It is the quintessential watch—and by that I mean that it is exactly what you imagine when you think of the word, ‘watch’. It is objectively one of the simplest, most bland and unimaginative designs to ever to be strapped to a wrist—yet also perhaps the most popular and iconic in the world. Why is that?
The roots of the Rolex empire are somewhat more humble than you’d otherwise imagine. What we see as the biggest, most popular luxury watch brand today, with an army of loyal fans supporting it, started life as a bit of a gimmick.
What you have to understand is that, back in 1905, wristwatches just weren’t a thing. It was a piece of women’s jewellery, effeminate, dainty and undesirable. A man would sooner wear a dress. So when you’re a young businessman trying to start a watch company some century or so after your competitors, it’s no good to simply copy them; you have to do something new, something risky.
And Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex, he was just that—a businessman. Not a watchmaker, not a designer, a businessman. His skill was taking things that already existed and combining them and remarketing them in a way that appealed to a new audience.
It was while working at a watch exporter in Switzerland that he had an idea: pocket watches, while fashionable, weren’t a practical source of timekeeping for people in industry. Science, engineering, exploration—this dedication to progress was blooming following the industrial revolution, all fields that made the pocket watch seem increasingly outdated.
To be more specific, what Wilsdorf noticed was that the wristwatches that did exist were manufactured for women in the style of jewellery, and so, with his contacts in Switzerland, he sourced a wristwatch movement with respectable accuracy and had a case made to put it in. Being quite the Anglophile, Wilsdorf moved to London to set up his business where he housed the movements he’d ordered into the cases he’d had made—and he branded them ‘Rolex’.
But he knew that wouldn’t be enough. If his watches were to be worn by professionals in their respective fields as he hoped, he’d need some kind hook to draw them in, make his watches the only ones up to the job. So Wilsdorf, unwilling to leave anything to chance, didn’t just think of one angle he could pursue—he thought of all of them.
The first thing he did was get his creations reviewed for accuracy, the movements earning chronometer ratings; more importantly, the first chronometer ratings for a wristwatch—simply because no one else had even bothered to try. Then he borrowed a waterproofing concept for a pocket watch that had been on display at London’s Great Exhibition some half a century earlier and had his casemaker use it with his watches—again, something no one else had really bothered to try. With his businessman hat on, he even adopted a rather new marketing concept, the celebrity endorsement, having record-breaking swimmer Mercedes Gleitze wear his watch as she attempted to swim the English Channel.
No idea of his was ever anything but simple, and he continued to rely on resources that already existed—ones that crucially remained untapped. And so it was in 1945 when the biggest untapped idea of all came to be: the self-changing date.
It’s scarcely possible to believe that, over a century after Patek Philippe was founded, and an even more astonishing two centuries after Vacheron Constantin came to be, that the self-changing date did not yet exist. Perpetual calendars, minute repeaters, tourbillons—these had been around for ages by the time 1945 came around, yet not just the date.
To sum up what made Rolex stand out against competitors with far more experience, skill and quality is to understand how straightforward an idea this was—a date display that changed at midnight. It didn’t know which months had what number of days or anything like that, but that didn’t matter, because unlike the incredibly complex perpetual calendar upon which it was based—just stripped of all but the simplest mechanism—it was cheap, it was compact, and most importantly, it was useful.
Perhaps the impact of such a thing is hard to appreciate today, with the world’s data at our fingertips, but imagine not being able to know the date day-to-day without tracking it on a calendar or buying a newspaper—now you could simply check your wrist and you knew, just like that. It’s so simple and so obvious it seems stupid that no one else had thought of it.
But they hadn’t, and so the honestly titled DateJust was born. No fuss, no frills—just the date. It’s the platform that Rolex built its dominance of the professional market upon, turning what was once a bit of a gimmick into the real deal. Didn’t matter if you were a pilot, a scientist, a diver, an explorer or a racing driver—Rolex had a watch for you.
And it was the DateJust that cemented that style, that ethos, that made people sit up and take notice of Rolex. This was a practical watch that could be used and abused and go on ticking, unlike the fragile efforts of the traditional manufacturers who were only just coming to terms with the fact that they needed to start making wristwatches at all.
Very little has changed within Rolex since the DateJust. Sure, there have been models come and go, facelifts, technical revisions—but what you see here in the DateJust is essentially built upon the same ethos that started the brand in the first place. Even now, as mechanical wristwatches serve a different purpose as objects to enjoy and appreciate, Rolex continues to keep it simple, keep it clean. It’s what made the watchmaker successful, saw it through the quartz crisis, and now it’s what’s got it to the top as well.
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