Five Surprising Facts About Rolex
Rolex may be the biggest watch brand in the world, but it's also the most secretive. As much as there is that we know about Rolex, there's just as much—or more—that we don't. Some of those things will be kept a secret until the end of time, while others just simply aren't that well known. So, here are five things you probably didn't know about Rolex.
Watch our video to find out five Rolex facts you didn't know
While Rolex bases all of its operations out of Switzerland today, that hasn't always been the case. The company, originally established as Wilsdorf and Davis in 1905, was a London-based partnership between German Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis to import Swiss movements to be cased and branded by local jewellers.
While these jewellers were making pocket watches for men and wristwatches—or 'wristlets'—for women, Wilsdorf saw an opportunity to try and market a wristwatch for men. While these were currently unfashionable, Paris-based celebrity and entrepreneur Alberto Santos-Dumont had recently taken to wearing a custom wristwatch made for him by his friend Louis Cartier, and Wilsdorf saw an opportunity. He even considered the fact that people could own multiple wristwatches to suit different outfits. In 1908, Rolex was created, and not in Switzerland—in England.
Rolex Air-King 5504
But with the start of The Great War came increased import taxes and racial tension against Wilsdorf, and in 1919, he moved the business to Geneva, Switzerland. But this wasn’t to be the last of Rolex's affiliation with the United Kingdom—Wilsdorf continued to have parts like cases and bracelets made by the same British suppliers he'd always used, such as the case maker Dennison, a company that provided cases to Tudor, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and many others besides.
Rolex continued to use British-made parts well into the 1950s, up to Wilsdorf's death. The bracelet on this Air-King even has a stamp to show its country of origin. So, while Rolex no longer has any manufacturing ties with the British Isles, you now know that England was where it all began.
Rolex used British-made parts well into the 1950s
With the ability to certify its own watches for accuracy in-house, Rolex is among the very few with the ability to do so. And accuracy has always been a major part of the Rolex way, but not always as you'd expect.
In an effort to market his wristwatches to men, Wilsdorf took every opportunity he could to accrue accuracy certificates for his watches. The movements, which at the time he was importing in from Switzerland from a manufacturer called Aegler, were of high quality and very accurate thanks to their lever escapements, and crucially could be manufactured small enough to fit inside a wristwatch.
Rolex Date 115200
In 1910, a Rolex wristwatch was awarded the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision from the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, the first issued to a wristwatch. Then, in 1914, the British Kew Observatory, where many famous accuracy trials were held, awarded a Rolex wristwatch with a class 'A' precision certificate—again, the first wristwatch to achieve such an accolade.
Seems like quite the achievement, and it was—the Aegler movements were made with modern, precise production methods which gave them astounding accuracy—but the precision records came simply because Wilsdorf was the first to submit a wristwatch to them—at all. The Rolex wristwatch was the most accurate—by default.
Rolex made the first wristwatch awarded the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision
While Rolex sourced movements from a variety of manufacturers—including Valjoux for the original Daytona—there's been one brand that has stuck with them from the very beginning—Aegler. Before Wilsdorf moved to London in 1903, he worked in the watch industry in Switzerland and had become familiar with Aegler's work there.
Aegler had been established in Switzerland since 1878, and was a specialist in small, accurate movements. This is what made them so appealing to Wilsdorf in his efforts to make the wristwatch appealing to men.
Rolex Cellini 5443/9
Knowing the quality and performance of Aegler's movements, Wilsdorf wanted to secure supply indefinitely, requesting that the brand sign their movements as 'Rolex' to give the impression of a unified product. Even early Rolex marketing material showed the Aegler factory with Rolex branding substituted in.
Of course, Rolex now makes its movements in-house, but it was a surprisingly long time before the watchmaker made that commitment. If you were to guess when the changeover happened, perhaps you might think it was in the 1960s or 70s, perhaps even the 80s, but that's still a long way off. While Aegler had long been an exclusive producer of movements to Rolex, it wasn't until 2004 that Rolex finally bought the movement manufacturer outright and absorbed it into the brand.
Rolex had movements made by Aegler until 2004
Rolex are known for making almost everything in-house, but there are some things that are more surprising than others. For decades, Rolex has applied luminous paint to its dials to aid night-time viewing, and the contents of this paint has changed many times. First, it was radium-based, a radioactive material that posed a significant health hazard.
Rolex Deepsea Sea-Dweller 116660
Then, when radium was phased out in 1960 after medical concerns, Rolex, like many other manufacturers, switched to the also-radioactive-but-less-dangerously-so tritium. Tritium was then banned in its bare paint form in 1998, and superseded by a non-radioactive luminous paint called Luminova, a product of Japanese firm Nemoto.
Ten years after the introduction of Luminova, Rolex switched to its own, in-house luminous paint, called Chromalight. With it came a distinctive blue glow, unlike Luminova's typical green, and a staying power that lasts twice as long.
Rolex makes its own luminous paint, Chromalight
While Omega's Speedmaster beat Rolex's Daytona to become NASA's official watch and the watch that would eventually go to the moon, Rolex did not miss out for long. While not worn in an official capacity, a Rolex GMT-Master 1675 like this one was indeed worn by astronaut Edgar Mitchell on board the Apollo 14 mission to the moon.
Rolex GMT-Master 1675
It appears that the GMT-Master was in fact Mitchell's own, with NASA photography showing him preparing the watch ahead of the launch on the 31st of January 1971. He also wore the standard issue Speedmaster as well, with imagery from on board the lunar module, before the astronaut's return to the command module, showing him wearing both.
The GMT-Master went to the moon on the wrist of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell
While there is no evidence that the GMT-Master was actually worn on the surface of the moon outside of the lunar module—the Oyster bracelet wouldn't fit around the spacesuit like the Speedmaster's Velcro strap—Mitchell has since recalled that he did indeed wear it underneath the suit.
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Other watches you may be interested in: Rolex Daytona 116500 LN Rolex Submariner 14060 Rolex Explorer II 16570 Rolex Datejust 1601 Rolex GMT-Master II 16710