The Rolex History
Rolex has always been intertwined with extraordinary people engaging in extraordinary things.
The envision of an extraordinary man, Hans Wilsdorf.
Hans Wilsdorf was born on the 22nd of March 1881 in Kulmach Bavaria and had to fend for himself from the age of 12 when he lost his parents. Although his mother was a part of the Maisel brewing family and Wilsdorf inherited a significant amount of money, unfortunately the money was stolen from him on his way back to London later on in life. Wilsdorf attended boarding school and business school before he moved to Chaux-de-Fonds Switzerland in 1900 where he worked for Cuno Korten after working for a pearl dealer for a short while in Geneva. Exporting Swiss pocket watches, Cuno Korten gave Wilsdorf the responsibility for business correspondence as he spoke English, German and French. Here is where his obsession with the perfection of precision and the beauty of watches took hold of him.
In 1902 Wilsdorf needed to go back to Germany to serve in the army. After he moved to London, he became a British citizen and working for a watch making firm until 1905. Then he gaines enough knowledge and confidence to start his own company. Together with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis they start Wilsdorf&Davis which would, as we know now, evolve into the worlds leading watch manufacturer.
Although the brandname Rolex was registered already in 1908 inLa Chaux-de-Fonds and in England in 1912, the company name Rolex registered on the 8th of November 1915. But like said before it all started in 1905 as Wilsdorf&Davis in London. The company imported Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movements. These movements were placed in high quality cases usually marked only by W&D on the inside of the caseback. It was then common practice for the jewellers who sold the watches to mark there own names on the dail. Rolex started to appear a lot later on dails from approximately 1926.
The focus of Wilsdorf was on wristwatches and by 1912 the wristwatch, which before was seen worn only by ladies and even then not very often became more and more in fashion. Especially because Rolex had proven, being awarded the worlds first wristwatch chronometer rating by the school of horology in Bienne in 1910, that a wristwatch could keep accurate time. To ad to this Rolex was awarded the “Class A certificate of precision” form the Kew Observatory in England which was only, prior to Rolex, awared to marine chronometers. It made Wilsdorf able in 1912 to make the biggest deal for that time, in respect of watch movements supply, with Aegler.
Business was increasing for Wilsdorf and for Rolex. And with World War 1 there came even a bigger increase in wristwatch demand. On the downside it came with an anti-German trade restriction to England which meant high tariffs on jewellery and watch components. This made for the move back to Bienne, Switzerland in 1919 for the production of movements and Geneva for the creation of the cases and the assembly of the watches. In 1920 Motres Rolex S.A. was registered in Geneva and 5 years later the famous crown was registered as a trademark beginning to appear on every dail.
In 1926 and to be precise on the 29th of July in Switzerland and on the 28th of February 1927 in London Wilsdorf registered the first watertight case the Oyster. To prove to the world the water tightness of the Oyster and to put Rolex on the map once and for all he spend a for that time huge amount of money on advertising and had Miss Mercedes Gleitze swim the English channel with a Rolex Oyster hanging around her neck. It work a treat because the Daily News boasted of the “greatest triumpf in watchmaking”.
Although the Oyster was watertight, it is not when the watch needs to be wound up. To tackle this problem Wilsdorf improved on an existing idea and using an existing Aegler movement made the world’s first self-winding mechanism with a perpetual rotor. This progressive thinking and ingenuity came to live in 1931 and again made clear what Rolex is all about. In the words of Andre J. Heiniger the CEO of Rolex after Hans Wilsdorf passed in 1960, “Rolex is evolutionary not revolutionary”. And this thinking made Rolex the first watch company to receive class certificates from all four of the main observatories namely Kew, Geneva, Besancon and Neuchatel.
Sir Malcolm Campbell nicknamed the “Speed king”, breaks the landspeed record in 1933 at Daytona beach driving 272 mile per hour wearing a Rolex Oyster. He breaks the record 9 times between 1924 and 1936. He became ambassador for Rolex after Mercedes Gleitze and stayed for years. Rolex later even came out with a Malcolm Campbell model.
To mark the 40th birthday of Rolex the first automatic date mechanism was introduced as the caliber 740 in a wristwatch. The Datejust, date just(in time) as what it stands for, has the date where the three used to be. Like almost all watches have in modern day for the reason that it would be the first thing you see when the watch appears from underneath your long sleeved shirt. And in the same year 1945 Rolex receives it’s 50000th certificate of official testing from Bienne.
Hans Wilsdorf establishes The Tudor Watch Company in 1946 to make a line of watches that will be as dependable as Rolex, at a more modest price.
Chuck Yeager breaks the through the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 in 1947, wearing a Rolex Oyster bought with his own hard earned money.
Rolex had been to Mount Everest before in 1933 as part of the first airborne expedition to fly over it but in 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay rise to 8848 metres on foot, being the first climbing the Mount Everest and they were wearing experimental Rolex Explorers on there wrists, although some claim it was just an “ordinary” oyster perpetual
In 1953 a specially designed Rolex Deep Sea Special was attached to the exterior of Auguste Piccard’s bathyscaphe which reached a depth of 3115 metres in the Mediterranean. A record which was obliviated by the Trieste bathyscaphe on the 23rd of Januari 1960 , diving to 10911 metres in the Mariana trench with the Rolex Deep Sea Special attached on the outside. Again on 26th of March 2012 Rolex went to the deepest point on earth descending to 10908 metres into Challenger Deep within the Mariana trench. The expedition Deepsea Challenge of film-maker James Cameron took with it the experimental divers watch the Rolex Deepsea Challenge. Rolex proves that it can make watches capable of withstanding the most extreme conditions.
Next to this Rolex also introduced the Turn-O-Graph, in 1953, the predecessor of the Submariner.
The 6542 was the first watch to have the prominent cyclops window, appearing in 1954 allegedly after Wildorfs second wife was not able to read the date on her watch. And one of the most prominent watches comes to life in 1954, the GMT. It rose from the idea that Rolex wanted make watches for individual sports and professions. So when Pan-Am approached Rolex for a watch that could track 24 hour Greenwich Mean Time, the GMT was born taking a existing Turn-O-Graph and fitting it with a 24 hours hand. The GMT was also the first sport/aviator watch to have the cyclops window. A new model came out in 1983, the GMT Master II which is able to display time in three different timezones.
One year later another prominent watch is introduced, the Rolex Chronograph, the reference 6234. This is the grandfather of the now so sought after and beautifull Daytona. In which the most rare ones nowadays are the ones with the so called “Paul Newman”dails. The watch was almost called Le Mans Chronograph. But perhaps as a tribute to Sir Malcolm Campbell who set his world speed records at Daytona beach or just a marketing strategy because the market was booming in America it was named Daytona. Although the very early Daytona’s do not have the name on the dail.
The Submariner 6204 and 6205, water resistance up to 100 meters as well as the Milgauss and the ladies version of the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date the only watch that showed both the day and the date were simultaneously released in 1954. Followed by the gents version in 1958. The Day-Date is nowadays available in 26 languages and the Submariner had a 50th anniversary model come out in 2004 and is now waterproof up to 300 metres.
The Milgauss was brought back in 2007 after it was discontinued in 1988 with its most obvious feature the orange second hand and like its predecessor is still anti-magnetic.
Hans Wilsdorf Trust
During the 1950’s Rolex opens subsidiaries in Bombay, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Havana, Johannesburg, London, Milan, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Sao Paulo and Toronto. Now there are approximately 1239 rolex shop around the world.
On the 6th of July in Geneva the founder of Rolex Hans Wilsdorf passes away. Already in 1944 upon the passing of his first wife Hans Wilsdorf establishes the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation in which he leaves all his Rolex shares, making sure that an amount of the income of the company will go to charity.
Until today Rolex is owned and lead by the Hans Wilsdorf Trust. Hans Wilsdorf set up this trust in which it is said that Rolex can never be sold or made public.
Rolex has gone on as the worlds leading watch manufacturer producing an estimate of 2000 watches a day and has ranked the world top 100 global companies consistently.