Rolex is a brand of Swiss wristwatches and accessories renowned for their quality and exclusivity, as well as their cost (from a few thousand to more than one hundred thousand U.S. dollars). The watches have become status symbols of the rich and famous — as well as the upwardly-mobile career-minded individual. Although a symbol of success, Rolex has earned its strong reputation through innovations in design and function over many decades.
The Rolex, SA company was founded in 1905 by Mr. Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law, Mr. Alfred Davis. Contrary to popular belief, Hans Wilsdorf was neither Swiss, nor a watchmaker. Wilsdorf & Davis was the original name of what later became the Rolex Watch Company. They originally imported Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movements to England and placed them in quality cases made by Dennison and others. These early wristwatches were then sold to jewellers, who then put their own names on the dial. The earliest watches from the firm of Wilsdorf and Davis are usually marked “W&D” – inside the caseback only.
Hans Wilsdorf registered the trademark name “Rolex” in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland during 1908. The word was made up, but its origin is obscure. One story, which was never confirmed by Wilsdorf, is that the word “Rolex” came from the French phrase horlogerie exquise , meaning exquisite watch industry .
The Wilsdorf & Davis company moved out of Great Britain in 1912. Wilsdorf wanted his watches to be affordable, but taxes and export duties on the case metals (silver and gold) were driving costs up. From that time to the present, Rolex has been headquartered in Geneva , Switzerland , though the company owns facilities in other cities ( Bienne , etc) and continents ( North America , Asia , Australia , etc).
The company name Rolex was officially registered on 15 November 1915 . It is thought this change was part of a drive to popularize wristwatches, which at the time were still considered a novelty largely for women (pocket watches were more common). Wilsdorf was said to desire his watch brand’s name to be easily pronouncable in any language. The company name was offically changed to the Rolex Watch Company during 1919. It was later changed to Montres Rolex, SA and finally Rolex, SA.
Among the company’s innovations are the first self-winding watch; the first waterproof watch case; the first wristwatch with a date on the dial; the first watch to show two timezones at once; and most importantly the first watchmakers to earn the coveted chronometer certification for a wristwatch. To date, Rolex still holds the record for the most certified chronometer movements in the category of wristwatches. Another little known fact is that Rolex participated in the development of the original quartz watch movements. Although Rolex has made very few quartz models for its Oyster line, the company’s engineers were instrumental in design and implementation of the technology during the early 1970s.
The first self-winding Rolex watch was offered to the public in 1931, powered by an internal mechanism that used the movement of the wearer’s arm. This not only made watch-winding unnecessary, but eliminated the problem of over-winding a watch and harming its mechanism. Rolex was also the first watch company to create a truly waterproof watch — another milestone from novelty to functional timepiece. Wilsdorf even went so far as to have a specially made Rolex watch attached to the side of the Trieste bathyscaphe, which went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The watch survived and tested as having kept perfect time during its descent and ascent.
Rolex has also made a reputation in watches suitable for the extremes of deep-sea diving, aviation and mountain climbing. Sports models include the Oyster Perpetual Sea Dweller 2000 feet in 1971. This watch featured a helium release valve, co-invented with Swiss watchmaker Doxa, to dispense helium during decompression. Another is the GMT Master, originally developed at the request of Pan Am Airways, to assist pilots in transcontinental flights. The Explorer and Explorer II were developed specifically for explorers who would navigate rough terrain — such as the world famous Everest Expeditions.
On the more glamorous side, Ian Fleming’s James Bond character wore a Rolex Oyster Perpetual in the series of spy novels. In the early EON production Bond films, Commander Bond was seen to wear a Rolex Submariner.
Among modern Rolex watches are the Air-King, Datejust, GMT Master/GMT II, Submariner, Sea-Dweller, Daytona Cosmograph, Day-Date, Oyster Perpetual and Yacht-Master. Most Rolex watches have a case design called the Oyster. Dressy designs usually fall under the sister brand called Cellini. The third line in the Rolex empire is the lesser expensive, but high quality, Tudor brand. The primary types of Rolex bracelets include the Jubilee, Oyster and the President.
Rolex, SA, the current company name, is not a public corporation. In fact, it is a foundation initiated and originally funded by Hans Wilsdorf and the Aegler family. According to foundation documentation, the Rolex, SA company can never be sold, nor traded on any stock market.