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Feature: How Rolex Fought Off A Century Of Competition Without Making Its Own Movements

The French poet Charles Baudelaire once said that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. And something similar could be said for Rolex’s outsourcing of its movements, the elephant in the room where discussion of the brand was concerned - not just when Rolex was in its infancy but for almost an entire century.

Rolex’s reliance on an external supplier to make its calibres for so many years was a curious omission for a leading – some might say the leading - luxury watch brand. So how did it take on the old guard of horology and win, forging a global reputation as gleaming and solid as its steel cases?

When Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davies joined forces in London at the turn of the twentieth century to form what would become Rolex, they were the new kids on the block, whereas the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin were already long-established.

A young Hans Wilsdorf

A young Hans Wilsdorf

Wilsdorf had arrived in London from his native Germany in 1903, having worked for a watch exporter in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland where he had been introduced to a number of English clients. And it’s not difficult to see why the 22-year-old gravitated to England.

As well as London being a hotbed of horology at the time, the Edwardian age had just begun after the death of long-reigning Queen Victoria, the British Empire was in its pomp, and the first transatlantic radio broadcast had just been transmitted between the US and Britain. All of which would have appealed to the ambitious Wilsdorf.

Despite a disastrous start – he was robbed of his savings on the journey to England – Wilsdorf quickly settled into his new city, attaining British citizenship and forming a business partnership with the much older Alfred Davis in 1905, initially selling watches and watch parts.

The Wilsdorf & Davis nameplate in London, 1905

The Wilsdorf & Davis nameplate in London, 1905

Each of them brought their unique set of talents and expertise to the table. Davis had the deep pockets and financial acumen, while Wilsdorf provided the technical nous, helped by his watch background and a knack for mathematics. But it was the latter’s remarkable foresight that would change his company’s fortunes - and the trajectory of the entire watch industry forever.

Convinced that wristwatches – then worn mostly by women and given the laughably dainty sounding name of ‘wristlets’ – could appeal equally to men, Wilsdorf wanted to make his own products. So he got in touch with Hermann Aegler, owner of a watch factory in the Swiss town of Bienne.

Wilsdorf was impressed with the quality of Aegler’s movements and soon made what was then the largest ever order for wristwatch calibres, guaranteeing a consistent supply.

It was the beginning of a symbiotic and fruitful relationship, one built on mutual respect and trust, and which lasted for almost a century.

Yet Rolex certainly didn’t build its sterling, bullet-proof reputation for quality without overcoming a few hurdles along the way.

Precision matters

A perfectionist to the core, Wilsdorf knew that for men to cast aside their pocket watches and adopt the wristwatch, he would have to come up with a highly accurate product.

So he worked closely with the Aegler factory, sending their first movement to the Official Watch Rating Centre (a predecessor of COSC), one of the early timekeeping institutes, where it was awarded the world’s first wristwatch chronometer rating. Shortly after, it was awarded the “Class A Certificate of Precision” from the Kew Observatory in England, the first certificate awarded to a wristwatch.

However despite the undoubted quality of its watches, Rolex was up against the prestige and heritage of the likes of Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain and Patek Philippe, which had already been around for as long as 170 years. Even Omega – who would go on to become the brand’s arch nemesis – was already of pensionable age by the time Rolex was up and running.

Still, for all their illustrious history (and the ability to make their watches in-house), what these brands didn’t have was Wildorf’s marketing ingenuity, prescience and the odd slice of luck.

The Oyster Perpetual movement revolutionised the industry

The Oyster Perpetual movement revolutionised the industry

One of Wilsdorf’s earliest forms of brand promotion involved printing the Rolex name on the dial. At the time, this was a radical move to say the least, with Wilsdorf commenting that, “the opposition I encountered [from sellers] seemed insuperable.” So he began with a strategy of stealth, sneaking the brand name onto one in six watches, eventually increasing this to three in six to build up recognition.

The First World War also helped the wristwatch gain a larger male following, with soldiers on the battlefield finding it more practical than the pocket watch and bestowing it with masculine kudos. Unsurprisingly, the term ‘wristlet’ faded into obscurity.

Anti-German feeling during and after the war also prompted the company to relocate permanently to Geneva where it was closer to its suppliers, including Aegler. Thus the decades that followed saw the Rolex-Aegler relationship going from strength to strength, achieving an industry milestone in the 1920s with the introduction of a movement with a perpetual rotor, as well as its waterproof Oyster model, which would eventually become the Oyster Perpetual.

In an early example of brand ambassadorship, Wilsdorf got Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English Channel, to wear a Rolex Oyster around her neck as she braved the waves. He also spent a small fortune on advertising the feat in print, as well as creating crowd-pleasing shop window displays in England that featured Rolex Oysters submerged in fish-filled aquariums.

A Rolex advert featuring Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English channel

A Rolex advert featuring Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English channel

The following decades were a time where Rolex excelled in horological innovation, with the introduction in the 1950s of seminal tool watches including the Submariner and Milgauss. Rolex, still relying on Aegler for its calibres, was by now synonymous with luxury and precision, appearing on the wrist of James Bond, summiting the world's tallest mountains and reaching the deepest parts of the ocean.

Not all plain sailing

Wilsdorf died in 1960, having taken Rolex on an incredibly successful journey where it could seemingly do no wrong. So when, soon after, NASA famously chose Omega's Speedmaster to accompany its astronauts to the Moon, it must have knocked the brand's bullet-proof confidence. This was a huge coup for their rival and a dent in Rolex’s famous gold crown. Perhaps some even questioned whether Rolex might lose its way with the peerless Wilsdorf no longer at the helm.

The blow was undoubtedly compounded by the relative commercial failure of its own chronograph, the Daytona Cosmograph, when it was released in the 1960s (although this was powered by a Valjoux movement rather than an Aegler one).

It took decades for the Daytona to garner the same cult appeal and adoration of other Rolex models, largely aided by the fact that one of its versions was worn by Hollywood legend Paul Newman.

The 1970s dealt another blow to Rolex, Aegler and the watch industry in general with the arrival of the quartz crisis, which left the Swiss brands rallying to produce their own battery-powered movement to rival those produced by the leading Japanese brands.

The Daytona Cosmograph, with its Valjoux movement, was not an instant success

The Daytona Cosmograph, with its Valjoux movement, was not an instant success

Rolex, while still selling mechanical watches, rode the quartz bandwagon for three decades before the enduring appeal of mechanical watches returned with a vengeance in the 1990s. And with the increasing desire among watch aficionados for in-house movements, Rolex finally began flexing its muscles and quietly buying up its parts suppliers. First came the purchases of Gay Freres and Genex, its bracelet and casemaker, respectively, and then came the acquisition of Beyeler, which made its dials.

In 2004, 99 years after it was founded, Rolex finally bought Aegler when its owners, the descendants of founder Hermann, decided to sell up. At last it could boast of being a vertically integrated company like its closest rivals. But it seems that many of its clients simply assumed it already was.

And even if they did know, Rolex's superlative performance, design perfection and A-list aura probably meant that in the grand scheme of things it didn't really matter.

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