buonamassa, the creative director of Bulgari, which owned the Gérald Genta company. He told me that the 5100 was the only watch that Genta had designed for Rolex, pointing out the similarities between it and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, which Genta had designed four years later. It may well have been a commercial failure for Rolex, but it indirectly led to one of the most successful watch designs of the 20th century. And, more importantly, it still makes me smile every time I glance at it on my wrist.