The Complete In-Depth History of Rolex
A name synonymous with wealth and sophistication, Rolex is not only one of the biggest names in watchmaking but one of the most recognisable brands in the world. Counterfeited on every continent, cosigned by some of the world’s biggest stars and collected more than any other timepiece, Rolex’s recognition has been built on the back of savvy advertising and slick sponsorship deals.
But long before Steve McQueen strapped on a Submariner and the five-pointed crown appeared on the walls of race tracks and tennis courts, Rolex had made a name for itself as an innovator without peer. In order to understand Rolex’s transformation from boutique watchmaker to luxury byword, we need to travel back more than a century to London, to meet a young German named Hans Wilsdorf.
Hans Wilsdorf - A Young Man in London
Born in 1881, Wilsdorf’s early life was marked by tragedy when he was orphaned at age 12. While the loss of both parents at such a young age would normally herald a life of abject poverty, Hans and his siblings were saved by their uncles, who sold the successful family tool business and used the proceeds to send the children to elite boarding schools, where Hans would excel in languages and mathematics.
Beginning his career as an apprentice with a pearl exporter, Wilsdorf travelled widely as a young man before taking a job as a clerk and English correspondent with a Swiss watch company, Messrs. Cuno Korten, in the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds. During his time at Cuno Korten, Wilsdorf was charged with winding hundreds of watches daily and assessing their accuracy, an experience that gave him invaluable insight into watch design and manufacturing. In 1903, Hans moved to London, where he met Alfred Davis, an investor and eventual business partner.
With Davis providing the capital and business acumen and Wilsdorf the technical knowledge, the pair founded Wilsdorf & Davis in 1905. At the time, wristwatches were seldom used in high society, being seen as both imprecise and not particularly masculine – after all, any true Victorian gentleman would carry a pocket watch. However, Wilsdorf believed (with trademark prescience) that wristwatches could be highly accurate as well as fashionable, something that no one had yet tried to do. Having purchased their movements from Swiss manufacturer Hermann Aegler, Wilsdorf and Davis placed them inside British-made cases and distributed them to London jewellers, who would attach their own names to the watches – the only clue as to their origin was ‘W&D’ stamped on the inside of the case back.
Wilsdorf and Davis continued in this vein for several years, until in 1908, Hans trademarked the name Rolex. When asked how he came up with the iconic moniker, Wilsdorf said the following:
“I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.”
The First of Many Firsts
That same year, Rolex opened its first office in Switzerland, in the very same town where Hans Wilsdorf began his career. Striving for ever-greater accuracy, Rolex began manufacturing all of its watches on the premises of Maison Aegler in Bienne, Switzerland and in 1910, a Rolex became the first ever wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, a landmark accomplishment and the first of many for the young company.
Just four years later, in 1914, the Kew Observatory in England awarded Rolex a Class A precision certificate, a distinction that had previously been reserved only for marine chronometers. Despite these remarkable achievements, Wilsdorf remained unsatisfied. While they were considered the benchmark assessments for accuracy, both the Swiss and English certifications were awarded under static conditions: in order to satisfy Wilsdorf’s own dreams, a Rolex would need to keep time under any conditions, no matter what its wearer put it through.
And so, the quest continued, although now officially under the name of Rolex Watch Company. Wilsdorf had made the change following the outbreak of World War I, possibly hoping to avoid any anti-German sentiment that his surname might inspire amongst the brand’s undoubtedly patriotic London clientele. Following the introduction of a 33% tax on gold and silver, Rolex left London for good in 1915, relocating its headquarters to Bienne, before shifting to its current home of Geneva and registering under a new name, Montres Rolex SA, in 1919.
For much of the next decade, Wilsdorf and Rolex would dedicate themselves to solving the problem of dust and water, a challenge that would lead to one of the most significant inventions in the history of watchmaking.
The World's First Waterproof Watch
The solution would come in 1926, with a word that has become as central to Rolex’s brand as the five-pointed crown: the Oyster. A hermetically sealed case that prevented the ingress of both dust and water while still allowing the watch to be adjusted, the Oyster would come to change Rolex’s fortunes. The Oyster was to Rolex what the Jordan 1 was to Nike, yet despite the impressive technological breakthrough and its now famous association with the brand, credit for the Oyster’s invention does not reside with Rolex.
The original patent for the Oyster is attributed to two Swiss watchmakers, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret. While similar designs had been in use in the early 1920s, none was as effective as Peret and Perregaux’s design, which relied on a screw-down stem and crown to create a true seal on the case. Realising the potential value of their invention, Hans Wilsdorf purchased the patent and embarked on a monumental marketing mission.
Billed as ‘the world’s first waterproof watch’ the Rolex Oyster grabbed global attention when it crossed the English Channel around the neck of British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. For an entire month after the crossing, Rolex published a full-page advertisement celebrating the achievement on the front of every issue of the Daily Mail, while models of the Oyster were submerged in aquariums in the window of Rolex boutiques – a brilliant example of the filmmaker’s mantra of “show, don’t tell”
Always On Time: The World’s First Automatic Movement
With the creation of the Oyster, Rolex had undeniably secured its place as the world’s most accomplished watchmaker, and kickstarted a tradition of innovation that would endure for more than half a century. Just five years after debuting the Oyster, Hans Wilsdorf realised a lifelong dream with the creation of a self-winding wristwatch that would be known then and forever after as the Oyster Perpetual.
The landmark technology – which now lies at the heart of every automatic movement – was remarkably simple: a centrally-mounted, free-spinning rotor that harnessed the motion of the wearer’s arm to wind the mainspring. Beyond being another landmark achievement for Rolex, the invention of the Perpetual movement represented a final evolution in watchmaking. More than just jewellery or compact pieces of clockwork, watches had become an extension of their wearers, and now needed to withstand the challenges of their owners’ day-to-day lives – whatever they may be.
From Sea to Sky: Rolex & The Living Laboratories of Sport
This conceptual shift also marked a shift in Rolex’s approach to watchmaking. Having solved the major problems of accuracy, weatherproofing and winding that had plagued the craft since the Victorian era, Wilsdorf turned Rolex’s attention towards the pursuit of high-performance, beginning an iconic association with sporting and adventure that persists to this day.
As pilots took to the air in the inter-war years with ever-more frequency and daring, Rolex remained a fixture on the wrists of record-setters. In 1933, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Blacker, the first man to photograph Mt. Everest from the air, did so wearing a Rolex Oyster. In a letter to the brand, he wrote:
“I can hardly imagine that any watches have ever been subjected before to such extremes.” – Steward Blacker, Lieutenant-Colonel
In 1934, aviators Owen Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller flew more than 37,000km, from England to Australia and back again, in less than 13 days. Upon returning to England, Cathcart-Jones said the following of his Rolex:
“Synchronized at Mildenhall prior to the start of the race, [my watch] remained without adjustment during my absence from England. On my return I found that despite extreme climatic variations my Rolex was still registering accurate GMT.” – Owen Cathcart-Jones
Back down on earth, Rolex pushed the limits of human and mechanical possibility alongside motorsport legend Sir Malcolm Campbell, who set a landspeed record of roughly 485km/h at the Bonneville Salt Flats while wearing his Rolex Oyster. Writing afterwards, Sir Malcolm noted that “it is keeping perfect time under somewhat strenuous conditions.”
Building a Brand Through Conflict
In a world enthralled by the rapid pace of modernisation, the exploits of Rolex’s record-setting brand ambassadors were the best form of advertising it could have hoped for, and served to establish Rolex watches as leading tools of the trade for professionals and pioneers alike. As a result, by the start of the Second World War, significant numbers of British RAF pilots were purchasing Rolexes to replace their short-lived, standard-issue service watches.
But as the war progressed, many of these pilots found themselves as prisoners of war in the German heartland – and their Rolexes in the hands of their captors. Although of German birth, Hans Wilsdorf harboured no love or sympathy for the Nazi regime, and when British POWs wrote to Rolex and informed the company of the loss of their watches, Wilsdorf offered to replace them all free of charge, and began to personally oversee all POW orders.
Whether it was an act of genuine humanity or savvy advertising, the gesture was a huge success, and British airmen began to submit their orders to Rolex in the thousands – with more than 3,000 orders coming from captive British officers at just one POW camp, Oflag VII-B. However, the most famous order placed during this period came not from an officer or even an airman, but from a signaller, Corporal Charles James Nutting.
Captured at Cassel, near Dunkirk, in 1940, Corporal Nutting had already spent three years as a prisoner of war, arriving at Stalag Luft III – the POW camp made famous as the site of ‘The Great Escape’ – in 1942. Like many of his fellow captives, Nutting wrote to Rolex on March 10, 1943, to place an order: in his case, for a stainless steel Oyster Chronograph, reference number 3525.
Nutting’s order was unusual amongst his British comrades, who opted for the smaller and less-expensive Speed King model. Perhaps for this reason, the order caught Wilsdorf’s eye, and on March 30, 1943, he wrote a personal response to Nutting, confirming his order and instructing Nutting that he “must not even think of settlement during the war.”
Nutting's original paperwork and letter signed by Hans Wilsdorf. Source: Rolex Magazine
As one of the organisers of the Great Escape, it is possible (although unproven) that Nutting ordered the 3525 specifically for its chronograph, which could be used to time the frequency and duration of German patrols and inspections, as well as the speed with which POWs would make their way through the tunnels. In any case, the generosity shown to Nutting and his fellow serviceman by Wilsdorf would pay dividends in the post-war years, as legions of British and American soldiers returned home with a newfound appreciation for the precision of Rolex watches and the benevolence of the brand’s founder.
1945: The Datejust & The Jubilee
While the understated Oyster Perpetual Datejust might not be the most high profile of Rolex’s designs today, it is certainly the most recognisable, and its release continued a proud tradition of innovation within the company. Although a date window might seem commonplace and even unremarkable by today’s standards, its inclusion on the Datejust represented a major step forward in the development of complications and signalled the start of a new era in watchmaking, as watchmakers began to think about applications for their designs beyond simply telling the time.
Calendar complications had been used in watches for several decades prior to 1945, however, the Datejust was the first watch with both a self-winding calendar complication and one that automatically flipped over at the stroke of midnight. Not only was this an immense technical achievement but Rolex’s decision to place the date window at the 3 o’clock position on the Datejust would set the standard for all watches of its type, creating a lasting design legacy that extends far beyond Rolex itself.
The Datejust was not alone in its release though: accompanying it in debut was the Jubilee bracelet, an undulating five-piece link bracelet that has since become almost as iconic as the watch itself, becoming a frequently imitated piece of contemporary jewellery and a status symbol in its own right.
1953: The Submariner & The Ascent of Everest
In 1953, Rolex returned to the roof of the world on the wrists of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, among others involved in the legendary expedition. Although the pair never wore their watches on the summit itself – a fact that Rolex sidesteps without ever actually admitting – their accomplishment would be celebrated later that same year with the release of the Oyster Perpetual Explorer, reference 6350.
Ruthlessly refined for a single purpose, the Explorer remains one of the most rudimentary models in Rolex’s entire catalogue, with the prominent 3, 6, and 9 digits being its only distinguishing features. Nonetheless, the Explorer marked the start of a new era for Rolex, although its influence would soon be overshadowed.
The Rolex Submariner debuted at the 1954 Basel Watch Fair, and in true Rolex fashion, its arrival was pre-empted by an extensive real-world testing campaign that sought to demonstrate the model’s impressive capabilities. In September of 1953, a Submariner was attached to the exterior of Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard’s bathyscaphe, which dove to a depth of 3138m; in October, a testing report from the Institute for Deep Sea Research in Cannes recorded that the Submariner had resisted all water ingress during the course of 132 dives ranging from 20 to 60 metres in depth, many of which were conducted with the crown pulled out. As a final test, the Submariner was fixed to a cord and lowered to a depth of 120m – 20m past its initial 100m depth rating – where it remained for an hour, but even then, no leakage was detected.
1955-1960: The GMT-Master, Day-Date & Milgauss
As aviation moved beyond the age of propeller driven planes and military developments made their way into civilian applications, commercial travel experienced its greatest phase of growth since the invention of the steam engine. Fuelled by the emergence of the wealthy ‘jet set’ and the affluence of an America that had escaped from the Second World War largely untouched at home, air travel was suddenly sophisticated and exciting, and no company captured the glamour of this Golden Age better than Pan Am Airways.
In the mid-1950s, Pan Am approached Rolex with a request for a watch that would allow their pilots to track time across two different time zones: the solution Rolex devised was the GMT-Master. Drawing much of its design DNA from the Submariner, the true wizardry of the GMT-Master was its calibre 1065 movement, which included a date and 24-hour time complication, and enabled the wearer to change their local time without affecting the 24-hour hand.
Further technical refinement came in 1956 with the Milgauss, which was created in response to a need within the scientific community for a watch that could resist high levels of magnetism. By protecting the movement within a two-piece shield composed of ferromagnetic alloys, the Milgauss was certified by CERN as being able to withstand magnetic fields of up to 1000 gauss – a distinction that was immortalized in its name, with ‘mille’ being the French word for 1000.
But where the Milgauss and other releases of the 1950s were made for function, the Day-Date was pure fashion, a return to elegance that reflected the changing nature of the Rolex brand as it began to cement itself as an icon of luxury. Arriving in 1956 and offered only in platinum or 18-karat gold, the Day-Date was intended from the outset to stand apart from Rolex’s professional line.
In addition to its unique dual-date complication – making it, at the time, the only watch to display both the day and date in seperate windows – the Day-Date launched with its own dedicated bracelet, the President. Although Rolex wouldn’t officially promote them under that name until almost a decade after its release, both the watch and the bracelet owe their moniker to US president Lyndon Johnson, who wore the Day-Date throughout his presidency, inextricably tying it to images of power and prestige.
1960-Onwards: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and The Shifting Perception of Luxury
Throughout the 1960s, this association would grow as Rolexes made their way onto the wrists of the wealthy, a fact that Rolex sought to promote within their own advertising. But business tycoons and politicians will only carry a brand so far; in order to complete Rolex’s transformation from Swiss innovator to luxury status symbol, it would need the pulling power of the silver screen. Luckily, two of the decades biggest stars just so happened to be Rolex customers.
While the watch most associated with Steve McQueen is the Tag Heur ‘Monaco’ he wore in Le Mans, McQueen regularly sported a Submariner both on-set and off-screen – a suitably sporting accessory for the King of Cool – and even gifted one to his long-time stuntman, Loren Janes. But for as big of a star as Steve McQueen was, there was only one man whose name could outshine his own and become forever linked with Rolex: Paul Newman.
As an actor, activist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and racecar driver, Newman’s boundary-pushing, multi-disciplinary pursuits did more to boost Rolex’s appeal than any superstar brand ambassador or head of state before or since, and none have represented what it means to wear a Rolex better than him. Alongside McQueen, Newman helped to redefine Rolex, transforming it from an innovative yet slightly stuffy Swiss watchmaker worn by men in suits to the world’s coolest accessory.
When it launched in 1963, the Daytona Cosmograph’s lack of an automatic, in-house movement failed to make much of an impact among customers. But it wasn’t until Newman received his first Daytona in 1968 and began to wear it behind the wheel, that this once unpopular watch quickly became one of the most sought after models in Rolex history.
The Modern Rolex
While celebrity cosigns and sky-high retail prices might make it easy to say ‘luxury’ and leave it at that, the reality is more complex. With its sponsorship of the world’s major sporting events, Rolex is simultaneously advertising to a top-dollar crowd and honouring a legacy of achievement and high-performance. Similarly, the explosion of the second-hand market in recent years points to a wider desire for high-status items, and a growing appreciation for the intricacies and innovations of watchmaking in equal measure.
It is hard to say what the opinion of Rolex will be in 10, 20 or 30 years; whether it will be seen as just another soulless luxury brand or a name that inspired a new generation of enthusiasts and collectors to enter into the world of vintage watches. Although its future may be hard to predict, the story so far proves without a doubt that Rolex has earned its reputation as the best-known name in watches, and why a Rolex will always make a valuable addition to any collection.
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Written by Nick Ainge-Roy
Edited by Sam MacKinnon