HISTORY OF ROLEX
The status of Rolex and the unique identity of the brand are products of a history driven by a passion for innovation and a constant quest for excellence. A fascinating succession of pioneering achievements encompassing a watchmaking, industrial and human adventure, this story is interwoven with the history of the Oyster, the first waterproof wristwatch. Since its launch in 1926, the Oyster has become the pillar of a collection of legendary watches, among the most recognized and most recognizable in the world.
HANS WILSDORF AND HIS VISIONARY GENIUS
The success of Rolex is inextricably linked to the extraordinary spirit of enterprise of its founder, Hans Wilsdorf (1881-1960). Through his visionary genius and uncommon capacity to embrace all fields of the company’s activities – technology, communication, organization and distribution – as head of Rolex for more than 50 years, he set the fundamental course for an adventure which has given birth to exceptional watches and an unparalleled brand. Today, his personality and his work continue to inspire the company and permeate its corporate culture. Hans Wilsdorf’s influence is also evident in the aesthetics and intrinsic characteristics of a product that has remained faithful to the original, as well as in Rolex’s ability to draw on its prodigious heritage to continuously advance towards new horizons.
The Rolex adventure began in the early 1900s. Born in Bavaria, Germany, Hans Wilsdorf began his career in watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. In an era when pocket watches were the order of the day, he was quick to see the potential of the wristwatch for the 20th century, despite their not yet being very precise and being generally considered to be items of jewellery of particular appeal to women.
Hans Wilsdorf foresaw that the wristwatch by its very nature was destined to become an everyday necessity – for men as well as for women – provided that it could be a precise, waterproof, robust and reliable instrument. His stroke of genius was to anticipate what is now taken for granted, and to contribute to making the wristwatch what it is today.
CHRONOMETRIC PRECISION AND WATERPROOFNESS
In 1905, when living in London – then the economic and financial capital of the world – Hans Wilsdorf founded with his partner the firm Wilsdorf & Davis specializing in the distribution of wristwatches in Great Britain and the British Empire. The watch components were produced for him by Swiss partners selected for their expertise. Among them was the Maison Aegler in Bienne, which would eventually become the Manufacture des Montres Rolex SA. He regarded it as the only manufacturer at the time able to produce the small, precise movements he needed for his wristwatches. Observing the remarkable rise in leisure time and the practice of sports, Hans Wilsdorf wanted to prove to a still sceptical public that wristwatches and chronometric precision were compatible.
His quest was soon crowned with resounding success. In 1910, a Rolex wristwatch obtained the first certificate in the world granted to such a watch by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, Switzerland. Four years later, in 1914, a similar model received from the prestigious Kew Observatory in England the first “Class A” certificate accorded to a wristwatch, a distinction until then reserved for marine chronometers. This was proof that wristwatches and chronometric precision could go hand in hand. The next challenge was waterproofness. The precision of the wristwatch would be seriously compromised if its case did not keep out water and dust. Hans Wilsdorf would once again draw on his spirit of enterprise and his energy to make the wristwatch waterproof.
THE INVENTION OF THE NAME “ROLEX”
Foreseeing the importance of the brand concept, in 1908 Hans Wilsdorf coined the name “Rolex” to sign his creations. The criteria behind his choice still sound incredibly modern today. He sought a name that would be:
- short, five letters maximum;
- easy to pronounce in any language;
- pleasant sounding;
- easy to remember;
- possible to inscribe elegantly on the dial and movement of a watch.
A SPIRIT OF ENTERPRISE WITHOUT BORDERS
Hans Wilsdorf left England in 1919 to settle in Geneva, Switzerland, where he founded Montres Rolex SA in 1920. This brought him closer to his supplier in Bienne and allowed him to optimize their collaboration. The international reputation of Geneva, which itself boasted a venerable watchmaking tradition, also played an important role in his decision.
OYSTER: THE FIRST WATERPROOF WRISTWATCH
In 1926, Hans Wilsdorf’s efforts to achieve waterproofness proved successful with the invention of the Rolex Oyster, the first waterproof wristwatch in the world, thanks to a case equipped with an ingenious patented system consisting of a screw-down bezel, case back and winding crown. Hermetically sealed, it offered optimal protection for the movement.
The fluting of the bezel, like that of the case back, served a functional purpose. It was used to screw the bezel and case back onto the middle case with a specific tool invented by Rolex. It also gave the watch its visual identity and unique personality. Today, although the Oyster’s bezel is no longer screwed down onto the case, the bezels on several models still feature the characteristic fluting, echoing the original 1926 model.
Thanks to the Oyster and its totally innovative waterproof case, Rolex stepped firmly into watchmaking history. In addition to the know-how Hans Wilsdorf so aptly demonstrated, his keen sense of communication gave Rolex an admirable head start.