Pioneer of the wristwatch since 1905, Rolex is legendary for its innovations in watchmaking including the first waterproof wristwatch and the Perpetual rotor self-winding mechanism.
Rolex has an iconic history, inextricably linked to the vision of founder Hans Wilsdorf, born in Bavaria, Germany in 1881 to a family of ironmongers. At twelve, circumstances made Hans an orphan and he was sent to a Boarding School in Coburg, Germany. It was a dreadful existence and one day, Hans left the boarding school for Geneva, Switzerland where he found a job working for a pearl merchant. He later found work at a watch-exporting firm in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland and in 1905, moved to London and, along with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, shipped Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movement, integrated it in the watch cases and sold those wristwatches to jewellers, who put their own brand names on the dial. At a time when most men still wore large pocket watches and considered wristlet watches to be girlish, Wilsdorf staked his company’s future on the wristwatch, designing watches that were moth rugged and stylish.
In 1908, sensing the potential for their own brand to succeed in the burgeoning wristwatch market, Wilsdorf registered the brand name “Rolex” — which was short enough to fit on the face of a watch — and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. In 1910, Rolex was the first wristwatch to have the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, bestowed by Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, Switzerland. Recognizing the impact this rating had on sales, Wilsdorf secured a Class A precision certificate from Kew Observatory in 1914, reserved for marine chronometers.To convince people of the timepieces reliability, he equipped wristwatches with small, precise movements manufactured by a Swiss watchmaking firm in Bienne. Rolex also registered the five-spiked crown as its trademark in 1925 while steadily improving its products.
What is it about Rolex that makes it the go-to brand for serious timepieces? In a word, image. Rolex has cultivated the most globally recognised image in the horological industry. In the early years, Wilsdorf worked on a challenge presented by the infiltration of dust and moisture under the wristwatch’s dial and crown, which damaged the movement. To address this, Rolex developed the first waterproof dust-proof wristwatch in 1926. Named “Oyster,” it had a hermetically sealed case which gave protection to the movement. Wilsdorf desired to showcase and fine tune its performance and the worlds of sport, aviation, motor racing and expeditions became live laboratories for the wristwatches’ attributes. In 1927 it was worn by professional swimmer Mercedes Gleitze while crossing the English Channel. Following the ten-hour swim, the watch was in perfect working condition. Wilsdorf took out a full-page newspaper advertisement to spread the news about the original water- and dust-proof watch. In 1931, Rolex invented and patented a self-winding mechanism, Perpetual Rotor i.e. a semi-circular plate that relies on gravity for movement.This creative system is today at the heart of every automatic watch. When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, they were equipped with “Oyster Perpetuals.” British racing motorist Sir Malcolm Campbell gave Rolex an endorsement after wearing its watches during his land speed record attempts in the Thirties. The “Datejust” was born in 1945, indicating the date on the dial. Rolex also became the first watch to break the sound barrier on the wrist of Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager in 1947.
Similar legendary tales highlight the Rolex story right up to the present day. In the Fifties, Rolex made watches for activities such as deep-sea diving, aviation, mountain climbing and scientific exploration. In 1953, “Submariner” was the first divers’ watch, waterproof to a depth of100m. Its rotatable bezel lets divers read time under water. As overseas travel developed in the Fifties, it became important to know time in different regions, simultaneously. The brand developed “Rolex GMT Master” to fulfil this. The brand achieved a publicity coup in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and other members of his expedition made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest while wearing Rolex. The brand then carried out testing of experimental watch, “Deep Sea Special”. Using knowledge from the first two models, the third edition was created to withstand extreme conditions. In 1960, Trieste descended into Mariana Trench, the deepest depression on the Earth’s surface, with Lieutenant Don Walsh at the helm. Emerging from 10,916m, the bathyscaphe was in perfect working order as was Rolex Deep Sea Special. In 1963, designed as a wristwatch for race drivers, “Cosmograph Daytona” was tough, waterproof and had a tachymetric scale on the bezel for calculating average speed. 1967 witnessed the launch of “Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller”, waterproof to a depth of 610m. To meet the needs of professional deep-sea divers, the case was equipped with a helium escape valve.
The brand’s collaboration with top-tier sporting events is legendary. In tennis, Rolex is the official timekeeper of Wimbledon, Australian Open, US Open and French Open. In Golf, it is the official timekeeper for The Open Championship, U.S. Open, PGA Tour and European Tour; presenting sponsor for The Senior Open Championship; and official sponsor of Women’s World Golf Rankings. In 2013, Rolex became official timekeeper to the FIA Formula 1 motor racing championship. It has also been the official timekeeper to Le Mans 24 Hours motor race since 2001. Former Formula 1 driver Sir Jackie Stewart has advertised Rolex since 1968. So did Arnold Palmer, Roger Penske, Jean Claude Killy and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. The brand is also sponsor of the Rolex International Jumping Riders Club Top 10 Final competition.
Not just another watchmaking brand, Rolex has a place in history. During World War II, Royal Air Force pilots bought Rolex. However, when captured and sent to prisoner of war camps, these watches were seized. When Hans Wilsdorf heard this, he offered to replace it without payment until the end of the war, if the officers would write to Rolex, explain the circumstances of the loss and where they were being held. American servicemen heard about this when stationed in Europe during WWII and this helped open up the American market to Rolex, post- war. On 10 March 1943, while still a prisoner of war, Corporal Clive James Nutting, one of the organisers of The Great Escape, ordered Rolex Oyster 3525. As a chronograph, it could have been used to time patrols of prison guards or time ill-fated escapees through tunnel ‘Harry’ on 24 March 1944. The watch and correspondence between Wilsdorf and Nutting were sold at an auction for £66,000 in May 2007.
Another interesting anecdote is about Paul Newman “exotic-dialled” 1968 Rolex he gifted to his daughter’s boyfriend with the words: “Keeps good time”. In 2017, it sold for a reported £14m, then the highest price paid for a wristwatch at an auction!!
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