Rolex like other few Swiss watch manufacturers has successfully become a veritable iconic brand over the years.
The reasons of this huge success are: continual and important innovation in technological and technical fields, durability and efficiency of products, targeted marketing campaigns which have always been a hit, a strong brand identity.
In other words, Rolex has always had the uncommon skill to constantly renew its brand without compromising the design and functionality of its watches as well as its mission and corporate values.

In light of this, Rolex watches have become real objects of desire: for many people, however, they just represent cutting-edge pieces, something to possess to be fashionable.
For other, fewer people, on the contrary, these watches have become a real passion.
A passion which is not only generated by the willing of owning a luxury object but also driven by the desire to know and understand why, how and when a certain Rolex time-piece was designed and manufactured.
Driven by their own taste and interest, those passionate Rolex lovers haven’t only investigated the different watch models and references, but also their components like dials, movements, caseback and so forth.
Because of this variety of visceral passionate collectors which has no rivals in other swiss brands, the collector’s world of Rolex has become very complex and articulated over the years.
The demonstration of this is that the Rolex collector’s community has given many nicknames to watches and/or their components, names identifying some peculiar characteristics of certain objects.
Amongst them, we can mention the Patrizzi dial, Spider, Porcellana, APH, Bertolli bezel and many more fanciful names.
Let’s face it, anyone who isn’t a Rolex maniac can’t but smile before these funny nicknames given to timepieces characterised by tiny differences which can hardly be detected and defined.
A few of them are certainly rather bizarre and quite on the edge, some others, instead, truly have a reason to exist.
The reason why certain nicknames don’t just have an etymological meaning is that they actually tell us precise historical and technical details revealing how the Rolex Maison worked at the time.
Not everybody knows that Rolex has never been, if not only recently after a process of vertical integration and the building of new production sites, a watchmaking factory but a pure component assembler.
It was under the Heiniger’s family administration during the 90’s that Rolex became a true completely vertically integrated factory, able to produce by themselves dials, cases, bracelets and so on.
In the following pics you can see the evolution of the Rolex factory :

(Picture courtesy Perezscope)

(Picture courtesy Perezscope)

(Picture courtesy Hodinkee)

(Picture courtesy Hodinkee)

(Picture courtesy Hodinkee)

(Picture courtesy Hodinkee)

Back in the days Switzerland was a real industrial district aimed at the production, assembly and then sale of luxury watches.
It is fairly known fact that at the time there were many specialised factories exclusively producing components like: dials, (Stern Freres, Singer, Beyeler etc,identified by the stamp on the brass back of the dial), cases (Wenger, Spillmann, Vichet etc, recognizable by a numeric code inside the “Poincon de Matre” engraved on the casebacks), movements (Valjoux, Felsa, Eta detectable etc, by the symbol present on the movement plate).
Today most part of these historical companies have gone bankrupt because of the Quartz crisis or have been taken over by their commercial partners.

(Picture courtesy Google)

(Picture courtesy Google)

However these small entrepreneurial realities, with their “behind the scene” painstaking work, have had a major role in the development of the Swiss horological sector and this fact shall not be forgotten.
Moreover, we can definitely state that the majority of vintage watches that nowadays many people are passionate about, were the result of the collaboration between many individuals who, with their own flair and knowledge, could provide high quality and striking design components to important Maisons like Rolex.

(Picture courtesy Google)

Today, taking one of these components with a fanciful nickname as an example, that is to say the RAIL DIAL, I would like to demonstrate how a renowned company like Rolex had successfully co-operated for many years with a so-called subcontractor, in this case Stern Freres, belonging to the Swiss industrial watchmaking industry.
I suppose that those of you who are not so acquainted with the Rolex glossary, could wonder what a rail has to do with a Rolex dial, a fairly reasonable question indeed.
The coining of the term RAIL, whose creator still stands unknown, comes from the observation of the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” stamp on a few Rolex dials.
If you carefully look at it, you can well observe a clean space in between the aligned words “Superlative Chronometer” and “Officially Certified” as if to form an imaginary rail.
The Rolex references in which Rail dials can be found are the following : 1655, 1665, 16550, 16570.
I am well aware of the dispute going on about the right way to identify a real rail dial.
Indeed, few other Rolex models than the ones we just listed are often nicknamed as Rail.
However, I consider veritable rail dials only those watches that were actually produced by Stern Freres for two main reasons :
The first is that a Rail dial produced by Stern Freres that deserve this name do not only have the so-called “rail” graphic feature but they also share some other similar characteristics in the lettering.
The similarities which can be found in all Stern Freres Rail dials are  highlighted in the following comparison :
Secondly the spacing between “Superlative Chronometer” and “Officially Certified” is more tight or not so well aligned in dials that were not produced by Stern Freres.
This fact is shown by the following picture which depicts two dials often wrongly referred as Rail Dials :

(Single Pictures courtesy Chrono 24 – Collage VWCLTD)

All these photographic evidences bear that the real Rail Dials were most likely exclusively produced by Stern Freres.
To my knowledge, Rolex watches fitted with Rail dials produced by Stern Freres can be found at least from the seventies until early nineties.
This is testifying the synergy between Maisons and contractors, in this case Rolex and Stern Freres, has been in existence and profitable over the years.
In this picture you can see the front and the back of some Rolex Rail Dials  (1666, 1655, 16550) produced between the 70’s and the 90’s :

Obviously I am open to your suggestions about the filing of more Rolex models that come with a real rail graphic feature and they were actually produced by Stern Freres.
Rail dials are very much sought-after by the Rolex collector’s community: they are rare and produced in very few specimens, the serial number batches which are considered temporarily suitable to fit this peculiar kind of dial are restricted and collectors are often so much fascinated by such a characteristic that, they almost never get in the mood to separate themselves from a watch fitted with a rare rail dial.

(Pictures courtes jwlife37 – Instagram)

However, we were able, as long established vintage watch dealers, along with few other colleagues to purchase, sell or trade quite a few examples of the elusive Rolex Rail dial watches.
The following high-resolution pictures show some beautiful examples of real Rail dial Rolex timepieces :
Rolex Seadweller ref.1665 Rail Dial ser. 5,717,xxx circa 1979 :
Rolex Explorer  ref.1655 Rail Dial ser. 5,365,xxx circa 1977  :  
Rolex Explorer II 16550 cream Rail Dial ser. 8,957,xxx, circa 1986 :
Rolex Explorer II 16550 white Rail Dial ser. 8,766,xxx circa 1986 :
Rolex Explorer II 16550 Black Rail Dial ser. R,548,XXX circa 1987 :
Rolex Explorer II 16570 Cream Rail Dial ser.n,115, circa 1993 : (pictures courtesy of Carlo Cantelli Orologi) 
Hoping that you enjoyed reading this small research about the elusive Rail dial watches I suggest you to keep following our blog that will be constantly updated.
If you might have doubts or questions you can reach me directly at info@vwcltd.com
Andrea “Pyccy” Piccinini.

2 commenti

  • Carlo Sbraccia2 anni ago

    Thank you Andrea for this very interesting post. I believe a few 16760 were also produced with a mk 1 (no date) dial with no hyphen between GMT and MASTER II and a rail SCOC configuration. I can’t say for sure that the dial was made by Stern, but the fonts look remarkably similar to those used in the 16570 EXPLORER II. Happy to share a picture.

    reply

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