The Groundbreaking History of Rolex
Watch & Bullion2 May 2018 | 7 min read
The most popular watch brand in the world; we’ve written a number of pieces covering the many stunning watches in the Rolex range but today we’re tracing the rich history of the Swiss giant, from its humble beginnings right up to the current day.
Now at the height of their watchmaking fame, it is estimated that Rolex churn out more than 2,000 individual watches a day from their Switzerland HQ, with business giant Forbes estimating their brand value at a whopping £8.7bn in 2017. Throughout its groundbreaking history, Rolex has been responsible for a number of innovative design and functionality leaps which have helped it stay, not only ahead of the chasing pack but at the forefront of watch royalty for over 110 years.
So, let’s jump right back to the beginning and trace the legacy of this watchmaking heavyweight to 1905 where it all began….
1905 – 1908 : The Founding
It all started in London, England, when Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis founded ‘W&D’ in 1905, working alongside Swiss movement manufacturers to bring precision timekeeping to Great Britain. At this stage, the watches were never accredited to them and rather to regional jewellers, who would brand the pieces themselves with W&D’s only reference being found inside the case.
Wristwatches were not the fashion in the early 1900’s, with pocket watches favoured by most due to their enhanced accuracy and stylish designs. Wilsdorf foresaw a change in the markets and vowed to create a wristwatch that not only looked amazing, but was highly accurate too.
As with many successful ventures, the brand name was key. Wilsdorf spent months pondering the name of his new watch brand, desperate for something that was short, could be put onto a watch face and that was also easy to pronounce in any language. Whilst there are many different theories about how he came up with the name, in 1908 Wilsdorf registered the trademark ‘Rolex’ and the rest was history!
1910 – 1919 : The Rolex Precision
With the brand name set and the journey started, it was now time for Wilsdorf to overcome his main obstacle; mastering wristwatch precision. Many years were spent honing the mechanics and intricacies that come with precision timekeeping. The standards had been set in both maritime and pocket watch keeping but Wilsdorf was not to be deterred.
Jump forward to 1910, and Wilsdorf’s Rolex watch was the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, awarded by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne. This was a huge breakthrough internationally for Rolex, further cemented in 1914, when the Kew Observatory awarded Rolex with their Class A precision certificate. This certificate had only ever been awarded to maritime chronmeters and as such, signified that Wilsdorf had achieved his goal of making a wristwatch that could truly compete.
Source – https://watch-insider.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/1914_Rolex-Kew_Certificate.jpg
With Rolex’s reputation as a precision masterpiece secured, Wilsdorf was ready to take the brand to the next level. Unfortunately, high taxes on Gold, Silver and Luxury Goods in Great Britain in the early 1900’s forced Rolex to relocate to Geneva, Switzerland; their home up until the present day.
1926 : Water Tight Excellence
As Wilsdorf predicted in 1905, the fashion moved towards wristwatches as the years progressed. Wristwatches were now a staple part of the active, consumer lifestyle with Rolex being seen as the ‘on trend’ brand across the globe.
Not content with just being a piece which kept time, Rolex wanted to push the boundaries of the wristwatch market by creating a watch which could keep up the precision wherever the wearer happened to be.
In 1926, Rolex released the Oyster, the world’s first watch which was both dust and waterproof. The Oyster featured a hermetically sealed case which provided optimal protection for the movement even when exposed to micro dust particles or submerged in water.
Partnering up with the young, English marathon swimmer Mercedes Gleitze in 1927, Rolex put their new, water tight precision to the test with a 10 hour endurance swim through the English Channel. The watch remained perfectly intact throughout, gaining glowing reports from commentators as well as Gleitze herself:
“You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. . . . The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it.” – Mercedes Gleitze.
Front page of the Daily Mail, November 24, 1927.
Source – http://www.consumingcultures.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/rolex-ad-enhanced-1-e1489179282761.bmp
This was a pivotal moment in the history of the Rolex brand, as this represented their first Celebrity Sports Person endorsement. This trend would be seen to continue over the next 90 years, shooting Rolex to new heights of fame that Wilsdorf could have only dreamt of.
1931 – 1965 : Pioneering The Art Of Watchmaking
With the brand established and the business model proven in its success, Rolex spent the majority of the 20th Century trailblazing the wristwatch world forward with a number of key technological advancements and celebrity endorsements:
1931 – The Perpetual Movement
The Perpetual Movement was the first of it’s kind, self winding movement ever invented and then patented by Rolex. Changing both the way both wrist watches were both manufactured and used, the Perpetual Movement is now found in almost every modern automatic watch in the world.
1935 – Rolex Goes The Fastest
Another marvelling success of Rolex’s celebrity partnership model came when they teamed up with legendary race driver Sir Malcolm Campbell. Campbell broke the land speed record 9 seperate times and accredited his Rolex Oyster with keeping him on time the whole way through.
Sir Malcolm Campbell wearing his Rolex at the Daytona Race Circuit
Source – http://www.rolexencyclopedie.nl/dutch/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/MalCamband+Rolex.jpg
1945 – The DateJust
With the roaring success of the Oyster, Rolex needed to freshen up their range as well as bring something new to the market which would again set Rolex apart. In 1945, Rolex released the DateJust, the first watch to ever have an automatically updating date indicator on the face. To celebrate the companies 40th birthday, the DateJust included a Jubilee strap and later upgraded to the Cyclops Lens to give it the look and feel we are familiar with today.
1953 – Reaching the Highest of Heights
With the Oyster and DateJust in full commercial swing, it wasn’t long before everyone wanted a Rolex. Taking the philosophy back to the pre-oyster era, Rolex wanted to create a watch that could truly brave the elements. As enhancements to the Oyster came, so did the further endorsements with the first ever ascent to Everest in 1953 being accompanied with Rolex watches. Off the back of this expedition the Oyster Explorer was released, giving everyone the chance to experience the Rolex adventure themselves.
Sir Edmund Hillary wearing his Rolex Oyster
Source – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8102340/Sir-Edmund-Hillarys-Rolex-to-be-sold.html
1953 – Diving Deep with the Submariner
With the highest heights conquered, it was now time to master the deepest depths. Rolex released the Submariner, the first watch capable of reaching depths of 100m as well as a handy rotating bezel to track diver’s immersion time. The Submariner remains one of the most iconic and popular Rolex watches to date, with many design and technical variations between the original and most modern models.
1955 – Rolex Takes To The Skies
With the rise of transcontinental airline flight, pilots were becoming increasingly reliant on the need to track multiple time zones. In collaboration with Pan Am Airlines, the GMT Master was born. Taking a lot of the great work from the Submariner, the GMT Master featured a unique, two-toned rotating bezel allowing for the wearer to track day and night time zones simultaneously.
1956 – The Watch of Presidents
Following the success of the DateJust, Rolex released the Day-Date in 1956, the world’s first watches to show both the date and the day automatically on the face. It came equipped with the new Presidents bracelet which was a fitting name given it’s common association with Influential people the world over, including a number of US Presidents.
President Johnson with his Rolex Day-Date Circa 1963
Source – https://www.forbes.com/sites/msolomon/2016/10/04/a-brief-history-of-the-rolex-president-watch/#437b74847cd7
1963 – The Lasting Endurance
Following the groundbreaking exploits of Sir Malcolm Campbell, Daytona became the hotbed for not only high speed racing but endurance racing also. It was only fitting that Rolex released arguably their most famous piece for the rise of endurance motorsport, their very own Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Equipped with the beautiful design and rugged reliability Rolex were now known for, the Daytona also had the ability to track speed over long periods with it’s innovative bezel.
1965 – Present : Finesse Personified
With Rolex making such groundbreaking history in their first 60 years, it wasn’t long before the rest of the watchmaking world strived to catch up. From the 60’s to the present day, Rolex have continued to innovate incorporating high quality steel into every watch, refining intricate movements and incorporating stunning and robust design features.
Alongside these leaps forward, they have released a number of iconic new models such as the Yacht Master, Pearl Master and Sea-Dweller as well as constant remastering of the classic Oyster, Submariner and Day-Date ranges.
With Rolex’s legendary status spanning multiple generations, their older timepieces have naturally made their way into the preowned market, allowing practically everyone to get their hands on their very own Swiss masterpiece.
Why not check out what we have on offer at Watch & Bullion and make yourself a proud owner of a luxury Rolex watch!