History of the Rolex Watch Company
For almost a century, Rolex has grown to become one of the most renowned companies in the history of watchmaking. This sterling reputation is the result of sheer hard work by the people associated with Rolex in creating their state-of-the-art watches. Today, beyond just being one of the top luxury watch brands, Rolex is known for manufacturing highly accurate wristwatches. Every Rolex watch stands out in the crowd for their unparalleled performance as well as appearance. Let us take a look at the history of Rolex and its distinctive evolution into one of the top watch brands in the world.
The Founders of Rolex
The company that eventually would become Rolex was founded by an intriguing European combination of a German national and a British native, bringing the best of two diverse cultures into play. Hans Wilhelm Wilsdorf and Alfred James Davis founded Wilsdorf and Davis Ltd in 1905.
Born on March 22,1881. Wilsdorf’s job as a correspondence writer with the watch exporter Cuno Korten of Geneva, Switzerland gave him direct exposure to the international watch industry.
He became focused intensely on Horology--the study of creating timepieces. His initial work was so successful he was able to make three watches that passed rigorous accuracy testing. After such initial success, he decided to start his own watch company. His English partner Alfred Davis would later marry his younger sister, turning the business into a family affair. Wilsdorf and Davis Ltd was registered as "Rolex" in Switzerland in 1908 and later in London in 1912. The name "Rolex" was chosen because it was clear, easy to spell, and easy to pronounce in multiple languages. On Nov 15, 1915 Wilsdorf and Davis Ltd officially was renamed "The Rolex Watch Company Ltd." The company's name was later modified to Montres Rolex, SA and finally became the company we know today as Rolex, SA.
Rolex in Its Early Years
In its early years, Wilsdorf and Davis concentrated on selling only two types of watches: pocket watches (designed for men because wristwatches were considered feminine at that time) and travel clocks (also known as portfolio or purse watches). Travel clocks were very popular then, particularly in English markets. Rolex covered these watches in exotic leather cases. Some early features of these models included the following:
- They were made of silver with porcelain dials.
- They had plain faces (dials) in order to allow their retailers to paint their brand names on them. Today, if you find a valuable antique model of that time, you most likely will see a plain dial as the painted names tended to erode after years of cleaning.
- Changes in watch configurations, including the placement of the company's hallmark "W & D" (Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd) not only inside the case back, but also on the movement.
- The utilization of Rebberg movements, which were imported from Herman Aegler's firm in Bienne, Switzerland. Wilsdorf preferred these movements for their accuracy and affordable price.
Wilsdorf did not want to restrict himself and his company, however, to only pocket and travel watches. Instead, he took a significant step forward and began to manufacture wristwatches for men. This decision was in response to the Boer War in South Africa when soldiers began to wear small pocket watches on their wrists. Since it was too hot for them to wear jackets carrying a pocket watch, the soldiers wore the watches attached with a leather strap. By strapping the watches around their wrists, they could free their hands.
In 1910, a major milestone in the successful evolution of Rolex was achieved when Rolex received the world’s first wristwatch chronometer rating for its movement from the Aegler's company. After being awarded the "Class A" Certificate of Precision from the famous Kew Observatory in England in 1914, Rolex decided to accept movements from Aegler only after they successfully had passed Rolex’s own series of rigorous tests. This decision began a new qualitative standard of accurate and reliable watches in the industry. People started to recognize the brand "W & D" and notice its focus on true quality.
Rolex During World War I
With the break-out of World War I, soldiers needed highly reliable and accurate wristwatches. As in the Boer War, pocket watches were uncomfortable and even dangerous to use in combat situations. Ironically, this conflict opened a new door to future growth prospects for Rolex as Wilsdorf had established the company in the arena of manufacturing men’s wristwatches. More and more, men looked for such watches, a trend started by their war idols. World War I, however, also led directly to some serious problems for Rolex. In 1915, the British Government imposed a duty of 33% on all imported watches, clocks, and parts. This tax was quickly followed by a ban on all imported gold and silver. Such economic challenges compelled Wilsdorf to shift the base of Rolex from London to Bienne, and finally to Geneva in 1919.
1915 witnessed another major development in the history of Rolex when Wilsdorf and Davis gave nearly 15% of their company’s equity to Herman Aegler. With this exchange, Aegler became the sole supplier of movements to Rolex. The third member of the partnership was another watch company named Gruen. According to the partnership, Gruen would sell its watches only to the US while Rolex concentrated on Europe, Asia, and the markets of the British Empire. By 1916, the name "Rolex" began to appear on the case backs. If you are lucky enough, you may catch hold of some early models that bore double names: both "Rolex" and the name of the local retailer.
Rolex created clout for itself throughout the 1920s and 1930s by setting records related to an impressive variety of aspects of watchmaking. This trend of setting the bar for quality and precision continued into the Second World War. The company received numerous awards and certificates from the four renowned observatories: Kew, Geneva, Neuchatel, and Besancon. A series of events significant to the evolution of Rolex took place between the two World Wars. Let us have a quick look at this series of significant events in the evolution of Rolex:
- The famous Rolex logo, the Crown or Coronet, was trademarked in 1925. This logo, however, only made its appearance on the watches in 1939.
- The name "Rolex" began to appear on the dial for the first time in 1926. This new development was supported by a strong advertising campaign to popularize the logo and increase brand recognition.
- Rolex changed the design from 3 piece Hunter style hinged case comprising the case body, back and bezel to a two piece case in approximately 1920. As soon as Rolex moved its base to Geneva, Wilsdorf began using cases made by the Swiss craftsman Francis Baumgartner. This case featured a hermetic seal, making it nearly waterproof. The main problem with this case design, however, was the whole watch was enclosed inside the outer sealed case. Such a design made it difficult for the wearer to wind the watch.
- Rolex achieved a major success when Wilsdorf bought the patent for a new moisture-proof winding stem and button from inventors Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret. This acquisition allowed Rolex to market the world’s first waterproof case, which was given the name "Oyster" in 1926. To advertise the Oyster waterproof watch, Rolex strapped one to the wrist of Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim across the English Channel. The Rolex watch was worn in her second endeavor to cross the English Channel in 1927. This marketing coup provided a huge impetus to the success story of Rolex. It became a famous brand of wristwatch known for creating a wonder watch, the first of its kind. As more and more improvements were introduced in the Rolex Oyster Watch, powerful advertising campaigns were undertaken. In addition, when the Rolex Oyster Watch was waterproofed up to a level of 100 feet under water, its popularity and renown skyrocketed.
- In 1928, Rolex rolled out a new model "The Prince," which has been and still is today one of the most successful Rolex wristwatches for men. “The Prince” became very popular for its rectangular case and separate dials for hour/minute and seconds. Its price tag made it the preferred choice of the elite.
- Rolex demonstrated another significant development in 1928 when it launched a new series of balances. These precise instruments could be adjusted in 6 positions and at all temperatures. They were made available in three classes, named the "Prima," "Extra Prima," and "Ultra Prima."
- In 1931, Rolex created the first Auto-Rotor movement using an Aegler movement (subsidiary seconds Hunter 8-3/4'''). A major innovation, this revolutionary invention led to the introduction of the first successful self-winding perpetual wristwatch in 1932. A long-desired dream of Wilsdorf, this ground-breaking concept was made a reality by the designer Emile Borer, the technical head of Rolex at the time and Herman Aegler's brother-in-law. This precisely-crafted watch sported a perpetual motion as its winding mass could freely turn both clockwise and counter-clockwise and pivot a full 360 degrees on its staff in the center of the movement. Another feature of this model was its accuracy in time-keeping. The large semi-circular shaped Auto Rotor was fitted into a thicker case, which made this model popularly known as the "Bubbleback."
- In 1935, Rolex added yet another chapter to its success story when it introduced a new streamlined balance wheel called the "Super Balance" to improve the design of its Auto Rotor.
- By the end of the 1930s, Rolex established itself as the number one watchmaker. In fact, it received class certificates from all four major observatories (Kew, Geneva, Neuchatel, and Besancon) in 1934. Virtually every Rolex watch was successful in receiving chronometer certificates.
- In the midst of this early success, Rolex sustained a blow that came in the form of a devaluation of the English pound and other European currencies. This had a detrimental impact on its European sales and led directly to the company’s search for new prospective markets for Rolex products in areas such as Latin America and the Far East.
- In 1935, Rolex acquired the exclusive rights to all Aegler's movements when their third partner, Gruen, ended its partnership with them. This strategic move allowed Rolex to itself focus on the United States as a new and open market for its watches.
- Rolex added another feather to its cap in 1937 by producing its first chronograph wristwatch. This chronograph performed the job of a stop watch with the help of a separate second hand which could be started, stopped, and reset to zero. The push buttons on the side (in earlier models there was a single button) were used to perform this function. Rolex sourced the movement used in its chronograph models from the company Valjoux.
- By the late 1930s, Rolex had developed many subsidiary lines and brands which were not as expensive as the Rolex models. In spite of their high quality, such lower end brands did not produce satisfactory results. This ultimately led to Rolex’s decision to discontinue these cheaper brands.
- With the onset of the Second World War, wristwatches for soldiers (Allied forces) featuring the California Dial were in great demand when the War Production Board prohibited American companies to manufacture civilian watches in 1942. Rolex specifically benefited from this move, as it had previously patented in 1941 a version of the California Dial featuring Roman numerals across the top half of the watch and Arabic numerals along the bottom. During war time, Rolex Oyster Perpetuals became popular particularly among the British Pilots in the Royal Air Force. To these pilots, wearing a Rolex represented a symbol of their success and excellence.
- During the Second World War, Wilsdorf came up with a unique and compassionate idea. He decided to give every British prisoner of war who lost his Rolex to his captors a replacement--which did not have to be paid for until the end of the war. This move proved to be an effective marketing tool, displaying the class of the Rolex company to both the British government and the common soldier.
- At the end of the second world war in 1945, Wilsdorf created a trust called the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation to run the company in his absence, making the Rolex company secure from being sold or taken over by an unfriendly aggressor in the future. This was a prompt action on his part in response to the sudden death of both his wife and long-time partner Hermann Aegler in 1944.
Rolex - From 1945 to the Present
By the end of the Second World War, Rolex had already established itself as the manufacturer of one of the most reliable and accurate wristwatches in the world. In addition, Rolex proved its exceptional expertise in creating jeweled movements. It now started concentrating more on exceeding its limits and came up with a series of special watches (Tool Watch Models) that had never before been built. Some of the major achievements of Rolex that set definitive benchmarks and made it the "King" in watchmaking and the luxury goods industry included the following:
- On November 24, 1945 Rolex rolled out a new model, "Datejust," that remains a definitive symbol of the luxury watch. It was the first model of its kind that displayed the numbered date through a tiny aperture at the three o'clock position. To this very day, it is one of the most popular and expensive Rolex models. Since it was launched on the forty year Jubilee anniversary of Rolex, the exquisite bracelet that it flaunted was named the "Jubilee." Today, if you buy a brand new Rolex Datejust, you will find the cyclops lens (that looks like a glass bubble) over the date display. This was added in 1954 in order to make the date easier to see by magnifying it 2 ½ times.
- The year 1945 saw another new model called the "Tudor," a less expensive Rolex. This new watch line had the distinctive Tudor rose logo. In the 1960s, the logo was changed into a "shield."
- On May 29, 1953 Rolex continued its innovative marketing by strapping a prototype of its watch "Explorer" to the wrist of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, a member of the British Himalayas expedition team. The watch performed to perfection even in the brutal cold and high altitudes of Mt. Everest. Such extreme performance provided a living example of supreme engineering which allowed the watch to withstand such harsh weather conditions. The same year also saw the introduction of two new Rolex models — the Milgauss and the Turn-O-Graph. Today, all modern sport models are the improved versions of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph. The Rolex Milgauss was designed as a professional watch for those who work around electromagnetic fields, which would negatively affect the majority of normal wristwatches.
- In 1953 Rolex successfully tested a new and improved waterproof watch called the "Deep Sea Special" to a depth of 10,336 feet. This event coincided with the world record-setting dive of Piccard’s famed bathyscaphe FNRS-2. This milestone led to the introduction of the first diver's watch, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual "Submariner." It was waterproof to a depth of 600 feet. This unique professional watch was worn by the leading stars of the James Bond movies, creating a craze for them amongst the masses and, in fact, coming to be popularly known as the "James Bond." The sporty look of the watch made it a big hit even amongst those who were not serious divers. In other words, wearing a “Submariner” became a modern symbol of cool.
- Focusing on the air instead of the water, another unique model in the professional line of Rolex was the GMT-Master--which was launched in 1954. Meant primarily for aviators, this model allowed the pilot to read the time in any two zones simultaneously. Such an innovation was made possible with the help of a special 24-hour hand and bezel. However, when astronauts wore this watch in space with zero gravity, they had to wind the watches manually after every 48 hours, as the auto winding mechanism would not work in zero gravity.
- In 1956, Rolex launched a new watch called the "Day Date," which would become one of the flagship models of Rolex. It displayed both the date and the day. It became popularly known, however, as the "President" wristwatch when one such model was given to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The “Day Date” model was the first watch to receive the official recognition of the certification "Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified" on its dial due to its incomparable accuracy in performance.
- In 1960, Rolex launched another exceptional watch, the “Cosmograph Daytona,” which became a very popular model in its own right. The “Cosmograph Daytona” featured a tachymeter scale engraved on the bezel unlike the chronograph models where it is found on the dial. When Paul Newman wore one of these models in his racing film "Winning," it created a craze in popularity.
- On July 6, 1960 Hans Wilhelm Wilsdorf passed away at the age of 79. His legacy was handed over to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, which made Andre J. Heiniger responsible for running the operations of Rolex. In the same year, another significant event was the founding of the Centre Electronic Horologer (C.E.H.). With the prestigious watch making companies (including Rolex) as its members, C.E.H. moved to develop a quartz wristwatch movement.
- C.E.H. found success when it came out with its first movement, the Beta 21, at the Basel Fair in 1970. Rolex did not take part in the introduction, however, because it wanted to create a watch that was more accurate and also effectively met its high qualitative standards. After a few months, Rolex launched its own quartz model the “Quartz Date," which became an instant hit. For the first time it utilized the synthetic sapphire crystal, which subsequently was introduced to the rest of the line by the early 1980s. The “Quartz Date” did not, however, feature an Oyster case. The success of this model was short lived, and Rolex had to discontinue its production in 1972. After five years, Rolex made a comeback with the introduction of a new and improved version of Oysterquartz movement. This introduction eventually led to two new Rolex models: the “Oysterquartz Datejust” and the “Oysterquartz Day Date.” Both of these models were equipped with the Oyster's screw-down case back and sported a new slimmer angular case. Unfortunately for Rolex, this effort was also met with negligible success. These electro-mechanical watches simply could not compete with the accuracy of the mechanical models of Rolex. In addition, the heavy inflow of Rolex counterfeit watches featuring quartz movement and the use of quartz watches as promotional items degraded their image in the eyes of the public. Although Rolex still manufactures these two models, they account for only 2% of its overall production.
- In 1971, a new outstanding tool watch called the "Sea-Dweller" was launched as a definite improvement over the Rolex Submariner model. Its unique feature was its one-way gas escape valve which protected the watch from internal pressures created during an ascent. The initial Sea-Dweller models were depth rated to 2000 feet. Later, in 1978, the “Sea-Dweller” was upgraded to 4000 feet. To put it bluntly, wherever you happened to be in the entire world, there was now a Rolex to meet your needs no matter how extreme or intense the environment.
- The year 1971 was a special year as it witnessed the introduction of yet another tool watch. The ”Explorer II” was designed specifically for cave explorers. It featured crown guards, a new fixed and engraved 24-hour bezel, and a special 24-hour hand which would help to distinguish AM from PM.
- The remarkable hacking feature was widely introduced to all Rolex models around 1972. This feature allows the wearer to synchronize time easily with some other source as the second hand comes to a dead stop when the winding crown is pulled out fully to set the time.
- By 1977, Rolex movements were rated at 28,800 beats per hour (BPH) from 19,800 BPH during the 1960s and 18,000 BPH during the late 1950s. Never satisfied, Rolex watchmakers continue to set the bar for both precision and qualitative standards.
- Rolex introduced an important feature called the "Quick Set" feature in the late 1970s. It was fitted to all the date models by 1983. This new feature made it easy to set the date rapidly via the winding stem/crown without the hour hand having to pass the midnight position.
- By the early 1980s, the first uni-directional rotating bezel was introduced on the Submariner models.
- Introduced in the early 1990s, the feature "Double Quick Set" allows you to set both the date and the day quickly via the winding stem/crown.
- In 1992, Rolex launched a new "Yacht-Master" wristwatch, the first model in the Professional line that was made available in smaller sizes. Today, this model is extremely popular and is made available in a variety of metals, including yellow gold, all stainless steel, two-tone (yellow gold and stainless steel), and even Rolesium (stainless steel and platinum).
Even to this very day, with the world watch market flooded with cheaper quartz watches and second-rate imitations, Rolex continues to manufacture its highly accurate, chronometer certified mechanical watches. In fact, with the beginning of the 21st century, it has created an institute called the "Watch Technicum" in the small town of Lititz, Pennsylvania where 12 students are trained every year in the art of mechanical watch repair. The supreme engineering of Rolex in making quality watches places it among the top 100 companies in the world. Today, it is the single largest luxury watch brand! Producing about 2000 watches per day, it has been ranked #71 on the 2007 annual list of the top 100 global companies by Business Week magazine and at the top slot amongst all watch companies. Rolex has continuously improved the functionality and look of different Rolex models under all of the three major categories: Oyster Perpetual, Professional, and Cellini. In the future, you may hope to come across even better versions of the current models and be able to lay your eyes on altogether new models offering never-before-seen features. It is rightly said that tradition meets innovation at Rolex. Perhaps no other company in the world has such a tradition and consistent legacy of both innovation and high qualitative standards. Without question, Rolex is the place where luxury and precision are one.