Long Live the Crown: Rolex history


No matter how deep you are into watches, there is one brand you’re definitely more than aware of. And while the tastes may differ, Rolex is the most recognizable watch company on Earth for quite a number of reasons, including precision, robustness, and timeless designs.

The history of a Swiss giant began in London around 1905 when two entrepreneurs Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis started a company aimed at selling wristwatches. As the legend goes, Wilsdorf came up with the name Rolex for no particular reason: it just sounded right.

As you surely know, back then wristwatches were considered feminine, and were far behind pocket watches in terms of precision. So the project was rather risky, to say the least, but then again, there’s no success without some risks and determination. Speaking of latter, when in 1910 the very first wristwatch has received the chronometer certificate of the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, it was Rolex.

When in 1920 Wilsdorf finally decided to produce watches instead of outsourcing the parts, the company has moved to Geneva, the unofficial watch capital of the world. Soon the real hit was born – the first serious waterproof timepiece called Oyster. But who needs to swim with a watch on a wrist? Wilsdorf’s marketing genius had the answer: everyone. People tend to love stories and Rolex’s boss gave them just the right one. In 1927 English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze was to cross the English Channel setting a new record. And while the previous record survived that day, her Oyster performed flawlessly after 10 hours in the water. The company bought a first-page ad in Daily Mail explaining the event, and later has chosen quite an original way to show-case the pieces: retailers had Rolexes presented not on the usual stands but inside the fish tanks full of water.

Looking at the very first instances of still successfully running Rolex collections, you can clearly see some tiny twists here and there, but the main design ideas are still left untouched. All thanks to favouring consecutive improvements instead of revolutions, and ‘don’t fix it if it ain’t broke’ principle. 1945 saw the birth of the Datejust, the first self‑winding wrist chronometer to indicate a date of the month in a window instead of a dedicated central or sub-dial hand. In 1954 the Submariner brought some huge changes to the starting golden age of divers’ watches. Quite a few brands have entered the niche simultaneously and produced pieces equipped with one directional bezels for safe tracking the immersion time. But only the Submariner was water resistant to a depth of 100 meters from day one.

Day-Date made its debut in 1956, and again it was the very first watch to feature date and day of the week via two dial windows. And don’t forget the trademark president bracelet, soon becoming a cult in its own right. The piece was available only in gold and appeared on the wrists of dozens world leaders, top-bankers and music and cinema greats. Milgauss followed the same year with its antimagnetic up to 1000-gauss case and a playful second hand in a form of lightning bolt.

Finally in 1963 the Cosmograph Daytona has joined the party. Being the top-notch chronograph and oozing the sporty chic, it has gained nearly divine status over the years. Just look at the auction prices, or try to buy a brand new one in steel, incidentally discovering such oddity as waiting lists.

Rolex always took the words ‘sports watch’ very seriously, both in production and marketing departments. The first flight over Everest in 1933, the expedition to the Everest’s peak in 1953, the dive into the Mariana Trench in 1960 and various other adventures including one-man sailing around the world, – guys at Rolex always managed to provide the daring souls with outstanding watches and the watches always managed to withstand any hardships. No matter the style and the idea behind any new piece – think Sea-Dweller, Sky-Dweller, Air-King, Yacht-Master – the fundamental message remains more than obvious: you can count on your watch even under extreme conditions. And while you’ll mostly rock it at the office or at a party, having a die-hard companion on a wrist is still a pleasant experience.

Rolex never actually entered the serious complication game. And, at least from the outside, it seems very logical. When you think of minute repeaters, rattrapante chronographs, tourbillons, perpetual calendars, and so on, robustness and reliability are the last things coming to mind. Even the Cellini collection with its classically dressy cases mostly acts in form-follows-function attitude.

The absence of grand-complications however doesn’t mean the lack of serious horology, and Rolex’s contribution to fundamental watchmaking issues is actually second to none. Starting with first wrist-chronometer in 1910, first water-resistant watch in 1926, and first automatic caliber with a free-moving winding rotor in 1931, the company has enriched the industry with tons of core features we now take for granted.

Rolex integrated production brings ‘in-house’ to the whole new level. This particular ‘house’ is actually three mega-facilities – on regular watchmaking standards of course, – and literary thousands of employees. Cerachrom, Parachrom, Oystersteel, Rolesor, and the rest are not just fancy words for PR-department. Rolex uses its own trademark metal alloys, ceramics, balance springs and tests chronometric performance of every single watch to a -2/+4 seconds-a-day precision. For comparison, to successfully pass the chronometer certification at COSC a watch needs to run at -4/+6 seconds a day. Even gem setting is done by Rolex’s own jewellers! And while all the movements in current collections are designed and assembled in-house, the brand never actually tries to overwhelm its customers with a dozen of novelties annually. The changes are subtle but regular, and pre-introduction testing period on any mechanical element may take several years. As a result, the chances to face some unpleasant surprises are close to zero. Again, the guys under the Crown banner are known for their watchmaking prowess for a reason.