Rolex is a Swiss watchmaking manufacturer of high-quality, luxury wristwatches. Rolex watches are popularly regarded as status symbols. Rolex is also the largest single luxury watch brand, producing about 2,000 watches per day, with estimated revenues of around US$3 billion in 2003. Among the company’s innovations are: the first waterproof wristwatch (Oyster, 1923); 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); and the first wristwatch to show two time zones at once (Rolex GMT Master, 1954).

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. Another 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 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 Aaron Lufkin 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. One story, never confirmed by Wilsdorf, is that the name came from the French phrase horlogerie exquise, meaning ‘exquisite clockwork’ or as a contraction of ‘horological excellence.’ 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. As all letters have the same size, it can be written symmetrically, and it is short enough to fit on the face of a watch.

In 1919 Wilsdorf left England due to wartime taxes levied on luxury imports as well as export duties on the silver and gold used for the watch cases driving costs too high and moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland where it was established as the Rolex Watch Company. 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.

The first self-winding Rolex wristwatch was offered to the public in 1931 (so-called the ‘bubbleback’ due to the large caseback), 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 kept the power from the mainspring more consistent resulting in more reliable time keeping.

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.

Rolex was the first watch company to create a wristwatch water resistant to 100 m (330 ft). Wilsdorf even had a specially made Rolex watch (the Deepsea) 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.’

The company is now starting to introduce ceramic bezels across the range of professional sports watches. They are available on the Submariner, Sea Dweller-Deepsea, GMT Master II and Daytona models. The ceramic bezel is not influenced by UV-light and is very scratch resistant.

Rolex sells less expensive watches under the Tudor brand name, which was introduced by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf in 1946. Tudor is actively marketed and sold in most countries around the world, but sales of the Tudor line were discontinued in the United States in 2004.

Che Guevara wore a Rolex GMT Master (now in the possession of CIA agent Félix Rodríguez, who was a witness to his execution). Tenzing Norgay wore a Rolex Explorer when he climbed and reached the summit of Mount Everest with Sir. Edmund Hillary in 1953. James Bond author Ian Fleming wore a Rolex Explorer, and the Rolex Submariner has appeared in eleven James Bond movies. Rolex declined to give the film company a wristwatch gratis during the making of ‘Dr. No,’ the first of the series in 1962, so the film’s producer Cubby Broccoli lent Sean Connery his own (a Rolex Submariner on a black crocodile strap). Rolex supplied the wristwatches from the next film onwards. Steve McQueen owned a Rolex Submariner Reference 5512 he was often photographed wearing in private moments. This watch sold for $234,000 at auction in 2009, a world-record price for the reference 5512.

Mercedes Gleitze was the first British woman to swim the English Channel in1927. But, 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, Gleitze attempted a repeat swim only a few days after her first, 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.

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 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, 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.’ ‘The Vienna Herald’ described the 1969 Apollo moon landing as: ‘an event almost as significant as the time a woman swam most of the English Channel with a waterproof watch on.’

By the start of World War II, Rolex watches had already acquired enough prestige that Royal Air Force pilots 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, an estimated 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered by British officers in the Oflag (prison camp for officers) camp in Bavaria alone. This had the effect of raising the morale among the allied POWs 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.

In 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 in July of that year along with a note from Wilsdorf apologizing 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’ in 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 2007. 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 on Ronald Platt’s wrist eventually led to the arrest of his murderer, Albert Johnson Walker–a financial planner who had fled from Canada. When the 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 it to Ronald Joseph Platt. 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.


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