If Rolex is famous for its timeless references and innovations that shaped modern watchmaking, there are however a few unknown models whose name only remains in the mind of a handful of collectors: The Rolex 5100 is one of them. Produced in limited quantities between 1970 and 1972, it is the very first Quartz watch in the history of the brand, way before its descendant - the Rolex OysterQuartz - which will not see the light of day until 7 years later.
To this day, the Rolex 5100 remains an iconic but strange piece of work in the watchmaking landscape, with a story that is no less fascinating…
The story of our 5100 dates back to 1962. Japan and Switzerland were in fierce competition to develop the world's first Quartz wristwatch, a technology that was then considered as the future of watchmaking.
In the same vein, 21 major watchmaking companies including Rolex decided to combine their knowledge by creating a consortium, the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH). The objectives of this joint project were clear: Face the threat of Quartz, support the transition between mechanical watchmaking and analog watchmaking, and do everything possible to create the first Swiss Quartz movement.
This union will generate a first working prototype in 1966 with the Beta-1 movement, which will give way to its final version in 1969 with the Beta-21 movement.
As soon as it was put into production, 16 watchmakers fitted the Beta-21 into watches designed for the occasion. Among these, Rolex, which arrived on the market in 1970 with a watch with an ultra-disruptive design: The reference 5100.
The Rolex 5100 was, at its launch, the most advanced watch in the entire catalog. In addition to being one of the very first Swiss Quartz wristwatches in the world, it was also the first Rolex in the world equipped with a Sapphire crystal, but also the first Rolex equipped with a Quickset function allowing faster adjustment of the date function.
And if our 5100 was a true technological showcase for Swiss watchmaking, it was also an excellent communication medium for Rolex, and a concentrate of opulence…
Thus, in addition to being the most expensive piece ever offered in the Rolex catalog, the watch was only produced in an ultra-limited series of 1,000 copies, including two versions: One in 18-carat yellow gold, the other in 18 carat yellow gold and diamond indexes. A tiny amount of this production was also constructed in white gold.
Aesthetically, it is one of the most unusual pieces from Rolex, which for the first time tried its hand at designing a watch with an integrated bracelet, which was very fashionable at the time. We find a set with unusual dimensions, with thick links and a 40mm case: The set will not be too much to house a Beta-21 movement of titanic dimensions. And even if no one knows precisely who designed the watch, its stunning looks and resemblance with Gerald Genta drawings were more than enough to raise doubts…
RECEPTION AND CRITICS
When it was officially launched at BaselWorld in 1970, the watch was so well received that the planned 1,000 copies were all sold off the catalog before it was presented.
The 5100 seduces, obviously for its disruptive design and its avant-gardism, but also for its exclusivity. And as we can read in this excerpt taken from a period presentation, Rolex paid particular attention to its owners:
“At our headquarters in Geneva, we have a guestbook, a Who's Who of our clients who count a Rolex Quartz among their most prized possessions. They form the Rolex Quartz Club, one of the most exclusive clubs imaginable… Club members are always welcome at Rolex Geneva. On their first visit, they are invited to sign the Golden Register and can enjoy a personal tour of the world headquarters in Geneva.”
Each buyer automatically became a member of the Rolex Quartz Club, and was invited to all kinds of private events organized by Rolex, starting with a visit to their manufacture…
Despite an undeniable success, the production of the 5100 didn’t last long at all. Yes, the Beta-21 movement is certainly precise, efficient and functional… But it is not developed by Rolex. Frustrated by this observation and concerned about its image, the brand dissociated itself from the CEH in 1972 to begin the development of its own in-house Quartz movement, and stopped production of the model in the process.
Here is how ends the short career of the beloved Rolex 5100, the most expensive and advanced watch of its time. And if you wanted to find the watch another nickname... Well, customers at the used to give it the nickname "Texano". Even if we do not really know why, it could be because of a legend saying the whole watch was cut in a whole gold ingot. But the most likely answer is because in Texas, everything is bigger and opulent… Even Rolexes !