Rolex is a name synomonous with wealth and extravagance, simply stated. Although this may be true, there is a lot more to the picture. The company and its founder Hans Wildorf have actually made some very important contributions to Horology. Msr. Wilsdorf devoted his life to Horology and his company, creating a vision. Quality, dependability, inovation, and durability were catchwords for a man who holds more copyrights than anyone in history. His watches have been highly collectible since the mid 1970′s. They have since gone absolutely meteoric in price and desirability. The Antiqorum Watch Auction this April saw and realized incredible milestones in the prices of “The Sport Model Rolex”. The folowing blog is a short history of this most interesting Watch Company.
In 1908, exactly one hundred years ago, Hans Wilsdorf renamed a company that he had formed a few years before. He called it the ROLEX WATCH COMPANY, a name he had chosen, as is widely believed, because it was easily pronounced in different languages and short enough to fit on a watch dial. It is 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. Wilsdorf soon distinguished his company from its many competitors by specializing in unusual items, most notably the wristwatch.
At the time, the wristwatch presented logistical difficulties, including ensuring accuracy in a small device and avoiding damage, given the watch’s unprotected position on the wrist (i.e. exposure to blows, moisture and dust). The wristwatch was becoming more suitable for an increasingly active and mobile society, as technological innovations made travel to distant shores available to a significant number of people. Flying expeditions, mountain climbing, car racing and sea exploration grew in popularity and struck the public’s imagination as romantic and adventurous.
Wilsdorf also focused on the production of wristwatches with the accuracy of a chronometer. Two milestone awards were bestowed on his timepieces in 1910 the world’s first-ever first-class chronometer certificate awarded to a wristwatch by the Biel School of Horology and 1914 (a Class A certificate by the distinguished Kew Observatory in England, the first awarded to a wrist watch).
THE SPORT WATCH REVOLUTION
The sport watch owes its existence to Rolex’s development of the first ever waterproof watch case. In 1926, Rolex revolutionized watch making with the introduction of the Rolex ‘Oyster’ – the world’s first waterproof and airtight wristwatch. Wilsdorf came up with the name as the watch was being designed. While hosting a dinner party, and having a particularly hard time opening an oyster, he commented to his guests that he hoped his new watch design would prove to be as resilient as the oyster. The revolution was born and the evolution towards perfection started.
The following year, the Rolex Oyster was put through one of the most arduous tests conceivable when Mercedes Gleitze swam the entire length of the English Channel wearing a Rolex ‘Oyster’. She emerged from her fifteen hour ordeal with the watch functioning perfectly (much to the amazement of the public). Wilsdorf capitalized on this with a splashy front-page advertisement in London’s Daily Mail newspaper: “The wonder watch that defies the elements: Moisture proof. Waterproof. Heat proof. Vibration proof. Cold proof. Dust proof.” This was the genesis of the Rolex sport watch testimonial ad campaign that continues to this day.
The next 80 years brought continued innovation and evolution for the Rolex sport watch. In 1931, Rolex introduced the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the first waterproof, self-winding wristwatch. A rotor that sat on the movement swung in either direction, thereby winding the watch with the movement of the wrist. A mechanism was also introduced to ensure that over-winding became a thing of the past. The watch was even more accurate than a traditional watch, since the tension put on the mainspring by constant winding was greater than that provided by winding done once a day.
In another marketing coup, in 1935, a Rolex Oyster went over 300 miles per hour on the wrist of Sir Malcolm Campbell as he set the world land-speed record in his race car at Salt Lake Flats. In 1945, Rolex received their 50,000th certificate from the official testing office in Biel and the Oyster Perpetual Datejust was introduced – the first automatic, waterproof chronometer with the date visible through a window in the dial.
In 1953, Rolex enjoyed another marketing success when members of Sir John Hunt’s British Himalayas Expedition reached the summit of Mount Everest wearing prototype Rolex ‘Explorers’ – which lost no accuracy in the extreme weather and severe conditions. In the same year, a large test watch known as a Rolex ‘Deep Sea Special’ was attached to the exterior of Professor Auguste Piccard’s bathyscaphe which reached a depth of 3131.80 meters (10,335 feet). The watch remained completely waterproof. The year 1953 also started the evolution of several sport models; the ‘Turn-O-Graph’ was introduced with its distinctive case and bezel design which would later evolve to create several other popular sport models. The ‘Submariner’ with resistance to 100 meters depth was introduced and was later officially launched at the 1954 Basel Spring Watch Fair, in Switzerland. The ‘Milgauss’ was launched in 1954, having been designed for use in high magnetic fields. The same year, the GMT Master, a pilot’s watch that simultaneously tracked time in two different time zones simultaneously/ was introduced. Finally, 1954 brought the introduction of the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date, that displayed the date and day of the week through a window in the dial.
The year 1959 brought the evolution of the ‘Submariner’ (model 5512) with the introduction of a distinctive protective crown guard – later to become a prominent feature in various Rolex sport models. A year later, in early 1960, Rolex performed its most astonishing feat when a second bathyscaphe, the Trieste, reached a new world record depth of 11,000 meters (35,798 feet) with the Piccard watch (model 7205/0) attached to its exterior. The watch survived a pressure of almost seven tons per square inch. Shortly thereafter, on July 6, 1960, Hans Wilsdorf passed away and following his death, Andre Heiniger took over the company and became the driving force behind the company’s success for the next thirty years. Under Heiniger’s leadership, Rolex continued to invent and innovate in terms of technical skill and style throughout the second half of the century.
The same year, 1960, the first ‘Cosmograph’ chronograph (model 6239) was launched which featured a tachymetric timing ring on a metal bezel, rather than on the dial and a few months later a model with an acrylic bezel (model 6241) was launched. In 1965, the ‘Cosmograph’ evolved with the introduction of a model (model 6240) which used screw-down waterproof pushers.
In 1967, the ‘Sea-Dweller’ (model 1665) was created with a helium gas escape valve making it the first commercially available watch for use by saturation divers and solidifying Rolex as the choice for professional divers (a point that was quickly adopted in advertising the model). In addition, the same year, the ‘Submariner’ further evolved with the introduction of a model (model 1680) that featured a date through a window in the dial.
The ‘Explorer II’ (model 1655) was launched in 1971 as an essential tool for all ‘speleologists’ (more commonly known as ‘cave explorers’). The year 1980 saw the introduction of the ‘Sea Dweller 4000′, a more elaborate model that allowed divers greater freedom of depth, up to 1220m (4000ft). By 1986, half of all Swiss certified chronometers produced were manufactured by Rolex and soon thereafter, in 1990, Rolex produced its 10,000,000th chronometer certified watch.
In 1992, Heiniger handed over the helm of the company to his son, Patrick Heiniger, who continues to this day the tradition of innovation long established by Wilsdorf and his father. In 2002 he launched The Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, to help perpetuate the world’s artistic heritage from one generation to the next. In 2003, Rolex celebrated the Submariner’s 50th anniversary by launching a special model at the Basel watch fair. Recently, in 2007, Rolex re-introduces an updated and evolved ‘Milgauss’ model.
Today, 100 years after the launching of the Rolex watch company, the Oyster Perpetual has proved undaunted under the most severe conditions. It accompanied Mercedes Gleitze as she swam across the icy waters of the English Channel. It has survived the depths of the sea with Jacques Piccard and reached 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 outer space. It has survived plane crashes, shipwrecks and speedboat accidents, broken the sound barrier, and been ejected from a fighter jet at 22,000 feet. Each time, the recovered Rolex continued to run perfectly.
The Rolex tradition continues today with quality watches produced at their Swiss factory by a team of skilled technicians. When Rolex conceived of the Sport watch, they were among the first watches created for use in specific professions or recreational pursuits. The one hundred years of Rolex’s history are a testament to the ability of a company to grow successfully through constant innovation and product development. The sport watches that we know and wear today are products of this dedication to evolution. Rolex’s commitment to the sport watch has resulted in some of the most enduring and appealing wristwatch designs produced by any manufacturer. The company’s success stems from its controlled evolution, perfecting what was considered by many to be already perfect, and its dedication to a design concept that is not swayed by fad or fashion. Today the sport watch of every major company derives much of their styling and features from Rolex’s groundbreaking designs, not to mention its faith in the sports watch.
Disclaimer: Rolex is a registered trademark of Rolex USA, Inc. not affiliated with Rolex USA