In 1905 Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded "Wilsdorf and Davis" in London. Their main business at the time was importing Hermann Aegler's Swiss movements to England and placing them in quality watch cases made by Dennison and others. These early wristwatches were sold to jewelers, who then put their own names on the dial. The earliest watches from Wilsdorf and Davis were usually hallmarked "W&D" inside the caseback.
In 1908 Wilsdorf registered the trademark "Rolex" and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The company name "Rolex" was registered on 15 November 1915. The word was made up, but its origin is obscure. Wilsdorf was said to want his watch brand's name to be easily pronounceable in any language. He also thought that the name "Rolex" was onomatopoeic, sounding like a watch being wound. It was also short enough to fit on the face of a watch. One story, never confirmed by Wilsdorf, is that the name came from the French phrase horlogerie exquise, meaning "exquisite clockwork".
In 1914 Kew Observatory awarded a Rolex watch a Class A precision certificate, a distinction which was normally awarded exclusively to marine chronometers.
In 1919 Wilsdorf moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland where it was established as the Rolex Watch Company. Its name was later changed to Montres Rolex, SA and finally Rolex, SA. The company moved out of the United Kingdom because taxes and export duties on the silver and gold used for the watch cases were driving costs too high.
Upon the death of his wife in 1944, Wilsdorf established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation in which he left all of his Rolex shares, making sure that some of the company's income would go to charity. The company is still owned by a private trust and shares are not traded on any stock exchange.
In December 2008 the abrupt departure of Chief Executive Patrick Heiniger, for “personal reasons”, was followed by a denial by the company that it had lost SwFr1 billion (approx £574 million) invested with Bernard Madoff, the American asset manager who pleaded guilty to an approximately £30 billion (approx US$50 billion) world-wide Ponzi scheme fraud.
Among the company's innovations are:
- The first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial (Rolex Datejust, 1945)
- The first wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial (Rolex Day-Date)
- The first wristwatch case waterproof to 100 m (330 ft) (Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner, 1953)
- The first wristwatch to show two time zones at once (Rolex GMT Master, 1954)
- The first watchmaker to earn chronometer certification for a wristwatch
The first self-winding Rolex wristwatch was offered to the public in 1931, preceded to the market by Harwood which patented the design in 1923 and produced the first self-winding watch in 1928, 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 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 late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, Rolex collaborated with a consortium of 16 Swiss watch manufacturers to develop the Beta 21 quartz movement used in their Rolex Quartz Date 5100. Within about five years of research, design, and development, Rolex created the "clean-slate" 5035/5055 movement that would eventually power the Rolex Oysterquartz.
Water resistant cases
Rolex was also the first watch company to create a wristwatch water resistant to 100 m (330 ft). Wilsdorf even had 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. This was confirmed by a telegram sent to Rolex the following day saying "Am happy to confirm that even at 11,000 metres your watch is as precise as on the surface. Best regards, Jacques Piccard".
Rolex produced specific models suitable for the extremes of deep-sea diving, mountain climbing and aviation. Early sports models included the Rolex Submariner and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Sea Dweller. The latter watch has a helium release valve, co-invented with Swiss watchmaker Doxa, to release helium gas build-up during decompression. The Explorer and Explorer II were developed specifically for explorers who would navigate rough terrain, such as the world famous Mount Everest expeditions. The most iconic model is the Rolex GMT Master, which was originally developed in 1954 at the request of Pan-Am Airways to assist its pilots with the problem of crossing multiple time-zones when on transcontinental flights (GMT standing for Greenwich Mean Time). In 2005 this classic watch was updated and re-issued as the Rolex GMT Master II "50th anniversary edition".
Rolex is the largest manufacturer of Swiss made certified chronometers. In 2005 more than half the annual production of COSC certified watches were Rolexes. To date, Rolex still holds the record for the most certified chronometer movements in the category of wristwatches.
Rolex has three watch lines: Oyster Perpetual, Professional and Cellini (the Cellini line is Rolex's line of 'dressy' watches) and the primary bracelets for the Oyster line are named Jubilee, Oyster and President.
Modern Rolex models
- Datejust II
- Datejust Turn-O-Graph
- Lady Datejust Pearlmaster
- Paul Newman Daytona
- Day-Date II
- Day-Date Oyster Perpetual
- Explorer II
- GMT Master II
- Sea Dweller
- Sea Dweller DeepSea
- Yacht-Master II
- Cellini models
- Quartz Ladies
- Quartz Mens
- Cestello Ladies
- Cestello Mens
- Danaos Mens
Rolex sells less expensive watches under the Tudor brand name, which was introduced by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf in 1946. While still sold in Europe and the Far East, American sales of the Tudor line were discontinued in 2004
Rolex watches vary in price according to the model and the materials used. In the UK, the retail price for the highly sought-after stainless steel 'Pilots' range (such as the GMT Master II) starts from $7,220 upwards, while the basic 18ct gold Daytona model is priced at $30,700. Diamond inlay watches go for considerably more.
- Rolex is the official time keeper of Wimbledon and The Australian Open tennis grand slams.
- Jacques Piccard and his Rolex Sea Dweller Deep-Sea Special: 1960, Mariana Trench, depth of 10,916 m
- Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and other members of the Hillary expedition wore Rolex Oysters in 1953 at altitude 8,848 m on Mount Everest while there are attestations and speculation that Sir Edmund Hillary either carried a Smiths Deluxe or a Rolex to the summit, or both.
- Mercedes Gleitze was the first British woman to swim the English Channel on 7 October 1927. But, as John E. Brozek (author of The Rolex Report: An Unauthorized Reference Book for the Rolex Enthusiast) points out in his article "The Vindication Swim, Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge", some doubts were cast on her achievement when a hoaxer claimed to have made a faster swim only four days later. To silence her critics, Mercedes Gleitze attempted a repeat swim on 21 October in the full glare of publicity, thus touted the "Vindication Swim". Hans Wilsdorf knew a good marketing opportunity when he saw one and offered her one of the earliest Rolex Oysters if she would wear it during the attempt. After more than 10 hours, in water that was much colder than during her first swim, she was pulled from the sea semi-conscious seven miles short of her goal. It was during this swim where she wore the Rolex watch, contrary to popular opinion. Although she did not complete the second crossing, a journalist for The Times wrote "Having regard to the general conditions, the endurance of Miss Gleitze surprised the doctors, journalists and experts who were present, for it seemed unlikely that she would be able to withstand the cold for so long. It was a good performance." This silenced the doubters and Mercedes Gleitze was hailed as a heroine. As she sat in the boat, the same journalist made a discovery and reported it as follows: "Hanging round her neck by a ribbon on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout." When examined closely, the watch was found to be in perfect condition, dry inside and ticking away as if nothing had happened. One month later, on 24 November 1927, Wilsdorf launched the Rolex Oyster watch in the United Kingdom as the focal point of a full front page Rolex advert in the Daily Mail and the Rolex Oyster began its rise to fame.
Watches for POWs and help in the Great Escape
By the start of World War II, Rolex watches had already acquired enough prestige that British Royal Air Force pilot officers bought them to replace their inferior standard-issue watches. However, when captured and sent to POW camps, their watches were confiscated. When Hans Wilsdorf heard of this, he offered to replace all watches that had been confiscated and not require payment until the end of the war, if the officers would write to Rolex and explain the circumstances of their loss and where they were being held. Wilsdorf, who believed that "a British officer's word was his bond", was in personal charge of the scheme. As a result of this, an estimated 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered by British officers in the Oflag (prison camp for officers) VII B POW camp in Bavaria alone. This had the effect of raising the morale among the allied POW's because it indicated that Wilsdorf did not believe that the Nazis would win the war. American servicemen heard about this when stationed in Europe during WWII and this helped open up the American market to Rolex after the war.
On 10 March 1943, while still a prisoner of war, Corporal Clive James Nutting, one of the organizers of the Great Escape, ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph (valued at a current equivalent of £1,200) by mail directly from Hans Wilsdorf in Geneva, intending to pay for it with money he saved working as a shoemaker at the camp. The watch (Rolex watch no. 185983) was delivered to Stalag Luft III on 10 July that year along with a note from Wilsdorf apologising for any delay in processing the order and explaining that an English gentleman such as Corporal Nutting "should not even think" about paying for the watch before the end of the war. Wilsdorf is reported to have been impressed with Nutting because, although not an officer, he had ordered the expensive Rolex 3525 Oyster chronograph while most other prisoners ordered the much cheaper Rolex Speed King model which was popular due to its small size. The watch is believed to have been ordered specifically to be used in the Great Escape when, as a chronograph, it could have been used to time patrols of prison guards or time the 76 ill-fated escapees through tunnel 'Harry' on 24 March 1944. Eventually, after the war, Nutting was sent an invoice of only £15 for the watch, due to currency export controls in England at the time. The watch and associated correspondence between Wilsdorf and Nutting were sold at auction for £66,000 in May 2007, while at an earlier auction on September 2006 the same watch fetched AUS$54,000. Nutting served as a consultant for both the 1950 film The Wooden Horse and the 1963 film The Great Escape. Both films were based on actual escapes which took place at Stalag Luft III.
In a famous murder case the Rolex that a victim wore on his wrist eventually led to the arrest of his murderer. When a body was found in the English Channel in 1996 by a fisherman, a Rolex wristwatch was the only identifiable object on the body. Since the Rolex movement had a serial number and was engraved with special markings every time it was serviced, British police traced the service records from Rolex and Ronald Joseph Platt was identified as the owner of the watch and the victim of the murder. In addition British police were able to determine the date of death by examining the date on the watch calendar and since the Rolex movement had a reserve of two to three days of operation when inactive and it was fully waterproof, they were able to determine the time of death within a small margin of error.
Counterfeit Rolex watches displayed at the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center in Arlington, Virginia, USA
Rolex watches are frequently counterfeited, often illegally sold on the street and online.