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Feature: 5 Shocking Things I’ve Discovered About Watches

It’s the biggest watchmaker in the world, the one everybody has heard of. But not everyone knows everything about Switzerland’s biggest name. Here are five things I’ve learnt about Rolex over the years that might just well shock you.

Aren’t That Old

When you think of Swiss watchmaking, you think of ancient brands that have been around as long as the sun. The oldest still in business today, Blancpain, was founded in 1735. That’s so long ago, it was barely a few years after the reign of King George—the first one. It was just before Benjamin Franklin had invented the lightning rod. I mean, there was still almost half a century to go before the United States of America was even a thing.

Age is a trait we see everywhere in Swiss watchmaking. We see Vacheron Constantin pop up in 1755, Breguet in 1775, Patek Philippe—a relative latecomer in this company—in 1839. So where does Rolex figure in all of this? Somewhere in the middle? Nowhere near. Rolex was founded in the 20th century, in 1905, and it wasn’t really until World War One that things picked up for the brand. By comparison, Japanese watchmaker Seiko, one you’d imagine as being a modern example, was founded almost a quarter-century before, in 1881. Really want to put that into perspective? As of the date of recording, the oldest person alive today was born the year before Rolex was founded.

Isn’t A Swiss Brand

Rolex’s German founder, Hans Wilsdorf, was a rampant Anglophile. He loved England, loved its history, and he moved there to find his fortune. Living in London, he started a jewellery business with his brother-in-law Alfred Davies, which evolved from the selling of other people’s watches to the selling of their own.

What I’m saying here is that Rolex wasn’t founded in Switzerland, nor were the first Rolex watches sold in Switzerland. Wilsdorf not only loved England, he also identified a gap in the market to provide high quality watches at a more affordable price by importing Swiss movements, having them cased up in England and selling them to the English. By comparison, the once great English watchmaking scene had become too bloated and expensive, and an affordable Swiss movement dressed in an English case was the perfect solution.

But the First World War threw a spanner in the works for Wilsdorf. Not only were import duties making his business unprofitable, his German descent made him a target for British distrust, and so he packed his bag and moved to Switzerland in 1919. Who knows—if things had gone a little differently, Rolex might still be an English brand to this day.

Copied Other Watches

If there’s one thing Rolex is heralded for, it’s ingenuity. The self-winding movement, water-resistant case and GMT function are all often accredited to Rolex as original ideas—but the truth is different. Not one of those things did Rolex do first. Take Rolex’s self-winding movement, the Perpetual, invented in 1931. It uses a free-spinning rotor weight to keep the watch wound automatically. It’s claimed to be the first, yet was actually patented by a watchmaker called Harwood in 1923 and produced in 1929.

Rolex’s water-resistant Oyster case is the same, claimed to be the first when it came out in 1926, sealed with screw threads front and back—yet a pocket watch with the same technology was displayed at the world’s fair in 1851. It was even displayed in a fish tank, the same way Rolex advertised the Oyster in jewellers’ windows. Take the GMT function as well, widely attributed to the 1954 Rolex GMT-Master—but once again, we see a watch arrive before that does the same thing, the 1953 Glycine Airman. In every case, Rolex didn’t invent the feature, but what it did do was improve it—and ultimately, tell more people about it.

It’s A Charity

When Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf passed away, he didn’t leave the business to a friend or family or sell it off—he donated it to a charity of his own making, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. He created the foundation in 1945 after his wife, Florence Frances May Wilsdorf-Crotty, died the year earlier, leaving them no children. The mission of the charity was to make donations towards education in the watchmaking industry, specifically for schools and laboratories, as well as funding scientific endeavour and exploration.

And that’s about all we know, because as a privately run business, the charity is not required to disclose very much at all. Unlike publicly trading companies, which release annual statements yearly that dive deep into their performance, Rolex yields nothing. Not a bean. It remains to this day one of the most secretive and mysterious businesses to be in such an enormous spotlight. Its closest secrets are guarded by retinal-scanning computers and fingerprint-activated locks. Everything else is speculation.

Make A Million Watches A Year

Talking of speculation, one of the things that nobody can know for sure about Rolex is how many luxury watches it makes every year. To set the scene, the annual production of an extremely high-end watchmaker like Ferdinand Berthoud is in the tens of watches; a small step down to F. P Journe and you’ll see hundreds a year; broader still and you’ll find A. Lange & Söhne making thousands each year; then there’s Patek Philippe making tens of thousands; and of course someone more mainstream like Omega is making hundreds of thousands.

Now, to Rolex. So, the watchmaker doesn’t release figures on its production, but the company that certifies its watches for chronometer rating does. Or at least, it did, until 2016, when it was asked if it could keep that data private. So, for Rolex, the last known data point was close to a million, around 800,000, with speculation around its growth since then pushing it to over a million watches produced each year.

Not everything is as it seems when it comes to watchmaking, and Rolex is one of the most surprising of all. The brand has built an incredible story in a relatively short time, cleverly weaving the narrative to create some of the greatest demand we’ve seen of any watchmaker. It may not make it the best, but you have to admit, it is impressive, built from the ground up by Hans Wilsdorf to take on the game in an altogether different way. Hats off, Mr Wilsdorf, hats off.

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