Blog: Rolex Prima, Extra and Ultra Prima
Date: 14 September 2022Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.
Rolex movements are seen marked Prima, Extra Prima and Ultra Prima. There doesn't seem to be much documented about the dates when these terms came into use, or exactly what they were used for, so I decided to do some digging.
Prima simply means first, and this term was in common use before Rolex was founded, as was extra prima, which was used to mean high quality. Prima seems to have been first used by Rolex in 1923.
However, the term “Ultra Prima” appears to have been invented by Hans Wilsdorf, and registered by him in 1930.
There are Rolex watches with cases that can be reliably dated to before 1930 with movements marked Ultra Prima. It has been suggested to me that the term might have been in use for some time before Wilsdorf decided to register it, but that doesn't seem likely to me. Bearing in mind Wilsdorf's prolific registration of every name he could think of, it seems unlikely that he would leave himself exposed to the possibility that someone else might copy or use the phrase and thereby prevent him from registering it.
It seems more likely that as soon as Wilsdorf had coined the phrase, he would he would have wanted to get it registered as quickly as possible and before making it public. Unless there is an earlier registration, which does not seem likely, then Extra Prima would have been first used in December 1930.
This begs the question; what about the Rolex watches with cases that can be reliably dated to before 1930 with movements marked Ultra Prima? It appears to me that these are most likely marriages of an older case with a newer movement. On what appears to be a reasonable assumption, that Ultra Prima movements were the very best, then many if not all of them would have been fitted with gold, often 18 carat gold, cases. Many gold cases have been melted over the years for their bullion value, leaving bare Ultra Prima movements looking for a home. How tempting it would be to “upgrade” a standard watch to Ultra Prima by exchanging the movement.
I can't say for sure that this is what happened - there might be an earlier registration of Ultra Prima (although I don't think there is). But in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
As always, if you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Prima, Extra and Ultra Prima
At some time Aegler started to mark higher quality movements supplied to Rolex with the word Prima, as in “Rolex - Prima”. The exact date when this began is not known, but from surviving watches it appears to have been in the 1920s. Dowling & Hess imply 1923. The word Prima was later supplemented for higher grades as Extra Prima and Ultra Prima.
Marconi Prima Registration 1923: Click image to enlarge
Extra Prima Cloth 1880s: Click image to enlarge
Ultra Prima Registration December 1930: Click image to enlarge
The first use registration of the word Prima by Hans Wilsdorf appears to have been in August 1923 as “Marconi Prima”. It would not have been possible to register the word Prima alone as it simply means first in several languages. Rather strangely, there appears to be no registration of “Rolex Prima”, which presumably would have been possible. However, registering Marconi Prima perhaps gave some protection against other watch manufacturers using the word Prima. At the same time, Wilsdorf registered Marconi Special, Marconi Standard and Utica (for “you ticker”?).
The phrase “Extra Prima” could not be registered at all, because it was already in everyday use implying high quality. The advert here for “Extra Prima” quality Seiden plush fabric is from the 1880s.
Ultra Prima was different, because it was a unique phrase not in everyday use. The first registration for Ultra Prima that has been seen is dated 9 December 1930 as shown in the image here.
It appears that from 1923, some higher quality Rebberg movements used in Rolex watches were graded Prima, and later some were graded Extra Prima, and then from 1930, Ultra Prima.
There appears to be no obvious difference between the three grades of movement in terms of jewelling etc. It seems that initially they were graded after finishing and timing based on the results of timekeeping tests and the ratchet wheel was exchanged for one with the appropriate engraving. Later this wording was engraved on the main train bridge instead of the ratchet wheel. This could not be changed easily like a ratchet wheel and indicates that such movements were deliberately finished to give better timekeeping. Engraving on the bridges followed the closer relationship that developed between Rolex and Aegler during the 1920s, before which the Rolex branding was only found on the ratchet and crown wheels which could be easily interchanged for ones with the brand names of other companies that Aegler supplied. To begin with the engraving was the same colour as the bridge, that is nickel plated, but later the engraving was highlighted with gold plate. Later additions were the words “Timed 6 positions" and “For all climates”.
Prima appears to have been applied to 15 jewel movements timed in 6 positions. From examples that have been seen, Extra Prima was applied to movements with 18 rather than 15 jewels, the three extra jewels being two end stones for the pivots of the escape wheel and one for the top bearing of the centre wheel arbor. Ultra Prima was also applied to 18 jewel movements and it is not clear exactly what the difference was. Some Ultra Prima movements are marked Chronometer.
Although Ultra Prima appears to have been first registered in 1930, there are in existence Rolex watches with cases dated earlier than 1930 which have movements marked Ultra Prima, so it might be argued that the phrase was in use for some time before it was registered. However, if anyone else had used the phrase, even once, it would not have been possible for Wilsdorf to subsequently register it as his own. Bearing in mind Wilsdorf's prolific registration of every name he could think of, it seems unlikely that he would leave himself exposed to the possibility that someone else might copy or use the phrase and thereby prevent him from registering it.
It seems likely that as soon as Wilsdorf had coined the phrase Ultra Prima, he would he would have wanted to get it registered as quickly as possible and before making it public. Unless there is an earlier registration, which does not appear likely, then Ultra Prima would have been first used in December 1930. Trademarks like this were registered for five years and could be renewed after that. However, the registration dated 9 December 1930 looks like a first registration of the term, not a renewal.
Why then are there Rolex watches from before 1930 with Ultra Prima movements? Assuming that Ultra Prima movements were the best, the absolute top of the range, they would most likely have been fitted to gold cases, many of which have subsequently been melted for their bullion value as has happened to many watches over the years. This would have left a lot of bare Ultra Prima movements, and many dealers would have been tempted to “upgrade” a watch by changing the movement for an Ultra Prima. Bear in mind that the registration notice posted here is the first time that this has been made public; it's not in any of the Rolex books, so it would not previously have been obvious that an Ultra Prima movement did not belong in a pre-1930 Oyster.
Upgrading was not necessarily restricted to changing movement. For example, watches are seen with “Oyster Extra Prima” on the dial with perfectly ordinary Fontainemelon FHF 30 Cal 59 15 jewel movements. These are Oyster Watch Company watches, not Rolex watches, an in this case it would seem that the watch was “upgraded” by someone painting the legend on the dial (long after the watch was made), leaving the original Fontainemelon movement untouched.
Sometimes Prima or Extra Prima movements are seen in watches with cases that have hallmarks from earlier than 1920. It seems likely that these watches are marriages. Before Rolex watches began to be collected, this was often done when a movement could not be economically repaired and a spare movement was substituted just to keep the watch working. However, some no doubt have had their movements changed in an attempt to make them appear more valuable.
Prima, Extra and Ultra Prima movements were the top of the range and were frequently fitted to watches with gold cases, often 18 carat gold. Unfortunately, many such movements lost their original case when it was melted for bullion. If one of these was used to substitute a broken or unrepairable movement, fair enough, although the resulting watch has lost its originality. But naturally, there is a temptation for an unscrupulous person to replace a lower grade movement with a Prima and then try to pass off the resulting watch as a genuine original. As ever, caveat emptor, and be aware that this is possible.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated September 2022. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.