By far the most recognizable and popular premium Swiss timepiece, Rolex watches are durable, beautifully made, and above all, extremely reliable. A Rolex watch offers terrific value and pre-owned examples are often found in exceptionally fine condition.
The story of the Rolex Watch Company is quite fascinating. It begins in 1905 when the company was established in London by a Bavarian businessman named Hans Wilsdorf, and Wilsdorf’s brother-in-law, William Davis — hence the company’s name, Wilsdorf & Davis. Unlike the Rolex Watch Company that we know today, Wilsdorf & Davis did not manufacture its own movements, cases or dials. Rather, these components were purchased from various Swiss companies and assembled into finished watches. Furthermore, most of the watches produced were pocket watches. For the most part, wristwatches were still considered a female fashion accessory and totally inappropriate for use by men.
Yet in spite of the fashion trends of the day, Wilsdorf had the vision to realize that wristwatches could eventually eclipse pocket watches in popularity, and so to stand out from all the other companies selling pocket watches, he began specializing in wristwatches. This was later to prove a crucial decision, as Wilsdorf & Davis faced crushing competition in the British watch industry.
Now, having decided to focus almost exclusively on wristwatches, Wilsdorf decided that he had to address the number one concern most customers had with respect to wristwatches: namely, that most wristwatches were not as accurate as pocketwatches. Therefore, Wilsdorf traveled to Switzerland where he commissioned a special wristwatch movement which could keep time with great accuracy. The idea was not to sell these specially produced and adjusted wristwatches — indeed, that would not have been cost-efficient — but instead, to market Wilsdorf & Davis watches as being among the most accurate wristwatches in the world.
And so, prior to the outbreak of World War One, Wilsdorf submitted a watch for testing by one of the Swiss observatories. His efforts were rewarded with the issuance of a timing certificate — a tremendous accomplishment. But Wilsdorf would not rest on his laurels. Instead, Wilsdorf set his sights on obtaining a “Kew A” timing certificate for a Rolex wristwatch. In 1915, he submitted a watch to the Kew Observatory — the most demanding observatory in the world. The watch was awarded a “Kew A” certificate.
Rolex wristwatches were now acknowledged to be as accurate as the world’s finest pocket watches, and aggressively marketed as such. The timing would prove fortuitous. World War I quickly transformed the image of the wristwatch from a dainty female accessory to a military necessity. Soldiers found that, when in the trenches during battle, wearing a wristwatch was far more practical than carrying a pocket watch. Now, whereas Rolex had previously focused on ladies’ watches, Rolex produced mainly watches specifically for men.
By the end of the war, wristwatches were increasingly worn by men and no longer seen as solely for the ladies. But the battle was only half won. Wilsdorf realized that another problem with wristwatches was that being much smaller than pocket watches, they were more susceptible to dust and moisture entering the case.
He had experimented with screw back and front cases during World War I, but ultimately realized that the winding crown was the main problem. When he saw the patent for the screw down crown first proposed by Perret & Perregaux, he knew that he had found his solution. He bought all rights to the patent and the first “Oyster” watch (so named because it was waterproof) was introduced in late 1926. Now he had a product that was unlike any other and he was determined to promote it in the best way possible.
Mercedes Gleitze was the first woman to swim the English Channel; however, there was some controversy over her swim and she offered to do it again in the full light of publicity. Recognizing a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the durability of his “Oyster” watch, Wilsdorf offered a new Rolex Oyster watch to Miss Gleitze if she would wear the watch during her swim across the English Channel. She agreed and the rest, as they say, is history. One month later, Wilsdorf launched the watch in the United Kingdom with full-page advertising in all the major daily papers and the Rolex Oyster was an unqualified success.
Soon, Wilsdorf bought out his brother-in-law and entered into a joint shareholding with the Aegler family of Bienne, whose movements Rolex now used exclusively. It is around this time that Wilsdorf & Davis changed its name to the Rolex Watch Company. Various theories have been offered to explain how the word Rolex came about, or what it means, but in all likelihood, Wilsdorf simply liked the fact that the word meant nothing at all and would therefore take on a meaning of its own. Which, incidentally, it has. (On a side note, Wilsdorf died childless in 1960, and since he had no heirs, the company was bequeathed to a charitable trust which directs the company to this day. Most of the company’s profits go to Swiss charities.)
Returning to the evolution of the Oyster, there was just one small problem; namely, that people had to unscrew the winding button each day in order to wind it. There were two side effects of this; sooner or later the customers would forget to screw the winder tightly again and then get water in the watch and in time the gaskets or the threads would wear out and the same result would happen. The answer to this was found in 1931, when Emile Borer, son in law of the Aegler family and head of R&D at the Rolex Bienne factory, patented a perpetual (or automatic) winding system. As a result, it was no longer necessary to wind the watch every day, and the crown was used solely to set the time. Consequently, Rolex watches were not only the most accurate watches in the world, but also the most durable as well.
In 1945, Rolex recorded another highly important patent: along with the automatic winding system, a date was added at 3 o’clock. This model was introduced as the “Datejust” and it became an immediate best-seller. Today, this is the most popular Rolex wristwatch. Speaking of presidents, another popular model introduced in the early 1950s was the “President” — a large men’s wristwatch which most recognize by its massive gold bracelet, as well as a window at 12 o’clock which displays the day of the week. Another highly popular and collectable Rolex is the “Submariner,” which is not just waterproof, but can also be worn while diving.
Other popular and classic Rolex models include: the Explorer I & II, the GMT I & II, the Milgauss, the Daytona, the Yachtmaster…and many others. And although the company has always been best known for its sports watches, Rolex also has produced countless exquisite men’s dress watches, including the always popular “Bubbleback” series and even an exclusive series of perpetual calender wristwatches (the Ref. 8171 being the most popular example of same).
In conclusion, nearly one hundred years later, the Rolex Watch Company is stronger than ever and produces an impressive selection of fine quality timepieces at surprisingly affordable prices. So whether you are looking for a less expensive Rolex timepiece for casual wear, or something more exclusive and special, there is definitely a Rolex that is perfect for you. It’s no wonder that Rolex watches continue to be the most popular watches in the world.