The founder of the Rolex company, Hans Wilsdorf, was born in 1881 in Kulmbach, a small Bavarian village. At the tender age of 19, he left his native country, heading for La-Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland), in order to learn the practice of watchmaking with the then well-known watch exporter, Cuno Korten. This is where Rolex’s history begins.
In 1905, Wilsdorf eventually set up a self-employed business and founded the company, “Wilsdorf & Davis,” in London, the most important economic and financial metropolis in the world.
He had the unusual idea at the time of making wrist watches. Hans Wilsdorf foresaw that the watch would become practically indispensable for both men and women in everyday life, provided he could demonstrate that it could be perfectly accurate, watertight, robust and reliable.
The idea was so well received that Wilsdorf was already one of the largest manufacturers in Great Britain as early as 1908. Wilsdorf also broke with the tradition that watch brands were the trademark of the seller and not the manufacturer. He called the brand “Rolex,” a brand name about whose origins there are many rumors that could never be confirmed. Supposedly, the following were the only criteria, which today still seem surprisingly modern:
In 1915, Wilsdorf moved with his company to Biel to avoid import tariffs. In 1919, he moved the company headquarters to Geneva and founded the company, Montres Rolex S.A. The international appeal of the city, which itself had a very old watchmaking tradition, played an important role in this decision. The cases were now being produced in Geneva, and the plants continue to be in Biel. With both the workings and housing put together in Geneva, the watches were completely “Swiss made.”
In the following years, Rolex continued to develop its watch movements with great effort and a high level of quality. New products were being developed that revolutionized the world of watches:
In 1926 the efforts of Hans Wilsdorf were crowned with absolute success with the development of the Rolex Oyster, the first waterproof watch in the world! The system, patented by Rolex, has a bezel, a housing base and an elevated crown, which are hermetically screwed to the middle section. The typical Rolex appearance (ribbing of the bezel as well as the case back) was precisely because of this. These ribs were used to screw the components to the middle part using a specially developed key developed by Rolex. Today, the bezel is not screwed to the case, but the design can be still found on some Rolex watches.
In 1927 Hans Wilsdorf had the idea of subjecting the Oyster to a “torture test.” For this, the young English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze crossed the English Channel with an oyster on her wrist. The watch was watertight. To celebrate this masterpiece, Hans Wilsdorf put a full-page ad in the newspaper, the Daily Mail:
In 1931 Rolex developed the first rotor-operated self-winding mechanism for wrist watches. This innovation consists of a flywheel rotating freely in both directions about its own axis. The movement is thus constantly created only by the movements of the wrist, a revolution in the watch world.
In 1945, the Oyster Perpetual Datejust was introduced, the world’s first automatic and watertight wristwatch with Chronometer function, showing the date in a window on the dial.
In 1945, after Wilsdorf had worked on the development of watches for such a long time, he devoted himself to a new project. Wilsdorf withdrew more and more from company management and founded the “Hans Wilsdorf” foundation, which served both scientific projects and charitable purposes, but the developments he had already initiated continued and were brought into the series.
In 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest as members of a British expedition led by Sir John Hunt and as an assistant, of course, a Rolex, which defied the adverse conditions such as the enormous coldness and the air pressure.
In 1956, Rolex introduced the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date, the first watch that displays not only the date, but also the fully-featured weekday in a viewing window on the dial.
Hans Wilsdorf died at the age of 79 in 1960, but the success continued further.
In 1961 Rolex introduced a chronograph called “Rolex Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona.”
In 1978, Reinhold Messner climbed Mount Everest without an oxygen device and wore a Rolex Qysterquartz Datejust.
With the introduction of its own chronograph caliber in the Daytona model in 2000 and the purchase of all its suppliers, Rolex has since then become completely independent and is no longer dependent on other companies. On the contrary, Rolex is one of the few big watch brands that does not belong to one of the big corporations.
Rolex is now one of the most famous brands in the watch sector and enjoys great popularity. Rolex is appreciated by wearers, connoisseurs and collectors, which is also noticeable in extreme price stability or in price increases, e.g., in vintage watches. Moreover, Rolex is one of the few brands whose watches evoke emotions – almost everyone has already dreamed of owning a Rolex from childhood.
Title: Rolex Genf © Rolex/Cédric Widmer
Pictures: © Rolex