Rolex SA (Est. 1905 – ) Few argue over the assertion that Rolex is one the world’s most recognized brands. To the wearer, it conveys status, prestige, and, to an extent, satisfies the desire to be noticed. In 2014, Forbes ranked Rolex No.72 on its list of the world’s most powerful global brands.
The company’s founding in 1905 in London, England is attributed to Hans Wilsdorf and brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, who established Wilsdorf and Davis; firm that would eventually be known as Rolex SA, with a subsidiary called, Montres Tudor.
At first, the company didn’t make watches. It assembled them. It imported Swiss movements and placed them in English watch cases. They sold them to jewelers who put their own logos on the face. The earliest watches from Wilsdorf and Davis were usually hallmarked “W&D” inside the case back. By 1908, they had introduced watches intended to be worn on the wrist, a novel idea at the time.
According to the Rolex website, Wilsdorf chose the name, Rolex because he, “wanted his watches to bear a name that was short, easy to say, remember[ed] in any language, and which looked good on watch movements and dials. [Wilsdorf] tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way [giving him] some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, [he claimed] a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.” At least one Rolex aficionado further suggests that the word, Rolex comes from a French phrase for exquisite clockwork “horlogerie exquise.”
Because Rolex imported movements, the company’s first tries at watch manufacturing focused on movements they built. By 1910, a Rolex watch was the world’s first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, granted by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne.
Through the second decade of the twentieth century, the company received more awards, garnered more recognition, and enhanced its reputation. Despite these positives, post-World War I taxes in England on exports – especially those in gold and silver – were very high preventing companies like Rolex from making any real profit no matter how good the product.
Consequently, in 1919, Rolex moved to Geneva, a city recognized for its watchmaking expertise. Montres Rolex S.A. was registered in Geneva in 1920.
In 1926 Rolex created the first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch and called it, “Oyster.” The watch came in a hermetically sealed case providing protection for the movement.
In 1931, Rolex invented and patented the world’s first self-winding mechanism with a perpetual rotor. It is sometimes called the “bubbleback” because of its large caseback. By using the wearer’s arm movements, it made watch-winding unnecessary and also kept the mainspring’s power more consistent resulting in more reliable time keeping.
Throughout the 1930s, the company received accolades and testimonials that trumpeted the quality and precision of its products. In 1945, Rolex introduced the Datejust, the first self‑winding wristwatch to display the date in a window on the dial. Datejust had a Jubilee bracelet specifically created for it and a fluted bezel. Rolex calls it, “the pillar of the Oyster collection.” Initially designed for men, it became available to women in various models in the following decade.
Other achievements during this time include the first wristwatch case waterproof to 100 meters (330 ft.), the first wristwatch to show two time zones at once, the first with an automatically changing day and date on the dial, and the first watchmaker to earn chronometer certification for a wristwatch.
In 1946, Wilsdorf began to market Tudor watches using the subsidiary company, Montres Tudor SA. This brand gave Rolex the opportunity to sell a product through authorized Rolex dealers that offered the reliability and dependability of a Rolex, but at a lower price. The subsidiary’s timepieces are marketed and sold in most countries around the world. These include the United States, Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, South Africa, many countries in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East as well as South America, especially Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.
Montres Tudor SA discontinued sales of Tudor-branded watches in the United States in 2004, but returned to the American market in 2013.
Rolex also produced specific models used in the extreme conditions of deep-sea diving, caving, mountain climbing, polar exploration, and aviation. Early sports models include the Rolex Submariner and Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Sea Dweller. The Explorer and Explorer II were developed specifically for adventurers navigating difficult terrain and were used in the most famous Mount Everest expeditions. Tenzing Norgay and other members of the Hillary expedition wore Rolex Oysters in 1953 on Mount Everest and it is suggested that Sir Edmund Hillary carried a Rolex to the mountain’s summit.
Another iconic Rolex model is the GMT Master originally developed for Pan American Airlines to provide their crews with a dual time watch to display the current time as well as GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), the international time standard for aviation and the one needed for Astronavigation during longer flights.
Rolex watches are made of stainless steel and solid 18k white or yellow gold separately or in combination. While mechanisms are virtually identical in both the lowest- and highest-priced Rolexes, the pricier models feature entirely gold cases and bracelets, meteorite dials, diamonds and other precious stones on the dials, bracelets and bezels.
Most Rolex watches are automatic wind; a semi-circular disc inside the watch turns with the slightest wrist movement. Older Rolexes are also manual wind and these mechanical watches tick five times per second giving the illusion of a sweeping second hand. This feature is often used to verify that the watch is an authentic Rolex.
There are also Oysterquartz Rolexes powered by batteries. These watches tick once per second but are authentic Rolexes nonetheless.
Rolex watches come in various models. The lowest priced are “Air Kings” and the higher-priced Rolexes are “Presidents,” “Daytona’s,” and other exclusive models. Rolexes range in price from about $3,000 to more than $100,000.
While other stainless steel watches are made with a grade known as 316L, Rolex uses a much more expensive grade called 904L that features higher levels of nickel and chromium. It is not only more expensive to make but also much harder to manufacture. To achieve its goals for these products, Rolex made a big investment in equipment upgrades. The result is better resistance to pitting often previously encountered by salt water divers. It’s also said that 904L holds polish better than other steels.
Rolex participated in the development of the original quartz watch movements. Even though it makes very few quartz models for its Oyster line, the company’s engineers were instrumental in the design and implementation of quartz technology in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1968, Rolex collaborated with sixteen Swiss watch manufacturers to develop the Beta 21 quartz movement used in their Rolex Quartz Date 5100 as well as other manufacturer’s models including Omega Electroquartz watches. Within five years of research, design, and development, Rolex created the “clean-slate” 5035/5055 movement that powers the Rolex Oysterquartz.
Rolex is official time keeper of Wimbledon and the Australian Open tennis grand slam matches. In golf, it is the official time keeper for two of the four majors including the U.S. Open. Rolex is also the official sponsor of the Women’s World Golf Rankings and title sponsor of the 24 Hours of Daytona, from which the Daytona model takes its name, along with the Rolex Sports Car Series.
In 2013, Rolex became the official timekeeper to the FIA Formula 1 motor racing championship. Rolex has also been the official timekeeper to the Le Mans 24 Hours motor race since 2001. Notable personalities who have either promoted or worn Rolex watches include Arnold Palmer, Roger Penske, skier Jean-Claude Killy, and opera star, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
Today, Rolex watches are popularly considered as status symbols. However, as investments, almost all collectible watches including Rolex models have grown more valuable in recent years. Nonetheless, their collectible value has lagged behind cars, stamps and coins.
A suggested upturn, according to Knight Frank, the luxury real estate and research firm, is that in 2014, the market for collectible watches grew 4 percent over 2013 and 32 percent since 2009.
When Wilsdorf’s wife died in 1944, he founded the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation to which he left all of his Rolex shares when he died in 1960. The Foundation insures that some of the company’s income goes to charity. The company remains owned by a private trust and its shares are not traded on any stock exchange.
In December 2008, Chief Executive Patrick Heiniger abruptly left the company for what were claimed to be “personal reasons.” This was followed by the company’s denial that it had lost 1 billion Swiss francs (about $900 million) that it had invested with Bernard Madoff, the asset manager who pleaded guilty to a worldwide Ponzi scheme fraud.
Rolex watches are frequently counterfeited, illegally sold on the street and online. To recognize a fake Rolex, it’s said that first thing to look at is the second hand. Rolexes, which are mechanical, have second hands that gracefully sweep the dial. Fakes, which are electronic, have second hands that that tick every second individually.
Counterfeit Rolex watches have been displayed at the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center in Arlington, Virginia.