There’s no question about it—Rolex is the best known, most recognisable and biggest name in watchmaking. It’s a surprise to find out that Rolex is one of the younger watchmakers out there, its paltry century of watchmaking a mere blip on the horological calendar in comparison to the near three centuries of the likes of Blancpain. But despite the scrutiny the brand receives, despite the huge amount of awareness it has generated over the years, there are still a handful of lesser-known facts about the five-pointed crown that might surprise you. Join us as we rummage through the closet of the world’s number-one watchmaker.
1905 - Hans Wilsdorf founds a London-based watch distributor at twenty-four, equipping cases with small, high-precision movements
1908 - The name ‘Rolex’ is created. Many theories exist as to its origins, but Wilsdorf himself insisted a genie whispered it to him in his ear
1910 - A Rolex wristwatch becomes the first in the world to receive the prestigious Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision
Rolex’s staggering success is, quite simply, the result of filling gaps in the market. There’s no trickery, no smoke and mirrors—it’s as plain and straightforward as that. Wristwatches weren’t particularly fashionable when Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf set up shop in 1905: they were considered a ladies’ item, a mere trinket in the sight of the more substantial pocket watch. Wilsdorf saw an opportunity and seized it.
1914 - Kew Observatory awards a Rolex watch a class A precision certificate, an accolade usually reserved for marine chronometers
1919 - Wilsdorf’s German heritage causes unrest in London; he moves Rolex to Switzerland. Montres Rolex SA is registered a year later
1926 - Determination to make wristwatches durable results in the creation of the first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch, the Oyster
Being designed for formal ladies’ wear, wristwatches of the early twentieth century were delicate—too delicate for proper usage, and certainly not suitable for anything involving dust or moisture. They weren’t particularly accurate, either. Wilsdorf dedicated his entire career to resolving this glaring oversight, and before he even had a name for his brand, he was building better watches, casing small, accurate movements in his workshop in London. Yes, London. Rolex is originally British. German-born Wilsdorf liked England, London especially, and he moved there to start his business with his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis. The movements they imported were from Switzerland, made by Hermann Aegler, and featured a lever escapement, a then uncommon configuration that was inherently better at keeping time than its contemporaries.
1931 - Rolex creates the perpetual movement, the first rotor-powered watch that allows the rotor weight to spin a continuous 360 degrees
1945 - Despite the existence of the perpetual calendar, a straightforward date complication does not exist. Rolex rectifies this with the Datejust
1953 - A year of exploration for Rolex. The Submariner and the Explorer are designed to reach the lowest and highest points on Earth
Wilsdorf’s German ancestry caused him issues during the first world war, so he moved himself and his brand to Switzerland—but not before coining the name ‘Rolex’ in 1908. Some say the name is the amalgamation of the words ‘horlogerie’ and ‘lux’, but Wilsdorf himself insisted that a genie whispered the name in his ear on his commute to work. He continued to use Aegler’s movements after relocating, but it wasn’t until 2004 that Rolex bought the Aegler company and was finally able to call its movements ‘in-house’. Although the Aegler workshop was independent of Rolex for a year shy of a century, the two brands had a mutual agreement from the 1930s that kept the partnership exclusive.
1954 - As inter-continental flight increases, Pan-Am turns to Rolex to develop a watch with multiple time zone displays, the GMT-Master
1956 - Two more groundbreaking releases: the Day-Date, with the world’s first day and date, and the Milgauss, anti-magnetic to 1,000 gauss
1960 - The most impressive Rolex yet, the Deep Sea Special, travels eleven kilometres down to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench
As well as Wilsdorf’s dedication to providing better accuracy in wristwatches (which earned him a plethora of chronometric certificates), he also pushed for better day-to-day usability from them, too. His Oyster, the first water-and-dust-proof watch, was advertised to the public submerged in fish tanks in jewellers’ windows. His quest for ultimate water resistance reached its final climax on the year of his death, 1960, when the Bathyscaphe Trieste descended to the deepest depths of the ocean with a Rolex prototype strapped to the outside.
11963 - Perhaps the world’s most desirable watch, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, is seen for the first time
1967 - As part of a relationship with diving agency COMEX, Rolex creates the Sea-Dweller, equipped with a patented helium escape valve
1985 - Rolex adopts the use of 904L steel. Compared to 316L steel, 904L has superior anti-corrosion properties and a brighter shine
Wilsdorf seemed to have a knack for stepping back and seeing things in a clearer way. How, when the perpetual calendar had existed for several decades already, had no-one else seen the need for a self-changing date on a watch? And why, when automatic movements had been in existence with limited-swing rotors swing since 1780, had no-one thought to let the rotor spin the full 360 degrees? Wilsdorf saw both opportunities and executed them to perfection. Two simple ideas that changed the face of watchmaking forever.
1992 - The rumoured Submariner replacement is announced as the Yacht-Master, a sleeker, shinier version of Rolex’s classic dive watch
2000 - The 4030 chronograph movement in the Daytona, based on Zenith’s El Primero, is replaced by Rolex’s in-house calibre 4130 movement
2005 - Always the innovator, Rolex develops and patents both a ceramic bezel and a paramagnetic alloy hairspring
Next to a gleaming Patek Philippe perpetual calendar or a Vacheron Constantin minute repeater, it’s easy to wonder how a Rolex can be considered as anything like their equal, but recalling Hans Wilsdorf’s no-nonsense contribution to watchmaking sets that notion straight, no question. He was a man of foresight, of design, and his genie-inspired brand deserves every success it’s had.
2008 - The successor to the Sea-Dweller, the Deepsea Sea-Dweller, surfaces, and with it comes a staggering 3,900 metres’ water resistance
2012 - The most complex Rolex in decades, the Sky-Dweller combines the second time zone of the GMT-Master with a clever annual calendar system
2014 - The Deepsea Sea-Dweller gets a brother, the Sea-Dweller 4000. The 4000 more closely mirrors the original, adding some modern touches