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.
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.
Most popular Rolex models
The Rolex catalogue of watches is filled with historical timepieces, too numerous to mention each in depth. There are, however, certain models among the brand’s offerings which have become cultural institutions of their own accord. Here are the most popular Rolex models.
If you’re a watch lover, or you have paid any attention to watches, you’ll notice that most of the modern watches you see today can trace their lineage back to the Rolex Datejust. Introduced in 1945, it combined a date feature on the watch dial with an automatic winding capability.
This allowed the date to be automatically adjusted at midnight, every day, and it would become the foundation for the overwhelming majority of wristwatches that followed over the next fifty years. The Datejust is a highly versatile watch, equally suited to everyday wear as well as special occasions.
Rolex created their highly famous waterproof watch and named it the Submariner. It was the second watch ever created that could remain waterproof up to 330 feet, with a multi-directional bezel to monitor both depth and diving time. The goal was for the Submariner to be easy to operate even when wearing gloves and underwater.
Rolex has a strong history with diving and waterproof watches. A specially made Rolex “DeepSea” was attached to the side of the underwater exploration vehicle Trieste during its historical exploration of the Mariana Trench. It kept perfect time on the 11,000 metre dive and the journey back to the surface.
Rolex has a history of sponsoring great sporting events, and their partnership with the famous Daytona Road Beach Course culminated in the release of the Rolex Daytona in 1963. As official timekeepers, the watch was designed to be worn by racing drivers, with features to match.
The Daytona is a strongly build watch, waterproof, and capable of resisting the g-forces drivers experience when racing at high speed. It’s also capable of measuring speeds of up to 400 kilometres per hour, with three sub-dials within the face for measuring seconds, minutes, and hours.
Many of Rolex’s most famous designs are several decades old, which makes the relatively new Yacht-Master something of a modern classic. It was released in 1992 and, as the name implied, had sailors in mind thanks to its waterproof construction and easy to read dial.
The Yacht-Master is a consistent favourite among Rolex lovers because of its striking design, its reliability, and its usability. The face has been designed to be easily read, even in strong storms and adverse weather conditions, making it an excellent choice for an “everyday Rolex”.
Rolex has a history of designing watches to suit the needs of certain types of people – the Submariner for divers, the Daytona for racing drivers, and the Yacht-Master for sailors. The GMT-Master was designed with pilots and navigators in mind, in conjunction with Pan Am Airways.
One of the most famous features of the GMT-Master is its ability to display two alternate time-zones at the same time, allowing for much easier cross-continental travel. The face has also been designed to be as easy to read as possible, when working in dimly lit cockpits and cabins.
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.
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.
Rolex is, and always will be, synonymous with excellence.
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