If you were of a mind to randomly stop strangers in the street and ask them to name a watch brand, you’d be wise to bet on them saying Rolex.
It is, after all, a universally recognised byword for ‘luxury Swiss mechanical timepiece’. So universal, in fact, that US travel channel host Philippe Cousteau, son of marine explorer Jacques, is reported to have said he was advised by a British ex-special forces member to travel with one because it can be used anywhere in the world as a tradeable commodity.
How the name came about is much debated. In one version, Wilsdorf abbreviated a Hispanic employee’s suggestion – relojes excellentes (excellent watches) – switching out the first ‘e’ to an ‘o’ to make it sound better. However, Wildsdorf denies this, saying he made the word up. What’s certain is that the idea for the now-iconic five-pointed crown – a symbol as recognisable as Chanel’s double C’s – was all his.
Founder Hans Wilsdorf was always ahead of the curve. He was pushing wristwatches in 1905, just three years after the brand was founded, at a time when everyone else presumed they would just be a passing fad.
HANS CIRCA 1945 I COURTESY OF ROLEX
Originally based in London, Wilsdorf shifted his operation to neutral Switzerland during WWI. To this day, Rolex remains a vertically integrated private company owned by a private family trust established in 1960. Such an arrangement means there’s no way of knowing how many watches it makes a year; while 800,000 are submitted for COSC testing not all Rolexes are COSC certified, so the figure could be in excess of 1,000,000.
Rolex’s incredible success comes down to three things: championing the wristwatch in the first place; being first to make it waterproof; and introducing a rotor that charged the mainspring by moving in both directions.
The first water-resistance watch – the aptly named Oyster – was launched in 1927 following Mercedes Gleitze’s first solo swim by a British woman across the English Channel. The watch remained watertight and still displayed the correct time when she walked up the beach in Calais thanks to a process – in which the case back was screwed down into the case and the crown screwed in as well – that’s still followed to make watches water-resistant today.
It was the first of many firsts for Rolex – in 1945, it launched the first watch with an automatic date on the dial, the DateJust, then in 1954 came the GMT-Master (now GMT-Master II) the first to display two time zones. That was followed by the Day-Date in 1956, which, as the name suggests has day and date displayed on the dial.
Over the years, Rolex has retained its reputation by consistently turning out hard-working watches of unbelievable quality that rarely depreciate in value. It also knows the value of detail: fluted bezels; Mercedes hands; beautifully made bracelets; the satisfying click of its clasp. Everything is made in-house – it has its own alloy for hairsprings, its own luminescent paint and even its own foundry for its gold.
There are 15 families of Rolex – including the DateJust, with just a date; 007’s original trusty companion the Submariner; the GMT-Master II with its bicoloured bezel; the Yacht-Master, a regatta watch; and the elegant dress Cellini. It has been worn by everyone from Sir Winston Churchill to the Kardashians, appeared in dozens of films and was the subject of an entire song by Wiley.
Then there’s Rolex’s charitable arm: its Perpetual Planet initiative, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, was created to collect climate data; Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue, developed to protect the oceans through a network of marine-protected Hope Spots; and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which support individuals and projects that “improve life on Earth”.
Everything that bears that instantly distinguishable five-point crown is the best of the best, even the accessories it makes are of superlative quality. No wonder it’s the watch brand on everyone’s lips – and one that so many want to have on their wrist.
Take inspiration from the 1980s and go all out with this new Day-Date 36. It’s not for the faint of heart: all-gold bracelets take confidence to pull off and once you’ve added the turquoise dial and diamond-set bezel, you’ve got a hell of a lot of watch there to contend with. But that’s rather the point.