Written by David Barth, March 29, 2003
Hans Wilsdorf (1881-1960), a Bavarian, was orphaned at age 12, around 1893. In 1905, at the age of 24, he decided to start manufacturing wrist watches in London. Wilsdorf was a German who became a British citizen after taking an English bride. With his English Brother-in-Law, William Davies, the company became Wilsdorf and Davies, assembling watches in London and in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland using Swiss movements.
The company was nothing more than one of hundreds of small importers buying movements, cases and dials and assembling them into finished watches. Wilsdorf's great breakthrough was deciding to specialize in wristwatches. The watches, called “wristlet" watches, were sold throughout the British Empire. Hans Wilsdorf never claimed to be a watchmaker, and always signed legal documents with the title "Merchant".
At the time, mostly pocket watches were produced by Swiss watch manufacturers because manufacturers still had difficulty producing accurate and reliable movements in such small size that they would fit in a wrist watch. Aegler, a small Swiss company, agreed to supply Wilsdorf with movements small enough to be worn on the wrist. Wilsdorf's production included a variety of case designs: casual, formal and sporty.
In 1908, Wilsdorf trademarked the word Rolex, a name that's easily pronounced in different languages and short enough to fit on a watch dial. It's said that Wilsdorf dreamed up the word while riding a London bus, having been inspired by the sound a watch makes as it is wound. Rolex didn't leave England until after the First World War, when an import tax hike of 33 percent made receiving its Swiss-made movements prohibitively expensive.
In 1910, Rolex sent their first movement to the School of Horology in Switzerland. It was awarded the world's first wrist watch chronometer rating. Wilsdorf recognized two major requirements for watches:
- 1) To keep accurate time
- 2) To be reliable
With the Chronometer Award, 'accuracy' of timekeeping was considered to be under control and Wilsdorf started to work on improving the reliability of his watches. One of the main problems at the time was, that dust and moisture would enter in the watch case and progressively damage in movement.
In 1914 London's Kew Observatory tested Rolex watches. They passed the famed "Kew A" test, and Rolex wristwatches were certified to be as precise as a marine chronometer. It was the first time that a watch had received "chronometer" status, a classification that, even today, is held by a relative few timepieces. Only watches that have passed the rigorous timing test can be called "chonometers". All others are called "chronographs". That is why only expensive watches have "Chronometer" on the face, and cheaper watches have "Chronograph".
By the end of WWI, wristwatches were an accepted part of a man's accoutrements and no longer seen as solely for the ladies.
Wilsdorf realized that wristwatches were more susceptible to objects entering watch cases via the casebook and via the crown. When he saw the patent for the screw down crown first proposed by Perret & Perregaux, he bought all rights to the patent. Recalling his difficulty in prying open an oyster at a dinner party, Wilsdorf christened his creation the Rolex Oyster and the first "Oyster" watch was introduced in late 1926. The Rolex Prince, developed in 1928, became a best-seller with its dual dial and rectangular case.
In 1929, Mercedes Gleitze was the first English woman to swim the English Channel. However, there was some controversy over her swim and so she offered to do it again in the full light of publicity. Recognizing the value this would have, Wilsdorf asked her to wear a new Rolex Oyster. She wore the watch on her successful "confirmation" swim and a month later Wilsdorf launched the watch in the UK with a full page advertisement on the front cover of the Daily Mail. It was the world's first national watch advertisement, covering the front page of the newspaper. Several Rolexs were featured, and the Oyster occupied less than 20 percent of the advertisement because most of the space featured Rolex lady's cocktail watches. The text read, "The Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements: Moisture Proof. Waterproof. Heat Proof. Vibration Proof. Cold Proof. Dust Proof."
The first waterproof watch, the Oyster, was cleverly advertised around the world. At the time, the public was rather skeptical if the watch would be really waterproof. However, after seeing a watch in an aquarium in the shop window, many people were convinced. Around the world one could see windows of watch shops with an aquarium and submerged Rolex watches. This campaign created an enormous brand awareness for Rolex. Almost every watch manufacturer followed Rolex and offered waterproof watches.
The problem with the Oyster was that people had to unscrew the winding button each day in order to wind it. In 1931 Rolex invented the "Rotor", a semicircular plate of metal that with gravity, would move freely to wind the watch. Thus, the Rolex "Perpetual" (automatic) movement was born.
The first Oysters were never tested for accuracy. From the mid-1930s Rolex put "Chronometre" on the dial. In the mid 1940s the Rolex dial legend became "Certified Chronometer." In the early 1950s it was changed to "Officially Certified Chronometer."
By the advent of the Second World War, the Rolex name had become so prestigious in Britain that pilots in the Royal Air Force rejected inferior government-issued watches and used their paychecks to nearly deplete England's supply of Oyster Perpetuals. The compliment was duly returned: any British prisoner of war whose Rolex was confiscated had only to write to Geneva to receive a replacement. Yankee GIs returned home with a new trinket on their wrists. And so Rolex's romance with America began.
Rolex men's models 14000, 14010, 67480, 14060 are not certified, but most Rolex watches are tested for accuracy by
the Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometres (COSC).
The addition of a date window came in 1945 and with it came a new model, the Datejust. The Datejust became one of the most recognized watches in the world.
Other models include:
- Submariner (the world's first diving watch)
- Day-Date (otherwise known as the President)
- Explorer (an extra-tough watch made for sportsmen)
- GMT Master (the world's first dual time zone watch)
A Rolex Oyster accompanied Sir Edmond Hillary's historic climb to the summit of Everest in 1953. Sherpa Tensing Norgay also wore a Rolex, and this watch is now in the Rolex collection in Geneva. Twenty-five years later, in 1978, Reinhold Messner climbed Everest without oxygen, carrying a Rolex watch.
Every Rolex model has been copied by other watch firms, to say nothing of the legions of fakes of varying quality. The Cosmograph in 1988, and the Yachmaster in 1990 continued Rolex's tradition of innovation and conservatism. Rolex's continual leadership in the watch industry was recognized by a panel of industry leaders who voted the Rolex Oyster "The Watch of the Century".
The timeless appeal of Rolex often translates into an excellent investment. At Christie's auction house in London, the highlight of the auction was the sale of a cult icon, a late-1960s stainless-steel, manual-wound Paul Newman Cosmograph Daytona (so named because the actor wore one in the 1969 racing movie, "Winning") that took the hammer for a cool $21,212, twice its estimated value. The Paul Newman, with its flashy dial and oversized indexes, wasn't an immediate success and was produced for a very limited time. Its meteoric ascent in popularity didn't begin until the mid-1980s.
By the time Daytona fever swept across Europe and the United States in the late 1980s, a relaunch was already in the works. Introduced in 1991, the updated Daytona replicated the original's racy chronograph, a built-in stopwatch with an automatic winder. The $5,150 (in 1980s dollars) stainless steel Cosmograph with a white face, the rarest combination and the one that Paul Newman reportedly wore off-screen, is one of the most-coveted timepieces.
Nearly 70 years later, the Oyster Perpetual has proved undaunted by the worst possible conditions. It has survived the depths of the sea with Jacques Piccard and the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary's Sherpa. It has retained its accuracy in subzero arctic temperatures, the scorching Sahara and the weightlessness of space. It has shrugged off plane crashes, shipwrecks, and speedboat accidents, broken the sound barrier, and been ejected from a fighter jet at 22,000 feet.
Some of the most colorful recommendations are the cautionary tales:
- the Englishman who inadvertently laundered his Oyster in a scalding cycle, then rinsed, spun and tumble-dried it
- the Australian skydiver who dropped his from 800 feet above the outback
- the Californian whose wife accidentally baked his in a 500-degree oven
In each case, the recovered Rolex was running perfectly.
Though he lived in Geneva for 40 years, Wilsdorf never became a Swiss citizen. He died a Briton in 1960 and was remembered by colleagues as a good-humored, fatherly man who loved life as much as he loved a fine watch. Two years after his death, the company's board of directors appointed 41-year-old Andre Heiniger as Rolex's new managing director. While working under Wilsdorf for 12 years, Heiniger had come to share his boss' vision for the company, as well as his high energy level and sanguine outlook. All three traits proved invaluable when the Swiss watch industry found itself slipping into oblivion.
Just as video killed the radio star, the quartz boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s nearly snuffed out the mechanical timepiece faster than you can say "Seiko." By substituting low-cost, digital technology for labor-intensive artisanship, the Japanese sent the Swiss horology industry into crisis mode.
While most of Geneva's watch houses feverishly hitched their star to the digital bandwagon, Rolex stuck resolutely to its mechanical guns. By the time the dust had settled, more than half of Geneva's watch manufacturers had gone under. Fully a third of the survivors, including such prestigious names as Omega, Longines, Blancpain, Tissot, Rado, and Hamilton, were subsumed into a publicly owned consortium to avoid bankruptcy. This fate didn't befall Rolex. Wilsdorf, an heirless widower at his death, created a private trust run by a board of directors to insure the company would never be sold.
What made Rolex so resilient? "The single most important thing that saved Rolex is that up until then the company had only been run by two managing directors: Hans Wilsdorf and Andre Heiniger. They really never had to worry about this quarter's results. They could think long-term appeal: 'Where will we be in five or ten years' time?' That's a completely different philosophy than at another watch house. Even in times of uncertainty, Rolex's greatest policy was never to adopt change for change's sake." Revealingly, the single quartz model developed by Rolex in the 1970s never exceeded 7 percent of the company's total production. (Today, that figure is 2 percent).
If Rolex had gone totally to quartz there's no way it would have the image and prestige it has now. And being a private company without external shareholders, Rolex can better afford to remain aloof to fads than many of its counterparts. That means no chunky cases, no madcap numerals, no avant-garde shapes, nothing that's going to look dated in a decade's time.
In 1992, Patrick Heiniger replaced his father as Rolex's managing director. Both Heinigers share the twin virtues of undying optimism and ironclad discretion, according to colleagues. It's a combination that generates intrigue among rivals and industry observers.
Montres Rolex S.A. is hugely secretive. Rolex always was an outsider company in Switzerland. Their top executives almost never do interviews. Essentially, their philosophy has always been to let the product speak for itself. At Rolex, the product is an obsession.
Consider the care taken to decorate the inside of a Rolex, the parts the wearer never even sees. At the company's Geneva headquarters, Rolex's craftsmen, dressed in white laboratory smocks, pull up to ergonomically designed workstations, then execute minute operations in near silence. Each component of every tiny movement is sculpted with swirls, lines or loops. Every angle is rounded and polished to a brilliant shine. This provides absolutely no value to the consumer, except as a gesture of the brand's refinement.
That Rolex produces its own movements. More than 200 craftsmen and technicians work on a watch before it acquires Rolex certification. "There's so much more to a Rolex than the average person will ever need. And in that sense it's the Mercedes-Benz of wristwatches. It's over-engineered. Not because Rolex wants to squander money but because that's just the way they do things.
Before leaving Geneva, every Rolex watch must travel through a high-tech obstacle course of quality-control checks. Every dial, bezel and winder is checked for scratches, dust, and aesthetic imperfection. The microscopic distance between its hour and minute hands will be painstakingly calibrated to ascertain that they are lying perfectly parallel. An ominous-looking air-pressure chamber will verify that each watch is waterproof to a depth of 330 feet. (The Submariner and Sea-Dweller divers' models are guaranteed to 1,000 and 4,000 feet, respectively.)
Every watch is compared to an atomic-generated "uberclock" that loses but two seconds every 100 years. Only after successfully passing dozens of checkpoints does a watch receive the Rolex seal.
Such attention to detail limits Rolex's production to about 650,000 watches a year, based on industry estimates. "That might sound like a lot," insists Lister of Christie's, "but it's very far below market demand." But, as Andre Heiniger once said, "We've never wanted to be the biggest, but certainly one of the finest in the field."