My love for vintage watches started with old Oysters from the 1950s and 60s. I used to collect the Rolex sale auction catalogues and loved the vintage Oysters with the multitude of dial variations and reference numbers. My first vintage watch was a Rolex Air King (reference 5500) with a dial that I have only seen on a couple of other watches. On its mint condition 6635 stretch-rivet bracelet it is still a watch I wear regularly 14 years later (I actually wrote about it here). Through all the Submariners and Chronos, I always come back to my old Oysters (both Rolex and Tudor) and particularly enjoy searching for examples with unusual dials.
It all started here 14 years ago – the Air King ref 5500
The Big 4-0
I hit a milestone birthday last year and to mark the occasion bought myself a watch I had been hunting for a while – a gilt dial Rolex Explorer reference 5500. It is beautiful and the glossy gilt dial is flawless. These gilt dialed sports watches have such a beautiful visual depth and when they catch the light in the right way…wow!!
My 40th Birthday gift – Gilt Explorer ref 5500
A Chance Encounter
The day after my birthday, I was going down to London to a Tudor event and was due to meet up with Bernhard and our friend Mike Wood. Unbeknownst to me, my wife actually arranged for Bernhard to fly over on my birthday as a surprise! We had a great time both on my birthday and in London, the latter of which involved a stroll up and down the Burlington Arcade looking at some of the watch shops.
A watch in one particular shop caught our attention and so we entered the shop and got talking to the proprietor, Mr Davide Halevim. The watch in question was a large size 1950s Oyster ‘Ovettone’ reference 6098 in beautiful condition with a straight endlink rivet bracelet in equally stunning condition. We were both really smitten by the watch. The asking price was quite significant, but for me the hunt began at that moment and so began the journey of acquiring a great watch
The 6098 at Davide Halevim
The Grandfather of Tool Watches
The 6098 was introduced in 1950 and was the precursor to one of the first ‘tool’ watches from Rolex. Featuring a large size two-piece case (36mm and 20mm lug width) and the Super Oyster Crown, the watch had a considerable depth due to the A296 perpetual movement, which necessitated the domed case back. This led to the watches nickname ‘Big Bubbleback’ or the Italian name ‘Ovettone’. In around 1953 Rolex introduced the reference 6298, which had a three piece case (pressure fit bezel and T21 crystal) and the 6mm ‘+’ twin-lock crown. The watches came in a multitude of dial styles and layouts including eventually the word EXPLORER…
left 6098 and right a 6298 (Eric Ku)
6298 with retailer – Joyera Riviera dial (watchesinrome.it)
‘Polar Explorer’ ref 6298 (Christies)
The Everest Explorers
The 6098 was actually the watch that accompanied the team on the Hillary expedition to conquer Everest in 1953. Rolex had supported earlier expeditions by Swiss and British teams, but were keen to get one of their watches to the summit of Everest. They delivered a total of thirteen 6098s to the Expedition Team across two deliveries (the first in 1952 to the advance research team and the second to the remaining expedition members who hadn’t been on the research trip the year before). Our friend Philip Stahl has written extensively about this on RPR, check his article out here. What we know now is the exact dial configuration of the Everest watches and it was this layout that I loved.
The actual 6098 worn by Dr Evans on the 1953 Everest Expedition (P Stahl)
The Chase Begins
One of the big frustrations with 50s Oysters is finding examples that are still intact with their original dials. So many of these pieces have repainted dials; either very old ‘not-so-bad’ ones or terrible modern abominations! As I showed you earlier, there were many different dial variations in the 6098 and 6298 – but I knew now that I wanted the same dial version as the expedition team took to Everest in 1953. It was simple…all I now had to do was find that needle in the haystack!
A Big Bubble
I had mentioned to a couple of people that I was looking for a 6298 and had been keeping my eye on the usual websites and auctions. Then out of the blue one day Eric Ku messaged me to say that he had just bought one. The glass was so crazed and chipped that it was hard to make out the dial beneath, but I could see it was my ‘dial of choice’ and that the case looked great. The watch needed a full movement overhaul and a new tropic crystal and so off it went to Eric’s watchmaker. Three weeks later it was on a Fedex Plane and headed to the UK to its new home!
My 6298 – with amazing patina dial in all original condition
The 6298’s original ‘+’ twin lock crown – an upgrade from the 6098’s ‘Super Oyster Crown’
The depth of these Big Bubblebacks gives them a big presence on the wrist
These watches really are amazing to wear. The classic vintage Oyster look in a case size that was big for its day. What struck me was the height of the watch, due to the bubble case back and domed crystal…it really has a lot of presence on the wrist, which is particularly accented when worn on a nato strap. One thing is for certain; this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, I believe it’s the beginning of a new chapter!