Rolex's Charming Prince

by Michael Friedberg

January 23, 2001

  Understanding contemporary mechanical watches today requires an understanding of their history. Given the superior timekeeping qualities of the quartz wristwatch, the modern mechanical watch in large part represents a tribute to craft and tradition. 

Today, there are relatively few rectangular watches and even fewer shaped movements. Some knowledgeable observers have claimed that the quintessential shape of the wristwatch is round –a representation of the earth, the sun, the moon and indeed the universe. The rectangular wristwatch, at least to this line of thought, devolves a watch into an object of fashion and style. On the other hand, one could argue that the wristwatch is a form of industrial art, for which its style is part of its very being.

When we think of rectangular wristwatches today, our thinking often gravitates towards the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso. The  importance of the Reverso today might be explained as  a living tribute to a design created almost 70 years ago. Although the Reverso went into hibernation for a period some 40 years ago, it is one of a few popular rectangular wristwatches today. While its relatively unique popularity cannot be explained by one factor, undoubtedly its style reflects a particular period in the history of design.

In the 1920s and 1930s, rectangular wristwatches probably were more popular than round ones. After evolving from pocket watches and the round trench watches of World War I, in the 1920s the watch companies liberated themselves from traditional round shapes. Rectangular, square, and tonneau shaped cases all were extremely popular. The Longines at left, circa 1920, is a paradigm example.

This break from tradition should be placed in a broader social context. The 1920s were an age of the flapper, of bobbed hair, of  new music. Architecture broke from classical origins and begat Art Deco designs, playing with lines and curves. It was an age of experiment and departure from tradition. 

The products of watch companies  mirror  the society in which they exist. In the 1920s, watch companies could focus on fashion, liberating themselves from tradition as well as the utilitarian requirements of World War I. The rectangular watch looked slim, almost chic, and the lines of the strap would accent the lines of the watch. It no longer was a pendant watch or pocket watch strapped to the wrist, but rather an object in its own right. 

The Swiss wristwatch industry grew tremendously during this period, experimenting with new designs that broke with tradition. Accompanying that design revolution was an engineering evolution: there were new movements, new water resistant cases and new winding systems. But shortly after the Roaring 20s came to a screeching halt with the October 24, 1929 stock market crash, the Swiss wristwatch industry came to a standstill. Several important companies could not sell watches: Audemars Piguet produced only 54 watches in 1931, and only two by 1932. International Watch Company made only 600 watch movements in 1932, and all those were for pocket watches. 

It was within this social context that the Rolex Prince emerged. Hans Wilsdorf, a marketing genius, continuously experimented with new ideas to sell more watches. During the boom years of the 1920s, he popularized the Rolex Oyster watches with their water-resistant cases. When Mercedes Gleitz swam the English Channel with a wristwatch strapped to her wrist, Wilsdorf achieved a marketing coup. During the dark years of the Great Depression, he continued with new ideas to sell more wristwatches, including the Rolex Perpetual models –the first popular self-winding watches with a rotor,  which were introduced in late 1933 or 1934.  Today, when we think of Rolex we think of the Oyster Perpetual and its progeny, including the round Submariner, Explorer and Daytona models.

This hindsight may be a revisionist view of history. The third key model from Rolex during this same period was its Prince. A beautiful watch, but one that was neither water-resistant nor self-winding. And of course it was rectangular, a shape that infrequently has survived and one that has not been used by Rolex for many years.. Although the Prince did have a high-quality movement, it really was a stylistic exercise. It was an elegant watch.  Clearly a product of the 1920s, the fine design of the Prince in the 1930s allowed a Depression-era clientele to retain a symbol of luxury. Rolex advertising promoted the Prince as "the watch for men of distinction" .

If the Rolex Prince primarily represented an object of fashion, it did so with aplomb. Introduced in 1928 –shortly after the Oyster advertising campaign following Miss Gleitz's swim, the Prince sported a movement developed a few years before. This movement, by Hermann Aegler, was a shaped (rectangular) one, which had its winding barrel at one end and a large balance at the other end. This theoretically allowed a larger barrel, which in turn allowed a longer mainspring – and therefore longer autonomy (reportedly 58 hours). At the same time, this layout theoretically allowed a larger balance in a small watch, increasing accuracy. The movement, which is depicted at right and is from a similar watch by Gruen, shows the balance at the top and the barrel at the bottom. When used in the Rolex, the movement was regulated in six positions and often was sold as a Chronometer.

Many models of the Prince were produced. The original two models were the Prince Classic (ref. 1343) and the especially famous Prince Brancard (ref. 971), as depicted at right. The Prince Brancard has the famous case with flared sides or what Rolex called the "outer frame". In French, "brancard" means "stretcher". Many stylistic dial variations were made, as well as case variations, including the use of different metals. But the characteristic case shape and dial layout always are present in Brancard models. The Classic did not have flared sides.

The unusual movement layout of both the Classic and the Brancard allowed the seconds subdial to be below the hours-minutes dial. As a result the dial design split the dial into what amounted to two faces. This frequently was called a "Doctor's watch" or "Nurse's watch" because the relatively large subsidiary seconds dial was easily readable and useful for functions like pulse readings.

Other  subsequent Prince models included a rare "Tiger Stripe" model and platinum variation of the Prince Brancard. A steel model was introduced in 1934, which then was followed by two other important models. One was the Railway Prince (ref. 1527), which is shown at left with both rose and white gold case elements.  The other important model  was the H.S. –a jumping hour version with a hour wheel, showing the hour through a window  instead of a hand indicator. 

Later models included a "junior" Prince (appropriately called the Dauphine) and a Sporting Prince, a jumping hour version as a hunter-cased pocketwatch. In 1940, a wedge-shaped case –the ref. 3362—was introduced followed by ref. 3937, which had a slightly more "modern" look. This latter design also was used in the so-called "Quarter Century" watches, which were given to employees for 25 years of service by a Canadian department store. These models had a custom made dial showing  "1/4-C-e-n-t-u-r-y-C-l-u-b" instead of the usual 12 Arabic numerals. 

Gruen made an extraordinarily similar watch to the Prince, using the same Aegler movement. Apparently, Rolex distribution in the late 1920s and '30s was focused on the English market (where Wilsdorf and Davis originally established their watch business) and Europe (where Wilsdorf and Davis relocated, and Aegler lived). Gruen was given the rights in the United States by Aegler. The Gruen models, frequently called Duo-Dials or Doctors' watches, have somewhat different cases and dials, and today sell for  less than the Prince.

It is not known when the Prince finally died. Models continued until the mid-1940s, but at some point the model lost its sense of grace as tastes changed and Rolex continued to experiment with new designs. Pictured at right is a 1940s Prince "Super Precision Aerodynamic" (ref. 3361) which dispensed with the characteristic seconds subdial altogether.  This model, actually introduced in 1939,  was asymmetric and thicker at the top than bottom. At one point Rolex even used the Prince name on a pocket watch that had the characteristic two dial design. At least one Rolex rectangular wristwatch with "Prince" on the dial from 1952 has been identified. But Rolex marketing by then was focusing on other models and in other directions. Perhaps shaping popular taste, or at least reflecting it, Rolex found that circular watches –and sportier ones-- were what sold. By the 1950s, function preceded elegance.

There is no doubt that the Rolex Prince was a product of its times. It was born in the 1920s, during a period of experimentation and a departure from the classic round watch. It reached its zenith in the 1930s, when a world in the midst of a Depression wanted to retain something stylish and luxurious. Despite its fine and cleverly designed movement, the Prince really was an exercise in style. And a great exercise at that.

Copyright 2001   All Rights Reserved

Michael Friedberg/PastTime

Special thanks to (which provided the images of Rolex Prince, white background), Antiquorum (which provided the images of the Rolex Prince, black background, and the Reverso), Gisbert Joseph (who provided the images of the Gruen and its movement), and Clemens von Halem (who provided the Longines image).


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