The Rolex brand symbolizes wealth, success, precision, and quality. When most people think of high-end timepieces, Rolex is the first and often the only watch brand that comes to mind. As of 2019, among the world's top ten most expensive watches ever sold at auctions, three are Rolex watches. But what are the origins of this luxury watch legend?
The origin of the Rolex
In 1905, German-born Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis set up a watch company “Wilsdorf and Davis” in London. Initially, they restricted themselves to crafting pocket watches as back then wristwatches were frowned upon and considered not masculine enough. Not to mention the harsh elements like dust and rain that made wristwatches unpractical for the daily hustle and bustle. But Wilsdorf had a dream of creating a wristwatch that was reliable, precise, and classy.
A few years into the business, Wilsdorf was in search of a new name for his watches. He wanted his watches to bear a name that was short and easy to recall. He initially tried different letter combinations to make a good sounding brand name, but nothing clicked.
But one day, he came up with the name Rolex. On being asked what led him to the name, he said,” at the end 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.”
In 1908 Wilsdorf registered "Rolex" as a trademark and, in 1919, relocated his business to Geneva, Switzerland, to be closer to his watch movements supplier located in Bienne.
The rise of the Rolex brand
His commitment to excellence earned Rolex watches several feats in the next few decades.
- In 1910 Rolex became the first wristwatch to carry the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision.
- In 1914, Kew Observatory awarded Rolex wristwatch a class “A” precision certificate, a distinction that was reserved exclusively for marine chronometers until that point in time.
One of the most famous wristwatches made by Rolex is the Oyster. From the beginning, Wilsdorf was adamant about making a wristwatch that could literally weather the storm. Twenty-one years into the watch-making business, he did just that with the release of his game-changing model, the Rolex Oyster —a waterproof and dustproof wristwatch that also came with an aesthetically pleasing case.
He again proved he was a good marketer as he was a watchmaker. After Wilsdorf heard that Mercedes Gleitze wanted to be the first woman to cross the English channel by swimming, he implored her to wear his Rolex. After more than a ten-hour long swimming tour, the watch still worked perfectly. Wilsdorf went on to advertise this feat on the front page of the Daily Mail. This PR stunt took the Rolex brand to the next level, with sales increasing exponentially.
Wilsdorf and Rolex went on to release some trendsetting models in the next thirty or so years. These include:
- The Oyster Perpetual in 1931. This was the first automatic winding wristwatch providing a solution to the wear and tear caused by manual winding mechanism.
- The Datejust in 1945. This was the first watch to have the date jump instantaneously at midnight, rather than taking a long time to turn it over as in most mechanical wristwatches.
- The Day-Date in 1956. It became the first watch to display both day and date on the dial.
Rolex Journey After Hans Wilsdorf Death
Rolex is now owned and run by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. Wilsdorf established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation as a private trust in 1944 after the death of his wife. Upon his death in 1960, all of his Rolex shares were transferred to the foundation.
In 1963, Rolex released the Daytona, which was named after the prestigious race venue in Florida. Designed for professional race car drivers, the watch featured a bold, masculine aesthetic and distinctive look. In 2017, a Daytona set the record for the most expensive Rolex ever sold when the watch owned and worn by actor/race car driver Paul Newman was bought for $17.8 million at auction.
In 1992 Rolex began sponsoring yacht races and still does to date, drawing worldwide audiences. Simultaneously, they launched a new model, the Yacht-Master, which is popular referred to as the watch of the open seas.
Some popular 21 st century models include
- Sky-Dweller launched in 2012. Building on the heritage of the Rolex Oyster, the Sky-Dweller features dual time zone—local time with the conventional hour, minute, and seconds hands displays and a second time with an offset hour display.
- Pepsi GMT Master II In Steel launched in 2018.
- Datejust II (2009)
- Yacht-Master II (2007)
Famed Rolex Enthusiasts
- Ian Fleming, the creator and original author of James Bond books, was a big Rolex fan. A painting of him donning a Rolex Explorer can be found at The National Portrait Gallery in London. Read our post:8 Interesting Facts About James Bond.
- In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were wearing Oyster perpetual when they conquered the Everest.
- In 2012, Hollywood director and explorer James Cameron plunged seven miles down to the deepest place in the ocean, the Mariana Trench. He made the solo descent in a submarine called Deepsea Challenger with three experimental Rolex watches attached to its hull. The watches withstood the crushing pressure of the cold, dark, and barren bottom and emerged from the depth of the sea seven hours later in good working condition!
Since the last quarter of the 20th century, some would say mechanical watches have become outdated, with the digital age gaining steam. But Rolex has never felt the need to change things up too much. To date, Rolex’s strict adherence to their design legacy is unique among mass producers of watches. The foundation has adhered to the founder’s vision. The standard of quality has remained as high as Wilsdorf envisioned. Gold is always 18K, and even the steel used to make the watches is proprietary. The bezels are made with extra-hard, proprietary ceramic called Cerachrome that is practically impossible to scratch and doesn’t change color with UV exposure. A Rolex is truly made to last a generation then more.
With all this excellence, it’s no wonder every serious watch collector owns a Rolex. And celebrities from movie stars, musicians to athletes are no exception. Think of your favorite celebrity; there is a very high likelihood they have a Rolex in their collection.
Read another one of our origin features: The Success Story of Jack’s Daniel.