The history of Rolex watches

The History of Rolex – from the beginnings to 2021

In the world of high-end watches, there are many worthy brands to choose from. Watch collectors and lovers will wax lyrical about their favourite makers – but ultimately there is one which has done something incredible.

One brand has made the leap from being revered in watch-circles, to being globally known as a style, design, and mechanical marvel. Over the course of a century, that brand has continually grown in popularity through innovation, while retaining their classical elegant appearance.

That brand is, of course, Rolex, and this is their journey.

What is Rolex?

The origins of Rolex

Rolex enjoys a history and legacy which layers through each and every piece produced. Every decade since the firm was established at the turn of the 20th century has been noted by a momentous Rolex milestone and a classic construct in the field of horology.

The Rolex story begins well over 100 years ago. With a modest amount of money, Hans Wildorf and his future brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded a watchmaking company in London in 1905.

The son of a Bavarian ironmonger, Wildorf had been orphaned at the age of 12 and left in the care of his aunt and uncle. Wildorf’s inheritance disappeared when he was young as a result of some unrecorded criminal scam. The experiences only served to drive him on with vigour.

Wilsdorf’s mother was a descendent of the Maisel Bavarian brewing dynasty but instead of continuing in one of the family businesses, after he completed his education the young Hans secured a position in a pearl distribution firm. The oyster would become significant just a few years later.

Acquiring a grounding in jewellery and world trade, Wilsdorf then moved on to watch exporter Cuno Kortee in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds. He would relocate to London in 1903 at the age of 22.

Two years later and Wilsdorf began producing wristwatches of his own alongside business partner Alfred James Davis. The partnership would be strengthened when Davis married Wilsdorf’s younger sister in 1906.

Aside from that, little is recorded in the history books about Davis except that his knowledge of finance neatly complemented Wilsdorf’s eye for watchmaking and enterprising vision.

From origins to oysters

On the back of early successes, in 1908 the pair registered the brand Rolex and after World War I moved the company’s base to Geneva.

Rolex quickly set the standard for wristwatches – at the time considered a female adornment – amidst the masculine preference for the pocket watch.

Wilsdorf boldly predicted that the wristwatch would become the standard accessory for timekeeping among gentlemen, sportsmen, pilots, explorers and divers. He was, of course, correct.

In 1910 Rolex was awarded the world’s first wristwatch chronometer rating by the School of Horology in Bienne and the first “Class A Certificate of Precision” from the Kew Observatory in England.

In 1925 Rolex trademarked the famous crown and coronet crest and a year later the iconic waterproof and dustproof Oyster was launched.

The “greatest triumph in watchmaking” followed in 1927 when the glamorous Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex timepiece. Rolex still uses Gleitze’s name in their publicity today.

It is the biggest single watch brand famous throughout the world. In 1905, Hand Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis laid the foundation of this brand that is now in the heart of every watch lover. Initially, the duo was the importer of Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movement. Later on, Wilsdorf started his own business with his partner, and they became the most successful watch brand in the world. The most iconic Rolex pieces are the Submariner, Daytona, GMT-Master, and Lady Datejust. The most surprising fact is that Rolex manufactures 2,000 watches just in a day.

From humble beginnings

Rolex is now a multi-billion dollar company, making multiple hundreds of thousands of watches a year which are sold and revered in every corner of the world. But an icon is never born an icon, it’s the result of hard work and humble beginnings – Rolex is no different.

Hans Wildorf founded Wilsdorf and Davis, the company which would later become Rolex S.A with his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, in 1905. Despite Rolex being renowned in Swiss watch-making, Wilsdorf himself was German-born and the shop was established in London, England.

The company’s long connection with Switzerland first began through Wilsdorf and Davis importing Swiss watch movements from Hermann Aegler. These movements would be implanted into cases made locally, and the resulting watch could be sold to local jewellers – many of whom were able to customise them by engraving their own names within the dial.

Wilsdorf had a vision that encompassed much more than making a little profit – he wanted to transform the wristwatch itself. At the time, wristwatches were little more than mostly re-purposed pocket watches. They were bulky, tempramental, and unreliable.

It was Wilsdorf’s goal to make a wristwatch that was everything the current wristwatches weren’t. He wanted to offer customers something truly reliable, an accurate timepiece that could be comfortably worn. This is why he began importing the superior quality Swiss movements.

The birth of an icon

1908 would be the birth of the word “Rolex”, the year the name was trademarked. But, what’s in a name? Well, in the case of Rolex, quite a lot – it was a name that was hard thought and had to satisfy several strict criteria.

Wilsdorf had a view of a global watch brand, and so he wanted his watch to be very easy to pronounce in any language. The name Rolex itself is famously attributed to his belief that it was onomatopoeic – he thought it was similar to the sound of a watch being wound. The name also had to be short, so as to easily fit on the face of a compact wristwatch.

La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland would become the sight of a new office from which Wilsdorf and Davis would sell their new brand of “Rolex” watches. The company would not become known as Rolex until later years.

Wilsdorf had a passion for making accurate timepieces, and the company quickly became known for the accuracy of their movements and the reliability of their watches. Rolex became the first watchmaker to earn chronometer wristwatch certification, in 1910.

A “Class A Precision Certificate” was awarded to a Rolex watch in 1914 by the Kew Observatory. This was notable because a regular wristwatch was being awarded a precision certification usually reserved for marine chronometers – which are of course held to a higher standard of accuracy.

Following this, the company name would begin to change. Firstly to Rolex Watch Co. Ltd in 1919, and then Montres Rolex S.A. a year later – this would later be shortened to Rolex S.A. The move to Geneva came in 1919 when a combination of heavy import costs for the precious metals used in the watch cases, and post-war luxury import levies forced Wilsdorf out of England.

The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation currently runs the company, and has done so since 1960 when Hans Wilsdorf died. The foundation itself was established after his wife’s death in 1944, and in which Wilsdorf would entrust his Rolex shares.

How Rolex watches are made

Rolex remains unique and unparalleled in the world of horology. A large part of that is due to how the brand manufactures its watches.

Rolex uses a grade of stainless steel that no other watchmaker does. The 904L grade steel is expensive and requires immense skill to finely manipulate but it polishes extremely well and is very hard wearing.

All Rolex parts are manufactured in-house and the company even has its own gold foundry. All movements are hand assembled and tested. An extensive team of gemologists only accept the finest precious stones for inclusion in Rolex pieces.

It takes a year to make each Rolex watch. All markers are set by hand and the expert human eye is considered far superior to machinery at assembling parts with care, skill and precision.

Notable wearers and sponsorships

Rolex has become a global icon of watch-making not only through their exquisite quality and accurate time-keeping, but as a result of their popularity with a large number of celebrities and cultural icons. Rolex have also been known to sponsor a large number of high profile sporting events.

Famous wearers of their watches include Hollywood A-list celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Robert Downey Jnr. They were also popular with cultural icons such as Steve McQueen and Paul Newman – Newman’s specially designed Daytona became the most expensive watch ever sold in 2017, when it made $17.75 million at auction.

Rolex also found favour with many other historical icons. Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Llama have all been photographed wearing, or expressed their appreciation for, Rolex watches. Marilyn Monroe gifted a Rolex Day-Date to John. F. Kennedy before her famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” performance.

Rolex Oysters were worn by Tenzing Norgay, along with other Hut Expedition members, when they famously ascended Mount Everest in 1953. Rolex is also an official timekeeper in multiple tennis tournaments, such as Wimbledon, the Grand Slams, as well as the US, French and Australian Open.

Rolex serves as the official timekeeper for multiple golf events, including the Open Championship, U.S Open, as well as the European and PGA tour. As exhibited with their famous Daytona model, Rolex serves as title sponsor for the 24 Hours of Daytona, and since 2013 has been the official timekeeper of FIA Formula 1.

Rolex today

All of this storied history, cultural importance, and time-keeping excellence has led to Rolex still being at the top of many people’s list when they consider a truly premium watch. An impressive feat for a company established well over a century ago – however, Rolex appears to be going from strength to strength.

Rolex still makes its home in Geneva, from which they operate a multi-billion dollar company selling high-class watches to customers the world over. Rolex are famously guarded about certain statistics regarding their business, but it has been estimated they currently make in excess of 800,000 watches a year.

Purchasing a Rolex is, at its heart, purchasing a fine-quality timepiece. But, it’s about more than that. When you buy a Rolex, you buy something truly special. If you choose your model well, you have an investment-grade watch that will always be desirable.

How are Rolexes evaluated?

If you currently own a Rolex, or you simply want to know the process needed to correctly and completely evaluate a Rolex to understand its value, then using a professional evaluation service is your ideal choice. With trained expertise, a professional will be able to accurately confirm the type, make and specific model of your Rolex, in addition to completing a full valuation process.

These steps are typically included as part of an evaluation:

Box and papers

While some Rolexes will not come with their original box and papers, it’s a great advantage if you do have access to these items. An evaluator can use the paperwork provided in order to check the specifications of your watch, as well as to authenticate it. A Rolex box itself is worth between £150-300, so this can slightly increase the value of your Rolex if you’re able to provide it for evaluation with the original box intact.

Serial number and model

All Rolexes include a model and serial number upon their construction, usually located between the lugs of the case between 12 and 6 o’clock. In order to identify this, the evaluator will be required to remove the bracelet from the body of the watch. It’s generally not recommended you do this yourself, as you may cause damage to the timepiece in the process. This serial number provides information on the exact model of your Rolex, which can be used to identify its current value.

Physical condition

A thorough inspection of the physical condition of your Rolex is an important part of the process. This includes identifying corrosion, scratches and other damage. Dedications and engravings may lower the value of a Rolex also, especially for less unique pieces that are more widely available. The buckle, strap and face of your Rolex will be carefully identified for any and all damage, which is then fully recorded as part of the process.

Internal evaluation

Alongside external checks, your evaluator will also check if your Rolex is in full working order internally. The ability to smoothly change time, as well as for the watch to keep time in general, can make a big difference if you’re planning on selling your Rolex. Internal evaluations also allow for the checking of replacement parts such as bezels and dials, which may have been repaired or changed over the years.

Rolex is, and always will be, synonymous with excellence.

Interesting facts about Rolex

Rolex uses the ‘clockmaker’s four’ on their roman numeral watches

A specific phenomenon that’s only known to watch and clockmakers, on timepieces that include Roman numerals on their dials, Rolex uses IIII instead of IV. While there is no readily available reason for this, the distinction has become so well-known that it’s a Rolex signature at this point.

The Oyster was the world’s first waterproof watch

Thanks to a specifically-designed case, where the crown, back and bezel are screwed on in a particular and patented way, Rolex was able to produce a fully waterproof watch back in 1926. While the first watch was only waterproof to 100m, the depths their models can endure has only improved since.

Rolex uses different stainless steel to other watchmakers

While the most common stainless steel used for watches is known as 316L, Rolex uses specific steel known as 904L. This steel is more expensive and more difficult to utilise in the manufacturing process, which makes sense for one of the world’s premier luxury brands. If you compare Rolex stainless steel to a stainless steel watch from another brand, the difference is unmistakable.

Rolex creates its own gold in-house

As one of the only watchmakers in the world to produce their own gold, Rolex can have bars in their foundry of Everose gold that is worth millions of pounds at any one time – meaning they have a need for an exceptionally high standard of security on their premises.

Day-Date Rolexes are translated into 26 languages

For models that include a day wheel as part of their design, Rolex produces 26 distinct languages – including English, Hebrew, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Spanish and Turkish, among many others.

Rolex led innovations in automatic date and day changes

Both the Rolex Datejust and the Rolex Day-Date, in 1945 and 1956 respectively, were ahead of the game when it came to the automatic changeover of dates and days on their dials.

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