The story of Rolex is, more or less, the story of the Wilsdorf family. Before becoming a status symbol, Rolex was and remains synonym of innovation. This is kind of a performance when we know that the founder Hans Wilsdorf was neither Swiss, nor a watchmaker, and started his career importing Swiss calibers to place them in existing cases !
After 3 years of that business as « Wilsdorf & Davis », the Rolex Watch Company was registered as such in 1908 in London. Why Rolex ? One story says that’s a composite word from ‘horlogerie exquise’, exquisite watches. Right from the beginning, the brand specialized in luxury timepieces, asking its faithful movement supplier, Aegler, for smaller and smaller calibers in a time were pocket watches were the standard.
In 1910, Wilsdorf asked the Swiss Chronometry Society to certify its movements. It was the way found to prove that wristwatches could be as precise as pocket watches, when precision was a market advantage. The legendary Kew Observatory certification followed in 1914. The very same year, Rolex moved its headquarters to Geneva, to avoid the 33% tax on imported goods in the UK.
After miniaturization and precision, Rolex worked on the third major challenge of wristwatches : being dust and water proof. A highly innovative bezel was invented but, still, mass market recognition was missing. There helped what would be called 25 years later ‘Public Relations’ : to let the whole world know that his watches were waterproof, Hans Wilsdorf immerged them in aquariums and placed them into the displays of his points of sales. Right from now, in 1927, people knew Rolex. The company went one step further when a young British swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, crossed the channel with an Oyster on her wrist. This was the birth of the concept of ambassador, and many patents followed : the first waterproof watch case; the first wristwatch with a date on the dial; the first watch to show two timezone at once, etc.
One of the most famous is the self winding system patented by Rolex in 1931, which also eliminated the problem of over winding a watch and harming the calibre. Most brands had to found other solutions to reach the same result, without any effective success, till the Rolex patent expired, but that’s another story.
Unlike our modern days, way back in the 30’s, the best-seller of Rolex was rectangular and named Prince. It had a dual dial, that is to say two indications on the same dial, announcing the GMT Master created in 1954 for the Pan Am Airways pilots.
In the early 60’s, Rolex changed its marketing strategy and started to sponsor sports events: 24h of Daytona, Wimbledon, the golf US Open, etc. From this moment, Rolex created some dedicated models to support these events, including the famous Daytona Chronograph, or the Explorer, designed for alpinists. The manufacture also invested in arts, where different sponsorship program are still managed by the Rolex Institute.
To date, the Wilsdorf Foundation still holds each of the 6000 shares of Rolex SA. The company status are designed in a way that no share nor the brand could ever be sold. Headquartered in Switzerland, Rolex doesn’t have to communicate about its revenues or production. Still, to date, actual production (without the cousin brand Tudor) is estimated at around 2000 pieces per day. One uncommon thing to know : Rolex owns only one single flagship store in the world, Chrono-Time, in Geneva.
Victim of its success, Rolex probably wins the award of the most copied watch brand of the world. First counterfeit producers are China, followed by Taiwan and Japan.