One of the rarest, perhaps the rarest Rolex known to exist doesn’t exactly pop-up for sale everyday! This May 13th Christies will put one of a handful of famed 3346 ‘Zerographe’ Chronographs watches known to exist up for auction.
By the 1930’s Rolex wanted to produce a chronograph with an in-house movement to bolster its position as watchmaker to the sporting set. They did market a number of choice chronographs, but all were fitted with outsourced movements (Ref. 2811 for example is also presented in a different lot of the same upcoming auction). The 1937 Zerographe represents a rare glimpse into the mind(s) of Rolex by allowing us to witness its first crude steps towards producing a functional, in-house chronograph movement.
To achieve their goal, Rolex took 32mm Oyster case and Oyster screw-down crown. It is the first ever Rolex fitted with a rotating bezel; this example features intricately indexed series of markings: Arabic numerals at 5, 10, 20, 25, 35, 40, 50 and 55; black markers for 56 of the 60 units, red markers at 60, 15, 30, and 45.
To make the Zerographe tick (so to speak) they used an in-house 17 jewel, 10 ½ linges (23.3mm) manual wind movement and elaborated it with a handful of extra components to create a primitive ‘fly-back’ function. Depressing the button mounted at 2 o’clock on the case causes the center, continuously sweeping second hand to instantaneously STOP and to go to zero. Release the button and the seconds begin to sweep. Press the button and the seconds stop and return to zero. Nothing more.
Intended for timing single, continuous events the Zerographe is slightly inelegant to operate. Example: Perhaps you want to time one of the horses in your stable as it goes around a track:
- use the rotating bezel to align the minute hand with the double red lines at 60 on the graduated bezel.
- Press and HOLD the button at 2 down to reset and stop the seconds at zero.
- Wait for the Starter to fire his gun and release the button! (At this point the second hand (and hopefully your horse) start running!)
- As the horse approaches the finish line keep a close eye on those seconds because you have NO WAY to stop them where they are – only return them to ZERO AGAIN! (Minutes will have elapsed in accordance and are easily read on the graduated bezel.)
All-in-all a pretty horrendous state of affairs, no? NOT SO FAST! This was Rolex’s first, and I do mean first endeavor to create their own in-house chronograph movement. While I would have to admit that the functionality of this design is contentious, it will work. It can measure elapsed time!
Once again, retreating to all my books and all the information that I can muster from all of the reputable online resources (no, not ‘Wiki Answers!’) what we can be fleshed out about the Zerographe is that there are possibly only as many of seven of them in existence – with only as many as four having ever been identified!
Wonky or not, this watch represents more of a milestone and a test bed than a finished product for Rolex. The Rolex we all know and ‘love’ today is an incredibly secretive organization; the Company does little in the way of publishing its historical landmarks. What is known about Rolex’s historical production is a patchwork, pieced together by numerous independent brand historians with their collective works and auction houses (like Christies). With the image they maintain it would be very, very hard to think that a model like the 3346 would ever make it off the bench of the technician who built it, let alone into the hands of a collector!
Case In Point:
Lot # 179 of the upcoming Christie’s auction in Geneve will present Ref. 3346, case number 146276 is in (what Christie’s describes as) “award-winning” condition. The case, bracelet, bezel and black California dial with gilt rail style chapter ring and “Unbreakable Glass” crystal give no hints that the watch is 76 years old. All of the markings on the inside and outside of the case are stunningly clear. The movement appears to be in totally flawless condition.
Price: (Not normally something I like to discuss) preliminary auction estimates are between CHF 250,000 and CHF 350,000. I never like to tell people how or when to spend their hard-earned money (but) if you can, you really should! This watch represents so many different and important things about Rolex to collectors. First ever in-house chronograph movement; first rotating bezel on a Rolex watch; first ever Oyster case and crown on a chronograph… This watch is quite literally the bridge between the Bubbleback Oysters of the early 20th century and later models like the Thunderbird, the Turn-o-graph, the Submariner, the Daytona, not to mention all of the Oyster cased chronographs in-between.
Comes with original box. No papers. Click here to go to the Christie’s website.
We’d like to thank Hodinkee for the brilliant photos of the actual watch! The photo os the movement was sourced from the internet. All other photos are courtesy Hodinkee. Here’s a link to the article on Hodinkee.