Rolex has long been known as a horological status symbol. From the small business owner to the billionaire hip hop mogul, Rolex is arguably the largest and most prominent luxury watch company in the world.
From the basic stainless steel models under $10,000 to the blinged out diamond bezels that fetch over $50,000, the fact is that Rolex has managed to acquire and maintain one of the most diverse client bases the world has ever seen. It consistently ranks high on lists of the top global brands and is influential the world over.
The History of Rolex
When two men married into the same family decided to start the company, it was originally named Wilsdorf and Davis after the founders Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis.
Initially intended to just be an importer of Aegler’s Swiss watch movements to England, the company which would eventually become Rolex SA, was registered in London, England in 1905.
Wilsdorf and Davis began to import the Swiss movements and place them in watches made by Dennison and others that they proceeded to sell to jewelers who put the name W&D on the inside of the case back and allowed the independent jewelers to place their own names on the dials.
It wasn’t until 1908 that Wilsdorf registered the trademark “Rolex” and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The name Rolex is often discussed, but widely believed by horologists to be a made up name that was used because it was onomatopoeic and easily pronounced in any language or accent. It reminded Wilsdorf of the winding sounds of the watch and it is believed that these reasons are why the name Rolex was chosen to eventually become the name of their brand. It also helped of course, that the name was short enough to fit on the face of a watch and symmetrical.
By 1914, Wilsdorf and Davis’ watches were so well established and known that the Kew Observatory awarded Rolex with a Class A precision certificate that was normally only awarded to marine chronometers. In 1919, Wilsdorf left England due to the wartime taxation levied against luxury imports in addition to the exportation duties on silver and gold. With costs increasing, he moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland where he renamed it the Rolex Watch Company. Over the next few decades it would be changed again to Montres Rolex, SA and finally to Rolex, SA as it’s known today.
Wilsdorf quickly became well known as a charitable man and positioned himself as quite the contributor when he began replacing the Rolex watches of Britain’s soldiers who were captured as prisoners of war during World War II. When the POWs were captured and sent to camps the Rolex watches they had began purchasing were seized and confiscated by the Nazis. Many pilots had began to wear Rolex watches by the beginning of the 1940s as the quality superseded that of the generic watches they were issued by the military. In fact, one of the most well documented uses of a Rolex was when the watch was used to time the highly publicized Great Escape.
It was that one, of the 3000+ watches awarded to Royal Air Force pilots that was sent when a letter was received by Hans Wilsdorf, written by a POW named Corporal Clive James Nutting.
Nutting had written to Rolex the same as many other servicemen, knowing that his precious watch would be replaced free of charge until the war was over. The watch, a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph was mailed to Nutting directly from Wilsdorf and delivered to Stalag Luft II on July 10, 1943 with a note informing Nutting he “should not even think” about paying for the timepiece before the end of the war. What Wilsdorf didn’t know at the time was the watch was specifically ordered for the purpose of orchestrating the Great Escape.
Far more expensive than the usual Speed King model ordered by airmen, Nutting used the chronograph to time the patrols of the prison guards as well as the 76 escapees through the tunnel on March 24, 1944. Eventually, after the war, Nutting did receive a bill for the watch for a grand total of just £15. In May, 2007, the watch was sold at auction for £66,000. Then, in November 2013, the Rolex Speed King owned by Flight Lieutenant Gerald Imeson during the Great Escape sold at auction for £60,000.
In 1944, one year before the war ended, Wilsdorf wife tragically died. Wilsdorf was very concerned that due to the massive growth of his company and with the United States showing interest due to his charity towards the captured servicemen, that his hard-earned money would simply go into the pockets of already wealthy investors should the company ever go public. To prevent such a thing from occurring, he established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation and left all of his shares to the charity to ensure that at least a portion the company’s income would go to charitable initiatives. To this very day Rolex is privately owned and it’s ownership lays in trust with the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. Despite its size, Rolex does not trade publicly on any stock market.
Today, Rolex is one of the world’s most powerful companies and the largest luxury watch brand in the world. They produce an average of 2,000 watches each day and maintain record revenues of upwards of $7 billion each year.
|1926||The first waterproof wristwatch “Oyster" is made.|
|1931||The first automatic Rolex wristwatch is made and nicknamed the “bubble back” due to its large case back.|
|1945||The first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial (Rolex Datejust ref.4467) is made.|
|1953||The first wristwatch case waterproof to 100 m (330 ft) (Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner ref.6204) is made.|
|1954||The first wristwatch to show two time zones at once (Rolex GMT Master ref.6542) is made.|
|1956||The first wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial (Rolex Day-Date) is made.|
|Unknown||The first watchmaker to earn chronometer certification for a wristwatch.|
In addition to the table above, Rolex has led or participated in many horological developments throughout its rich history. In fact, despite making very few of them, Rolex was at the forefront of developing quartz movements in its Oyster line. Its engineers were instrumental in creating the technology and design during the late 1960s, and in 1968, collaborated with a consortium of 16 Swiss watch makers to create the Beta 21 quartz movement that was eventually used in the Rolex Quartz Date 5100. The movement also appeared in other watches including Omega’s Electroquartz line and within half a decade of development, Rolex created the 5035/5055 movement that would go on to power the Rolex Oysterquartz.
One of Rolex’s biggest innovations was creating a water resistant wristwatch that was capable of withstanding pressure at depths of 100m (330ft). Today, Rolex is well known for its dive watches and has been since Wilsdorf attached a Rolex DeepSea to the side of the Trieste bathyscaphe, which went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Not only did the watch survive the dive, but it kept perfect time during both the descent and ascent. Jacques Piccard was quoted as writing “Am happy to confirm that even at 11,000 metres, your watch is as precise as on the surface.”
Since then, Rolex has prided itself on creating extreme watches for diving, mountaineering and aviation. From the Rolex Submariner and Explorer, to the Oyster Perpetual Date Sea Dweller, the innovative timepieces Rolex has managed to produce is as impressive as the lineage itself. If you have the opportunity to visit the Rolex headquarters you’ll find one of the most secured buildings in the world, protecting a fortress that is responsible for building every component that goes into its watches, including it’s own gold and metal fabrication center where they make a prized and patented alloy used in their watches.
Over the years, Rolex has designed and produced a wide range of models for men and women. Let’s focus on a few of the most popular ranges made for gentlemen.
Seen in movies like American Psycho, the Datejust is at the lower end of the Rolex lineup but still a certified, self-winding chronometer manufactured in whole by Rolex in Switzerland. Publicly available since 1945, it is the first wristwatch in the world with a date complication. It has a bezel size of 36mm with ladies versions offered in smaller sizes. It comes with two classic bracelets, the jubilee and the oyster and is the basis for the Rolex Explorer lineup. It comes standard in steel; steel with yellow, rose or white gold; or yellow gold. Today all the metals are scratch made inside Rolex’s factory in Geneva and to the best of my knowledge, none of them are outsourced. Today, there is also a Datejust II which is 41mm and is available in steel with white, yellow or rose gold on the oyster bracelet.
The original Daytona which was produced from 1963 to the late 1980s was the first of three series in this very famous range. Possibly one of the most well known luxury watches in the world, this is also a hugely diverse range that offers watches in a variety of styles and models. Inspired by race car driving, and of course, most notably Paul Newman, the original Daytona watch was in very high demand and therefore incredibly short supply well into the 1990s. This led to the second series being introduced in 1988 using a Zenith El Primero automatic movement in lieu of the original manual-winding movement. Rolex purchased the movements which were able to be mass produced at the highest vibrations per hour being 36,000 VPH. They then modified the movement for the Daytona and took it down to 28,800 VPH to ensure accuracy and reliability with side winds. The third series, introduced in 2000, uses a movement made in house once again by Rolex and is a certified, self-winding chronometer with chronograph complication. Rolex is the main sponsor of the Rolex 24 at Daytona from which it takes its name and has been an integral part of racing since it’s beginnings and party due to Paul Newman who wore his Daytona every day of his life until his death.
Despite Rolex continuing to produce the Daytona line, they are in increasingly high demand and older models and series are often hard to come by. They are considered rare and highly collectible. Because of this, they often fetch incredibly high prices at auctions.
The worlds rarest Daytona watches are this with what is called the “Paul Newman” dial. These are watches that are Reference 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264 or 6265 and often have very subtle features hard to recognize by an untrained eye. They feature acrylic domed crystal with subdials that are in contrast to the main dial with block markers instead of lines and crosshairs that meet in the center, which is different from the normal Daytona. The second sundial is placed at 9:00 and marked at 15, 30, 45 and 60. Today, the Daytona is one of the most well counterfeited watches in the world and a great source of upset for online buyers who are led to believe they’re purchasing a real Rolex and end up with something that might as well be called a Timex. Originally priced at just $210, they now sell at auction for over a million US dollars in some cases and are the most collectible watches in the world.
I was once told by someone that no watch could ever be 18k gold. I remember trying to argue the point but it was one of the most futile arguments I’ve ever been involved in. I could have said white and they would have said black. Day, night… You get the point. Anyhow, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date is a COSC certified, self-winding chronometer that, you guessed it, it only available in solid 18k gold or in platinum. It is also the very first watch to ever feature a date complication.
Rolex GMT Master and Master II
Part of the Rolex Professional Watch Collection, it was initially a collaboration between Rolex and Pan Am Airways for use by their pilots and navigators on long haul flights.
GMT of course stands for Greenwich Mean Time which is now known as Coordinated Universal Time. The original timepiece offered a a 24 hour display fourth hand that was linked to the same time zone as the 12 hour hand. By using the rotating scale bezel, the owner could offset the second timezone for clear reading.
By the early 1980s, Rolex introduced the GMT Master II which looked almost identical but featured an independently adjusted quickset hour hand that could be adjusted to local time without disturbing the 24 hour GMT hand. This also permit the watch to read three timezones instead of just two.
When the new GMT II was introduced in 2005, it provided the Parachrom hairspring and a larger Triplock crown that was taken from the diving watches. It has a number of other cosmetic changes and is now available with jewels and in gold, despite it being widely considered a “work watch”.
Created with antimagnetic properties and a purpose, the Milgauss is made specifically for those who work in power plants, research labs and medical facilities where electromagnetic fields can wreak havoc on a watch. Despite what many believe, it isn’t encased with a faraday cage, but with an actual antimagnetic shield as the faraday cages only shield electrostatic fields. The actual product used is heavily guarded by Rolex but believed to be an alloy developed and built in house by Rolex. The watch can withstand a magnetic flux density of 1,000 gauss and takes its name from that and the latin word “Mille” meaning one thousand.
One of the diving watch lines produced by Rolex, the Sea-Dweller offers a vintage dive depth of up to 2,000ft with the modern timepieces allowing up to 12,800ft for the DEEPSEA model.
It was developed in the 1960s for use by professional divers and was popular the world-over, specifically though with the large industrial deep sea diving company Comex S.A.
Using a helium escape valve for saturation diving, the watch has been standard issue for all Comex divers since 1977. It is today, widely considered the most quintessential divers watch for professional use.
Probably the most well recognized watch in the world, it has an illustrious history both in the diving world as well as in the everyday world. The James Bond watch, the Submariner has been featured in hundreds of movies and television shows and is one of the most commonly owned luxury watches in the world. Almost every collector I’ve ever met has at one point or another bought a Submariner. That or due to global appeal, have decided firmly against owning one. Regardless of what side of the fence you are on, one thing is certain and it’s that the Submariner is one of the best made everyday watches in the world. Just don’t wear it with a dinner jacket. In addition to being the most popular watch, it’s also the most counterfeited watch in the world and not one I suggest you buy online or from an unscrupulous dealer.
Is a Rolex a great investment? By Sven Raphael Schneider
Considering that Rolex is anything but a secret, you will likely not triple your return within a year. That being said, if you look at certain models, the return rate is quite interesting. For example, I found an example about the Rolex Explorer which goes between $5,000 -$18,000 on the vintage market. Considering it cost $195 in 1966, that’s a good return.
Rolex Explorer ($5,000)
Starting Price: $195
Current Price: $5,000
Time: 48 years
Compounded Return Rate: 7.0%
If one had invested in the stock market for the same period, the average interest would have been 9.6% if you reinvested your dividends and 6.4% if you had not done so. If you had invested in mutual funds etc. the rate would likely be lower. On the other hand, you owned and wore the watch. Unlike a car, or a cell phone, I would hence consider this watch a pretty good investment. Of course, to get real results, you would have to compare 20 models over time, and maybe even compare 20 models of competitors compared to other investment vehicles such as art or instruments. So at the end of the day, you have to decide what you consider a good investment based on your opportunities.
How to Buy a Rolex
Rolex watches are the #1 faked watches on the market, so be extremely careful when you buy these watches because chances are very high to get a fake. If Rolex stands for one thing, then it is its meticulous focus on details. So if you ever see something that is just ever so slightly off in terms of looks or mechanics, chances are very high it is a fake. That being said, you can find various kinds of fakes: cheap fakes from Asia with quartz movements, better fakes from China with mechanical and automatic movements, and last but not least fake Rolex watches from Switzerland which are often even more difficult to recognize. As such only buy your Rolex from someone you trust and even then you should have reason to doubt its authenticity.
In general, before you buy read our guides on Watch Buying and Vintage Watch Buying. If you want me to help you find a trusted source for watches at a good price or if you are not sure what model to use, you should consider a watch consultation with me and I will make sure you get the best bang for the buck.
Love them or hate them, Rolex has made its mark as the world’s most renowned luxury watch maker. From entry level watches starting in the low thousands to Daytona’s that have sold at auction for over a million, the fact remains that the company is doing something right, and regardless of what side of the fence you stand on and what your opinion is, they do make some of the most reliable and accurate instruments in the industry.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on Rolex and hope you will stay tuned for future articles focusing on watches like the Daytona and the Submariner. In the meantime, share your favorite Rolex or tell us which Rolex you’d like to own someday.