The founder of Rolex watches, Hans Wilsdorf, was born from humble beginnings in Bavaria in 1881. He was unfortunately orphaned as a child and as he grew, he developed a dream to create quality time-pieces, which should be affordable to most. Following a period where he worked for a Swiss company in La Chaux-de-Fonds, producing Swiss watches, he decided to move to London in 1905 to realise his long-term dream.
While there, he and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded Wilsdorf and Davis, whose main business was to import Swiss movements from Hermann Aegler, a timepiece manufacturer from Bienne. Those movements were then placed in quality watchcases. These early watches were then marketed through various jewellers, who put their own names on the cases. From that beginning, the Rolex brand was created by Wilsdorf in 1908 and registered as a company name on 15 November 1915. The name Rolex was chosen as Wilsdorf believed it would be an easily pronounceable name in many different languages.
Kew Observatory awarded the accolade of a Class A Precision certificate to Rolex in 1914. This award was generally reserved for marine chronometers and was therefore highly significant in stamping Rolex with the same kind of authority as a precise and accurate timepiece.
During 1919 the tax levied by the UK government on luxury imports, and also the export costs of the silver and gold used for the watchcases, became prohibitive to his business and he decided to move to Geneva in Switzerland, where the company became known as the Rolex Watch Company. In 1920 the brand became known as Montres Rolex S.A., finally being shortened to Rolex SA.
Wilsdorf’s wife passed away in 1944, when he conceived the idea for the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a charity which he left all his Rolex shares to, ensuring that part of the company’s fortune would go to charitable causes. The ownership of the company today is held by a private trust and shares are not available on the Stock Exchange. Tudor, (a subsidiary company of Rolex,) was developed in 1946 to offer the same high quality timepieces, but at a lower cost than the Rolex.
Rolex were responsible for some cutting edge designs, including the creation of many ‘firsts.’ Some of these ‘firsts’ were the production of the first waterproof wristwatch; the first watch to have an automatic change of date on display; the first wristwatch capable of displaying two differing time zones simultaneously; and of course being the first watch manufacturer to receive the coveted chronometer certification.
The Oyster. Rolex watches have long been known as the desired brand to obtain and are considered a luxury timepiece for those with discerning taste. The waterproof, (and possibly most well-known name,) the ‘Oyster’ became available in 1926. The fact that it was waterproof was a huge innovation for its time, and became widely known also for being one of the first wristwatches to have a screw-off front and back. The winding crown also screwed down making at almost impervious to moisture and dust. Newspaper headlines at the time proclaimed it to be ‘The Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements'. The Oyster had a leather strap and was available in silver, and both 9 and 18ct gold.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust. The Datejust was introduced in 1945 and was the first wristwatch to show a date function. When originally created, it had a bezel size of an impressive 36mm but soon after mid-sized and ladies versions became available. Possibly one of its most famous users was Chuck Yeager, who wore one when he broke through the sound barrier.
The standard Datejust went on to become available in a choice of metal, including steel; steel with white accents and everose or yellow gold. Current versions are available in a choice of steel with white, yellow or rose gold on an Oyster bracelet.
The Rolex GMT Master. The Rolex Master was designed in conjunction with Pan Am Airways in 1954 for the purpose of not only being able to view what was the current GMT, (Greenwich Mean Time, the internationally recognised time for aviation purposes,) but also the local time zone. The original Rolex GMT was only available in stainless steel as it was seen at the time to be a functional work watch, rather than the stylish and luxurious item it is known for today.
Luxury versions made from a combination of metals, including steel mixed with gold, or all gold version have been available since the 1970’s.
Rolex is without doubt one of the most prestigious brands of wristwatches to own and would generally be targeted towards the wealthiest five per cent of the population, people with an income of $200,000 or more. However, Rolex clientele are varied; some buy for the superb quality; some just because of the prestige associated with it, or simply because they can.