Rolex is one of the few watch companies that probably belongs to the world’s best known brand names such as Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, BMW, and so on. That is probably also one of the reasons why a Rolex watch is as good as any currency out there. But let’s start at the beginning.
Hans Wilsdorf (born in 1888) founded the company we now know as Rolex, in 1905. At the time it was called Wilsdorf & Davis, where Davis was a family member and acted as an investor in the company. The company started as an assembly firm, ordering movements and other watch parts from Switzerland and having them shipped to London where the Wilsdorf & Davis company was located. In 1908 the name Rolex was registered and a few years later they started to use this name more frequent. It wasn’t before 1919 that Rolex opened their offices in Geneva. Manufacturing of parts took place in Bienne at that time, and still does.
Although people – mainly those who do not like Rolex – complain that there is too little innovation in their watches, Rolex has proven to be very innovative over the last 100 years.
In 1926 Rolex invented the Oyster case. The Oyster case is a dust – and especially – water proof case that is still used today for their modern watches, such as the Submariner, Datejust, Daytona, and so on. All these models have “Oyster” written on the dial, referring to the watchcase. Only a few years later, we come across another invention that is being mentioned on the dial of a modern Rolex. The automatic movement with a perpetual rotor. Although Harwood is known to be the first with an automatic movement, the rotor didn’t make a full turn. Rolex was able to do so in 1931 with their automatic movement and perpetual rotor that could make a 360 degrees turn. Now you know why there is ‘Oyster Perpetual’ below the Rolex logo on the dials of (most) Rolex watches.
The downside of this perpetual rotor at the time was that it influenced the thickness of a watch quite a bit. If you’ve ever heard of or read about the Rolex “bubbleback” models, now you know why they have bubble backs.
Another significant invention by Rolex is a date complication in these Oyster Perpetual models. In 1945, Rolex introduced a model that is still in their catalog today and is perhaps the mother of all modern wristwatches: the Rolex Datejust. It is the first automatic chronometer watch to have a date aperture on the dial. It wasn’t until 1954 when Rolex added the famous Cyclops on the crystal, to magnify the date. One of the brand’s most famous signatures.
In the 1950s, Rolex started to develop a range of professional watches. These were watches that could actually be used by professionals – of all sorts – without damaging or harming the timepiece. This adventure started in 1953, with the Rolex Explorer. This is the watch that Ian Fleming wore himself and described as the James Bond watch in his books. Also introduced in 1953 was the Rolex Submariner, Bond’s movie watch. This professional diver’s watch had a depth-rate of 100 meters and a bezel that could be rotated so the remaining diving time could be read
As it was also the time of the first transcontinental flights that passed several time zones, Rolex developed a watch with an extra time zone indicator: the GMT-Master. Introduced in 1955 and rapidly became the official timepiece for Pan-Am pilots and certain staff members. The rotatable bezel indicated day/night as well as the scale for the extra hour hand. A year later, Rolex introduced the Milgauss, capable of withstanding magnetic fields up to 1000 gauss. The story continues with the Cosmograph Daytona, Explorer II, Day-Date, and so on. Not every watch boasted a new invention, but let’s say that Rolex had their ways in optimizing and improving industry standards.
As you know, Rolex has their preferences when it comes to materials for their watches. Rose gold became Everrose gold and instead of the commonly used 316L steel type Rolex started to use the 904L type of steel. A steel type that is a bit more difficult to process and work on, but has exceptional characteristics to fight corrosion and give a wonderful sheen, according to Rolex.
In the last decade, Rolex has been making improvements as well. Perhaps not as ‘world changing’ as their introduction of the perpetual rotor or the Oyster case, but nevertheless important ones and mainly in the territory of materials. As you’ve seen, all modern sports watches have been upgraded using cerachrom bezels, movements have been equipped with a blue parachrom hairspring, and all bracelets have been updated with new and easy to adjust clasps. All in favor of the comfort and quality of wearing a timepiece on a day-to-day basis. I like to call these, changes under the hood.
A Rolex Submariner in 2015 is clearly related to the first Rolex Submariner in 1953, and the same goes for a lot of their models. Ask a group of people to name a Rolex classic and you will get almost all of the current models as an answer. This and their craving to create large quantities of watches with the highest quality possible makes them what they are today, one of the best recognized brand names worldwide.