I typically write about complications or timepieces that fail to get the recognition they deserve. In the case of Rolex, however, there’s no claiming a lack of attention. Every watch brand hopes to have a timepiece in its catalog that ascends the ranks to become an industry icon. When it comes to Rolex, it would be faster to list the models that haven’t reached that level. Even the tiniest change in a Rolex model’s dimensions, shape, or dial inscription garners careful examination by watch enthusiasts and journalists alike. It’s not every brand that can successfully improve upon and adapt iconic designs again and again without diluting their DNA. While some decry a lack of creativity, Rolex fans consider this unwavering consistency one of Rolex’s greatest strengths.
While this certainly holds true for the external appearances of Rolex timepieces, it’s a different story inside the watches. Opening the case, you won’t find any outdated movements but rather state-of-the-art technology. Let’s take a closer look at the calibers that power the models in this legendary brand’s current catalog.
Conservative Design, Forward-Thinking Technology
We’ll start with the ultimate Rolex model: the Submariner. The latest reference from 2020 finally comes with the finest modern caliber the brand has to offer. Considering sister company Tudor began using modern movements with 70-hour power reserves quite some time ago, this is a long-overdue step. Rolex’s newest 3200 series of calibers also boasts a 70-hour power reserve and now appears across three-hand models as well as those with minor complications. Following its debut in the Day-Date in 2015, this updated caliber would go on to power the GMT-Master II, Oyster Perpetual, and Sea-Dweller. The Submariner, on the other hand, had to wait quite a while for its movement evolution.
The 3200 Caliber Series
The new Submariner No-Date ref. 124060 features the caliber 3230. The first two numerals indicate the movement’s generation, while the latter two indicate any complication(s). The shift from the 3130 to the 3230 marks a new era in technology for the Submariner line. Movements that end in “30” do without any additional complications. This is the case for the current Submariner No-Date, as well as models in the Oyster Per#petual 36 line. The Submariner Date houses the caliber 3235, while the caliber 3255 with day and date displays exclusively powers the Day-Date. The caliber 3285, in turn, boasts a second time zone plus a date. This movement finds its home in the current GMT-Master II.
If you cover the main features of the 3200 caliber family, you’ve already explored most of the movements currently used by Rolex. With the exception of a few movements from the 3100 series, the only other movements the Swiss brand uses are several chronograph movements, the 9001 from the Sky-Dweller collection, and the 2236, which is found in a number of women’s watches. We’ll touch more on these movements a bit later.
Before we move on, however, let’s focus on some important key facts about the 3200 generation of calibers. Rolex was able to improve the power reserve to 70 hours by enhancing the design and adopting new components rather than lowering the oscillation frequency. The latter approach is popular among less expensive movement manufacturers. Rolex did not compromise on its frequency and, thus, the new calibers continue to run at 28,000 vibrations per hour (vph) or 4 Hz. Considering their quality standards go above and beyond those of chronometer testing, we would expect nothing less.
The improved power reserve comes down to a few key changes: First, the barrel’s internal diameter was expanded to fit a longer spring. This demonstrates that the 3200 family was less a caliber revolution than an evolution of the previous 3100 series. Despite the manufacturer’s claims of “90% revised and optimized” components, it is easy to see the links between new and old at first glance.
The lion’s share of the additional power reserve can be attributed to the state-of-the-art escapement. The component’s new design has undergone a significant amount of development and simulation. The complexity of the new geometric escapement system, referred to as Chronergy, leaves no doubt that these are high-tech components. They are made of a nickel-phosphorus alloy and manufactured using the LIGA process, making them anti-magnetic like the Glucydur balance wheel. The striking blue hairspring is made of Rolex’s own Parachrom alloy and features an optimized end curve.
You may be wondering how changes in the escapement lead to an increased power reserve. Well, to start, it is much more efficient, which means more energy arrives at the balance wheel instead of being lost as heat due to friction. With a similar goal in mind, Rolex also improved the efficiency of the gear train. Overall, the manufacturer managed to increase the power reserve from 48 to 70 hours without impacting the overall layout of the movement.
The most striking visual innovation is the shift from a bushing to a ball bearing on the movement’s bidirectional automatic module. This is held in place with a distinctive single screw that can only be loosened using a special tool. Whether this is truly an improvement remains up for debate in the watch community. For example, Oris recently presented their caliber 400, which they don’t expect to revise for another 10 years. They made the conscious decision to use a bushing-style bearing, similar to that used by Rolex in the past, as well as a single-sided winding module. We can’t say which is the most sensible solution, but Rolex will have certainly had its reasons for changing the rotor bearing.
All of the visible and invisible improvements have certainly brought the aging Submariner caliber 3135 (in use since 1988) up to speed. Rolex has adopted state-of-the-art manufacturing processes and materials without completely discarding the movement’s tried and tested base structure. This approach fits in nicely with Rolex’s philosophy of consistency and approaching change with caution. Only time will tell if the 3200 family can look forward to a decades-long career or not.
The 4100 Caliber Series
It’s no secret among Rolex fans that the brand used to reply on Valjoux movements and later the 4030, a heavily modified Zenith El Primero, prior to creating their own in-house chronograph caliber for the Daytona. Anyone thinking this may be a more affordable path to getting their hands on a Daytona is mistaken; these models are far from a bargain.
It’s unthinkable today that Rolex would use ébauche movements in their watches; however, the Daytona didn’t feature an in-house caliber until the turn of the millennium. The 4130 is now exclusively used in this model. From the very beginning, the 4130 featured a ball-bearing rotor, thus paving the way for the 3200 series. On the other hand, this movement has a “conventional” escapement as opposed to Rolex’s modern Chronergy system. Moreover, the shock protection was initially supplied by KIF Parechoc. Rolex outfits newer movements from the past few years with their in-house Paraflex shock protection system. Tracing the history of movement innovations is a good way to see the steady increase in the brand’s vertical manufacturing processes.
Both the 4130 and its sister movement, the 4161 from the Yacht-Master II, are integrated column-wheel chronographs with 72-hour power reserves and frequencies of 4 Hz. In short, these movements are an all-around great package for fans of mechanical chronographs. The 4130 stands 7.5 mm tall, while the 4161 is just over 8 mm thick. Instead of a classic chronograph function, the latter features a regatta countdown timer.
The Caliber 9001
Rolex’s most complex and unique movement to date is the 9001 found in the Sky-Dweller collection. This watch’s dial does not do justice to the clever mechanics at work behind it. While the focus is on the second time zone and date display, there is actually an annual calendar that can account for different lengths of months. The calendar only has to be adjusted once a year at the end of February. The month is subtly displayed via a window on the dial’s outer edge.
The coolest feature made possible by a complex mechanical module, however, is only revealed when adjusting the watch. You can select three positions using the rotating bezel, which in turn determines what is adjusted with the crown. You can choose between adjusting the month and date, the local time, or your home time without the need for fiddly crown positions or separate pushers. I must say, this solution is both convenient and technically impressive.
The Caliber 2236
You could call the caliber 2236 “the little movement for smaller models,” but you’d be sorely mistaken. Although it retains some technical features from older generations and can only be found in the Yachtmaster 37 and Lady Datejust, this movement contains some very special technology. Instead of the blue Parachrom hairspring, the 2236 is the only Rolex movement to feature a silicon hairspring with a silicon oxide coating. This coating significantly reduces its sensitivity to temperature fluctuations and is responsible for helping silicon hairspring technology make their breakthrough. It is the product of a joint research project supported by Patek Philippe, the Swatch Group, and Rolex together with the CSEM institute. As a result, each of the companies secured rights to the technology. Thus, when the Richemont Group presented a silicon hairspring in their Clifton Baumatic timepiece, legal disputes arose. Subsequent Baumatic watches ceased to feature silicon hairsprings. That being said, there are a number of other companies using silicon hairsprings on the market, and they seem to be left undisturbed. The exact legal situation remains unclear, especially considering that different springs use different manufacturing processes. In any case, Rolex caught on early, invested the time and money, and was one of the first to use the technology.
The Syloxi hairspring made its debut in the caliber 2236 in 2014. Since then, the technology has not moved beyond this caliber, and all other updated calibers have been fitted with the tried and tested Parachrom hairspring. It would seem as though Rolex’s plan is to continue using both technologies in parallel with one another. The Syloxi hairspring appears to be destined for compact and slim movements since it is completely two-dimensional and does without an upward-curling final coil, unlike the Parachrom hairspring.