Features: Bonklip And Beyond - How Rolex Aced Its Bracelet Game
Handling a Rolex for the very first time, your eyes may be trained on the dial but you’re also subliminally taking in the reassuring feel of the bracelet. We’re loath to get all hot-under-the-collar, ‘Fifty Shades’ on you, but there’s an indefinable pleasure to be derived from clasping it in your fingers and running your thumb along those meticulously polished links.
Bullet-smooth, oak-solid and a tactile delight, Rolex’s bracelets, like everything else about the brand, are among the finest around. Versions like the Jubilee, Oyster and President are almost as iconic as the watches they’re attached to and, as with anything made by Rolex, have spawned an avalanche of imitations.
A Rolex Day-Date on a President bracelet
They’re the result of stringent tests and endless tweaking and refining, from their form and function to the alchemic innovation of their metals.
But it took Rolex decades to perfect the fine art of the bracelet, ironing out a number of irritating glitches along the way, before a smart business move in the nineties ensured the quality was taken up a further notch or two.
Birth of the watch bracelet
Think of a Rolex today and it’s a Submariner on a shiny steel Oyster bracelet that enters your mind’s eye, right?
Yet the earliest Rolexes, like all men’s watches of the early 20th century, came with an unremarkable leather strap. This was a perfectly adequate material for normal every-day use, though it no doubt fared worse in the muddy carnage of the First World War battlefield.
The emergence of the steel bracelet in the 1920s, then, was likely due to the need for extra durability and resilience, with wristwatches a firmly established utilitarian accessory by that time.
When Rolex decided to start putting bracelets on its watches — also in the 1920s — it turned to a specialist in the field, Gay Freres. This Swiss-based company was founded in 1835, long before the dawn of the wristwatch, and so its background was in pocket watch chains. But since successfully adapting to the brave new world of the wristwatch, business was booming.
A bonklip bracelet on an early Rolex. Image courtesy of Bonhams
One of the first types of watch bracelet was the ‘bonklip’, said to be invented by GF itself, and this was used by Rolex on some of its early models. Looking rather like the squeezed-up rungs of a ladder, this style of bracelet was a common sight on men’s wrists for a decade or so before becoming as old fashioned as monocles and pipe-smoking.
Striving to be different
‘Common’, however, is something Rolex has always turned up its nose at. After all, this is a company that has strived to carve its own identity in the industry, setting high benchmarks and standing out from the crowd.
Its cases, dials and movements were different from its rivals but its bracelets were identikit affairs used by other brands. Which was hardly surprising given that Gay Freres also supplied the likes of Patek Philippe, Omega, Heuer (as TAG Heuer was then called) and Vacheron Constantin.
What Rolex desperately needed was a stand-out bracelet that was every bit as superior and distinctive as its watches. And this came in the form of the Oyster bracelet, released in the 1930s, which was paired with its Oyster Perpetual watch.
A modern version of Rolex's much-imitated Oyster bracelet
With its flat three-piece links construction, it was the perfect blend of aesthetics and functionality and the ideal match for Rolex’s waterproof model. Finally Rolex had a bracelet it could call its own, and one that even today is most associated with the brand.
Over the following decades, Rolex developed other bracelet designs that are now standard throughout its catalogue, including the five-link Jubilee, introduced with the Datejust model in 1945, and the President – a cross between the two – used on the ‘President’ or Day Date models.
The Jubilee bracelet is found on the Datejust model
Steel and precious metal bracelets might not perish the way leather does. But even the design boffins at Rolex have yet to create some indestructible Terminator-like polyalloy that can ‘heal’ itself after being damaged (although read on to see how it can’t be too far off).
Recurring problems with bracelets included stretching – caused by riveted links flattening out with long-term use, and the pins holding the links together elongating – and issues with the centre links being hollow. The latter also meant that the bracelets could sound, well, a little ‘tinny’ sometimes.
But, as ever, Rolex finds solutions to even the most niggling problems. The stretching of the riveted links was solved by a move to folded steel links, while the hollow links, which had a nasty habit of getting clogged up with dirt, were eventually replaced by solid ones, giving the bracelets a heavier, denser, more robust feel.
In the seventies, Gay Freres continued to supply rival brands while Rolex must have looked on like some cuckolded jealous spouse. GF manufactured the now-iconic bracelets for both Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak, as well as the elegant ‘beads of rice’ bracelet.
But you can’t keep a brand like Rolex down for long.
In 1985 it again gained an advantage over its competitors, becoming the first wristwatch manufacturer to use 904L grade steel in its watches. Taking a higher polish than other grades of steel, such as the industry standard 316L, and providing greater corrosion resistance, 904L is a metal used by the aerospace industry.
Also, its higher chromium content forms an impervious barrier on the steel’s surface when exposed to oxygen. So basically if the bracelet gets scratched then the chrome oxide barrier instantly fills and protects it. Currently, the only other watch brand to use this steel is Ball.
Rolex's Glidelock clasp is among its newest innovations
Despite all this, Rolex continued to be slightly hamstrung by the fact that it relied on an external supplier for its bracelets. This finally changed in 1998 when, as part of becoming a vertically integrated company, it bought out Gay Freres, giving it control of every step of the production process. And it’s certainly made the most of it.
Since the acquisition, Rolex has refined its bracelets even further, with the Glidelock clasp – giving a more accurate fit around the individual wearer’s wrist – one of its standout innovations. It means that a Rolex has never felt so comfortable and reassuring on the wrist, providing all the things you crave when wearing a wallet-busting watch.
Looking for a Rolex watch? Click here to shop now