ROLEX WATCH COMPANY HISTORY
Rolex Watch Company was founded by Hans Wilsdorf. Wilsdorf was was born on March 22, 1881 in Kulmbach, Franconia (Germany). Wilsdorf's parents died in 1893 and was placed in a boarding school by his uncle.
He was a businessman with an eye for opportunity. In his late teens early 20's he followed his interests in business, travel, and the new "bracelet watch" and in 1900 he landed himself an apprenticeship in a watch exporting firm located in La Chaux De Fonds, watchmaking "mecca" of the world.
At 24, eager to do things differently, Wilsdorf decided to set-up his own watch-making business. He worked between London and La Chaux-de-Fonds. Interestingly, Wilsdorf never claimed to be a watchmaker; until his dying day he signed all legal documents with the title "Merchant"!.
Wilsdorf & Davies was founded in 1905 in London. That year the company introduced a leather 'briefcase' watch which sold in large quantities in a variety of styles. Wisdorf was interested in concentrating on the new wrist-watch in an era when the pocket watch was mainstream. At the time the "wristlet" watch was viewed as "feminine" for women only. It wasn't deemed "manly" by the major watchmakers of the world to wear a watch on ones arm. There were also many questions that were raised as to the size of any such movements. The concern was that they would have to be so small, they wouldn't survive under normal human activity. Even if the movement was crafted well, dust and moisture would permeate it and cause problems.
Despite the early obstacles, Wilsdorf decided that the wristwatch was the way of the future. He was ahead of his time. He contracted with 'Hermann Aegler', based in Bienne. He obtained movements with lever escapement at a low cost. He frequently visited the workshop in biel, purchasing large quantities of movements. The movements were ideal as they were precise running and the availability of parts and materials was good. Wilsdorf set about employing watchmakers who themselves tested the movements before they were offered to the public from the London office. Hundreds of different models followed this process and it wasn't long before it was the fashion to be seen wearing a 'wristwatch'. Early models were produced, mainly silver with leather straps though it wasn't long before the gold models followed along with the birth of the flexible bracelet in 1906. In 1908, the firm was amongst the leading watch merchants in the United Kingdom.
Wilsdorf had dreamt of creating a brand for his watches, something that you could look at and see immediately what it was, but rather than immortalizing his own name on the watch face as many of other Swiss greats had done he made one up. He chose the name 'ROLEX'. He drew this name from the wording 'Horlogerie Exquise', (but this isn't confirmed) it was short, catchy and pronounced the same no matter you were in the world. Little did he know that it was going to grow to become one of the most recognized brands of all time.
In 1910, official recognition was gained from the 'Bureau Officiel' in Bienne, further recognizing the excellence of Wilsdorf's timepieces. It wasn't until four years later, on July 15 1914 that the first 'Kew A Chronometer Certificate' was awarded after 45 days of rigorous testing at the Kew Observatory in London. These consisted of various testing positions of the watch as well as three temperatures, Inside a refrigerator, air temperature and inside a conventional oven. Wilsdorf now insisted that all his watched must undergo and pass these tests before being sold.
Due to the First World War, the British government levied a heavy import duty on the importing which amounted to approximately one third of the a watch's value. This decision basically forced Wilsdorf to transfer the export of his watches to his office in Bienne that was opend in 1912.
Wilsdorf was creating a wide variety of the highest quality watches for men and women alike in a choice of sizes and styles. Recognition would be required from the observatories and as well as ensuring the highest precision, the lasting protection from dust, dirt and moisture would be paramount. On June 14 1925, the first 'Kew A certificate' was awarded to a ladies model, being much smaller in diameter, just some (13mm) as opposed to the gents model (25mm). In 1925, Wilsdorf spent 100,000 Francs into advertisements based in UK news periodicals touting the quality of his watches and assisting him in strengthening the Rolex brand.
In 1926 the next generation of Rolex was born, the 'Rolex Oyster'. Wilsdorf came up with the name during the design of the watch. He was hosting a dinner party and having a particularly hard time getting into an oyster. He made a comment to his guests that he hoped his new design of watch would prove to be as resilient as the mollusk. The name was born. This was a watch that would be totally watertight whilst still continuing to offer precision. The Oyster was put through it's paces on 7 October 1927 when Mercedes Gleitze, an English typist swam the channel wearing an 'Oyster'. She emerged from her fifteen hour ordeal with the watch functioning perfectly (much to the amazement of the public). On 24 November 1927, Wilsdorf spent 40000 Francs on a title page advert for the Daily Mail newspaper, making the 'Oyster' famous overnight. The watches were displayed prominently in jewelers shop windows, inside a fish tank totally submersed in water; a powerful image that would make the Rolex brand name unforgettable.
Rolex had invented a new type of unbreakable synthetic material which would be used in place of glass on the watch face and with it's new sealing method, provide a watertight seal on the case itself. Later in 1926, the invention of a watertight winding mechanism was introduced, acting like a 'mini submarine hatch' it allowed the wearer to manually wind or adjust their watch when opened and when closed it would be 100% water resistant. When the crown was tightened, two smooth metal surfaces would come together causing the connection between winder and movement to completely close.
Wilsdorf's next triumph came about in 1931, the invention of a self winding watch that powered itself on the movement of the wearers arm commonly known nowadays as the 'Perpetual', this was manufactured in three sizes, men's, women's and midsize. The 'Rotor' that sat on the movement swung in either direction, charging the watch at only the sleightest movement. A mechanism was also introduced to ensure that overwinding became a thing of the past. So, in the space of 30 years, Wilsdorf had invented not only the first truly waterproof wristwatch but also one that relied on just the simple movement of the watch to power itself.
In 1945, Rolex received their 50,000th certificate from the official testing office in Bienne. Later this year saw the birth of the 'Datejust' the first wristwatch to show the date, magnified two and a half times by a cyclops lens. Rolex were now employing over 1100 staff in both their Geneva and Biel offices and were spread amongst five buildings in Geneva alone. 1954 saw the introduction of the first ladies 'Oyster Perpetual' whilst two years later in 1956, the gents 'Day-Date' model was born, this allowed the wearer to view both the day and date whilst still enjoying every other promise Rolex had given. The 'Day-Date' is now available in 26 languages worldwide.
Sadly, Hans Wilsdorf passed away on 6 July 1960 leaving the running of the company to the various appointees that were stated in the 'Hans Wilsdorf Foundation'. This foundation also funded various educational projects such as a watch making school based in Geneva.
In 1971 the 'Oyster Perpetual Sea Dweller 2000' was brought about. This watch was water resistant to 610m (2000f). It was the first watch of it's kind to incorporate a helium gas release valve, this was used to dispense helium during decompression.
1980 saw the introduction of the 'Sea Dweller 4000', allowing divers more freedom of depth, upto 1220m (4000f).
By 1985, more than 4.1 million movements had been awarded the official 'Chronometer' title. Amazingly Rolex watches only make up about 1% of the total Swiss watch production.