Rolex was founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf when he was 24 years old. He was working in conjunction with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis and they opened a company specialising in the distribution of wristwatches which were assembled and cased in London using movements imported from Bienne, Switzerland. At a time when men were still largely using pocket watches, Wilsdorf was ahead of his time promoting "wristlet" watches as they were known.
The company was named Wilsdorf and Davis Ltd, but Wilsdorf was determined to find a name for his watches which was short, easy to remember in any language, and looked good on watch movements and dials. He was aware that branding mattered.
On the ultimate choice of name, Wilsdorf said, “I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.”
Wilsdorf registered Rolex as a trademark in 1908 and began promoting the wristwatch as the practical and robust "next level" of watchmaking. He was particularly focussed on honing the precision and reliability of his watch movements, a strength of the brand which remains well over a century later.
In 1910, a Rolex became the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, granted by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, but this was only the beginning.
In an early display of his considerable talent for generating publicity, Wilsdorf had the Kew Observatory and the British government certify Rolex with a class “A” precision certificate in 1914, a distinction which until then had been reserved exclusively for marine chronometers.
In 1915, Wilsdorf renamed his company The Rolex Watch Co Ltd, removing reference to himself altogether, possibly due to his name being of German origin in a time when this was not appreciated in Britain.
After WW1, the company moved its base of operations to Geneva, Switzerland in order to avoid heavy taxation from a recovering post-war Britain, and in 1920 Montres Rolex SA was registered as the new company name which eventually became Rolex SA in later years.
In 1925 Rolex trademarked their five-pointed coronet insignia. A logo which is instantly recognisable and has led to the company often being referred to as "The Crown". Interestingly, the green and gold colours of the brand are the most recognised combinations in the luxury watch industry today.
One year later they moved a step closer to becoming the brand that we know today when they created the "Oyster" which described the hermetically sealed case that protected the movement from dust and water. They released their first known advert, for the Oyster, in 1926. It is fantastically Art Deco in design.
It was all very well, of course, calling the watch "waterproof" but Rolex set out to prove it, and they did so in an inimitable style which showcased both the watch, and Wilsdorf's competence at early marketing.
In 1927 the brand asked stenographer and English Channel swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to wear his newly developed Oyster while swimming the channel to test and promote its water resistance. The watch performed flawlessly and Gleitze sent the following testimonial to Wilsdorf:
“You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it.”
Rolex began to take out large scale newspaper adverts to launch the line, and this was the beginning of using "testimonials" to advertise products. It also marked the beginning of Rolexes celebrity and endeavour endorsements, which have become a signature of the brand.
Their next "jaunt" was at 33,000 feet when Rolex Oyster watches accompanied the Royal Air Force on the first expedition to fly over Mount Everest. Stuart Blacker, a member of the expedition took the photograph below, which Rolex incorporated as an inked illustration along with his letter commending the performance of his Oyster watch in temperatures ranging from +85 to -40 degrees celsius.
Becker and his team were the first humans to fly over the summit.
By 1935, Rolex was well into the swing of using brand ambassadors and tying their watches into tales of tenacity and achievement which in the 20's and 30's were gripping the imagination of the world as speed, flight and endeavour were emerging and considered to be almost miraculous. Their first "long-term" brand ambassador was Sir Malcolm Cambell, a British racing motorist who had been responsible for making and breaking nine land speed records between 1924 and 35.
He set his final record in 1935 by travelling in his car, "Bluebird" at an average speed of 301 miles per hour across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Naturally, he was wearing his Rolex at the time.
In 1944, Rolex produced their 50,000th officially certified chronometer and presented it to Henri Guisan, the General of the Swiss Armed Forces during the Second World War.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, Rolex released the "Datejust" which was the worlds first automatic watch with a date complication. It would become and remain the most iconic watch of the Rolex line-up. Three years later in 1948, Rolex produced their 100,000th officially certified chronometer, a Datejust, and this was presented to Winston Churchill following correspondence regarding customisation of the caseback.
By 1950, Rolex was enjoying roaring success, and were looking for a worthy recipient of their 150,000th officially certified chronometer.
The watch, a full gold Datejust reference 6305, was destined for General Dwight D Eisenhower. It was determined that the watch’s rear would be engraved with five stars to represent the General’s five-star rank, his initials, D.D.E, and 12-19-1950—the date that General Eisenhower was appointed the Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Eisenhower became 34th president of the United States in 1953 and he wore his beloved Datejust for decades but most notably on the cover of Life magazine in July 1952.
Rolex had arrived as *the* watch to aspire to.