Today, Rolex is among the most powerful global brands and the company responsible behind true legends of the watch industry like the Submariner and Rolex Daytona. But, like everything, it had to start somewhere. For Rolex, it started with Hans Otto Wilhelm Wilsdorf, a Bavarian entrepreneur, who in 1905, set up shop at 83 Hatton Gardens, in London’s jewelry quarter, with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis.
In the beginning, the Wilsdorf & Davis company was merely a watch importer, a side of the industry Wilsdorf was already familiar with following his time working for a Swiss company named Cuna Korten in Geneva. His gift for languages, being fluent in English, French, and German, meant he was in charge of correspondence for the firm. The experience was to give him a strong grounding in marketing as well as instilling a deep love of horology.
The watches Wilsdorf & Davis bought in were sourced from all over Switzerland as well as other parts of the U.K., and came in varying qualities. These were then sold on to a network of retailers who would, more often than not, place their own names on the dials. The W&D logo, if it appeared at all, would be relegated to being stamped inside the case.
However, while his business had become one of the most successful in the trade in just a few short years, Wilsdorf made it his mission to have his brand name included on all the watches he exported, something no one else had been able to persuade jewelers to agree to before.
The Origins of Rolex
In 1908, Wilsdorf had registered ‘Rolex‘ as a trademark. The origin of the name has always been the source of debate, with some believing it is taken from the phrase ‘hoROLogical EXcellence’, others because the word sounds like a watch being wound.
In reality, it was simply chosen after a lot of trial and error. Wilsdorf had sat combining the letters in the alphabet in every possible way with no success, wanting nothing more than a name that was short enough to fit well on a watch dial and one which would be pronounced the same in any language. In his own words, ‘One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear’.
As one of history’s true visionaries, he was fully aware of the power of branding and began a long campaign to get this new name on the watches that passed through his hands. At first, he was able to have it inscribed on one out of every six models, alongside the jeweler’s own mark. Later it became one in every three, then around half of them. The initial reluctance of the retailers was worn down by the series of high profile successes Rolex was having, in conjunction with longtime associates, the Swiss manufacturer Aegler.
The relationship between Rolex and Aegler actually started the same year Wilsdorf & Davis set up in business. That was when Wilsdorf placed with them the largest order for wristwatches ever seen up until that point. It was especially noteworthy as wristwatches were the sole preserve of women at the time, with men pretty much exclusively wearing pocket watches.
But Wilsdorf was willing to bet on his ability to transform the image of the wristwatch and was attracted by Aegler’s commitment to the highest quality. The movements they made were not only extremely accurate, using lever escapements as opposed to the cylinder type found in cheaper models, but they were also (crucially) small. This fit in perfectly with Wilsdorf’s efforts to prove that wristwatches could be just as accurate and reliable as pocket watches.
In 1910, that assertion was vindicated when one of Rolex’s models won a First Class Chronometer Certificate from the rating office in Bienne, Switzerland. Later in 1914, another piece became the first-ever wristwatch to be granted a Class A Chronometer Certificate from the Kew Observatory in England – the only non-marine timepiece to ever achieve it. The firm of Wilsdorf & Davis was fast becoming synonymous with a commitment to uncompromising excellence.
Unfortunately, 1914 was also the year WWI broke out in Europe. For Wilsdorf, that cataclysmic event brought with it pluses and minuses.
To start, he predicted (correctly) that having a German sounding name was going to do his business no favors in England, so Wilsdorf & Davis officially became Rolex in 1915. Subsequently, once the war had ended, the British government slapped an enormous 33.3% tax increase on luxury goods entering the country, including watches. It forced Rolex to open offices in Bienne to avoid the levy, and by 1919 they had left London for good.
On the other hand, the horrors of the war had proved, once and for all, the utility of the wristwatch for men. As it was the first conflict conducted over vast distances, line-of-sight communication methods were no longer of any use, and attacks were coordinated by radio. It meant that commanders of various regiments needed accurate timepieces in order to be able to launch offenses simultaneously, and pocket watches were just too cumbersome to be effective.
Soldiers had at first taken to modifying their standard-issue pocket watch models with wire lugs soldered to the top and bottom to hold a strap, but as the fighting continued, several manufacturers started to produce so-called Trench watches specifically for them, Rolex included. Aegler’s small and precise movements were ideal, keeping these pieces a wearable size so as to not become awkward or cumbersome on the wrist.
By the end of the war, those serving on the frontline were returning home with watches strapped to their arm, and the wristwatch had become an accessory for even the toughest of men.
In the years between the wars, Rolex continued to assert its independence, with Wilsdorf determined to control every aspect of his company. In 1924, he partnered with fellow luxury watchmaker Carl F. Bucherer to defy being consumed by the Federation of Swiss Watch Manufacturers, the virtual cartel which governed the industry. The following year, he invested heavily in an advertising campaign which was successful enough to convince dealers to include the name Rolex on five out of every six watches they sold.
Then, in 1926, the company came up with perhaps the single most significant innovation for the wristwatch in its history: the Oyster case. Waterproof, dustproof and particularly robust, this more than anything ended the dominance of the pocket watch. It also marked the last time a model would leave their production line without ‘Rolex’ on the dial.
When they followed up in 1931 with the self-winding Perpetual movement, they had become recognized as the most important watchmakers in the world.
WWII saw Switzerland retain its neutrality, meaning that it was one of the few countries not forced to shut down watch manufacturing to supply the war effort. As a result, by 1945 the Swiss industry was way ahead of other nations, and it is a position it has held ever since.
Rolex has gone from strength to strength, cementing their reputation as the makers of some of the finest and most intelligently designed watches available. Before his death in 1960, Wilsdorf oversaw the development of models that have become true icons in the industry; the Datejust, Day-Date, Explorer, Submariner, GMT-Master, and Milgauss were all created during his time at the helm.
From humble beginnings, today Rolex is undoubtedly the most successful manufacturer on the planet. The product of an unrelenting drive for perfection, they are a giant in the world of horology.