6 Facts About Rolex You May Not Have Known
They may be the most famous watchmakers in the world, but the Swiss colossus that is Rolex is notoriously secretive about the goings-on behind its walls. Even the most basic information remains a jealously guarded secret; no one outside the company, for example, even knows exactly how many watches they produce each year.
Their insistence on keeping every detail of their operation a mystery only deepens the enigma surrounding the brand, and leads to a healthy fund of rumors and wild stories.
But while the inscrutable horologists remain tightlipped about the outlandish tales dreamt up on internet forum gossip, there are a number of facts that have been backed up by stone-cold evidence.
Here, we look at six of them and explore some of the lesser-known particulars that every Rolex fan should know.
Born in England
For a name that has become synonymous with Swiss watchmaking, Rolex started out as neither watchmakers nor Swiss.
Founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf, a German, and his English brother-in-law Alfred Davis, the company that would go on to become Rolex was originally christened, you’ll be amazed to learn, ‘Wilsdorf and Davis’.
Operating from premises in Hatton Garden, London’s prestigious jewelry quarter, they were initially involved with watch assembly—sourcing the best parts from a number of different Swiss manufacturers and combining them inside English watchcases. The resulting fine timepieces were then bought by jewelers who would sell them on under their own name.
It wasn’t until three years later that the company started making its own watches and adopted the name Rolex. In 1919, following World War 1 and the resulting astronomical hike in import and export taxes in Britain, production finally shifted to Geneva where it has remained ever since.
The Name Rolex Doesn’t Mean Anything
Over the years, there has been a great deal of overthinking on the origins of the name Rolex. Some have suggested it’s a derivation of the apt phrase hoROLogie EXcellence, for example. In fact, the name itself has no meaning—much like George Eastman’s reasons for branding his photographic company Kodak, it was chosen for completely practical reasons.
Firstly, Rolex is pronounced the same in any language, anywhere in the world. It doesn’t resemble any other word so can’t be confused with another name or product, and it is easily memorized. It’s also short enough to fit comfortably on a watch dial while still remaining legible.
Among some of the other rumors as to its roots is the belief that Wilsdorf thought the name sounded like a watch being wound. You can judge that one for yourself!
Rolex Have Seen the Top of the World
Rolex made their reputation by supplying the true adventurers of the world with tools designed to survive the most challenging environments imaginable.
In 1953, Rolex were among the sponsors of the expedition that saw Kiwi mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquer the highest peak on earth. The company supplied the team with prototype Oyster Perpetuals on the understanding they would be returned for testing when, or if, they made a safe descent. Incredibly, with the watches performing perfectly throughout the climb, the men who conquered Everest did indeed send them back to Geneva for analysis.
Nobody quite knows what testing Rolex carried out, but those pieces from the top of the world formed the basis for the first of the Rolex Explorer series.
…and the Bottom
In 1960, the U.S Navy bathyscaphe Trieste became the first vessel to explore the deepest part of the ocean, a small valley in the floor of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench known as the Challenger Deep. Rolex’s association with underwater exploration had been going on for several years by this point as they tested their designs for the ultimate waterproof watch. When the monumental dive into the Challenger Deep took place, a prototype Rolex Deep Sea Special accompanied the Trieste to its 35,814ft target, strapped to the outside and subjected to pressures of more than a metric tonne per square centimeter.
After its safe return, one of the submersible’s pilots, Jacques Piccard, sent a telegram to Rolex HQ reading, ‘Happy to announce your watch works as well at 11,000 meters as it does on the surface’. The Deep Sea Special No. 3 currently sits in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.
The Most Expensive Rolex Ever Sold… For Now
The name Rolex tends to conjure up a number of word associations. Key among them are the likes of ‘exclusive’, ‘luxurious’ and ‘success’. But at the forefront of most people’s minds when they hear the name will always be the word ‘expensive’.
While the buy-in price certainly seems high, Rolex’s remain one of the very few luxury items that appreciate in value the longer you own them. Particularly if you buy pre-owned, you can be reasonably assured that you will be able to sell your watch in the future for at least as much as you paid for it, meaning you have spent years wearing a beautiful timepiece for free. So in real terms, Rolex’s are not expensive at all.
There are, of course, exceptions. In May this year, a yellow gold Rolex Triple Calendar Moonphase ref. 6062, the only one of its kind with a black dial and diamond indexes, sold for a staggering $5,060,427 at auction in Geneva. Belonging to Bao Dai, the playboy last emperor of Vietnam (and known as the Bao Dai Rolex) it became the most expensive example from the brand ever sold.
That sum may soon pale into insignificance however when, in October, the absolute holy grail of Rolex’s goes under the hammer in New York as Philips auctions off Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. The exotic dial Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6239, the first of a number of the Daytona range owned by the great actor, was considered lost for decades, before it reappeared last year to the unbridled frenzy of every Rolex collector in the world. Far from being missing, Newman had gifted the watch to an ex boyfriend of his daughter Nell in 1984, who remained unaware of its significance for 30 years.
Now being sold to help fund the Nell Newman Foundation, a charity set up to carry on her father’s philanthropic work, experts are predicting a possible sale price of somewhere in the region of $10m.
Without Rolex, There Would Have Been No Great Escape
During the Second World War, British officers captured by the Nazis and held in prisoner of war camps would routinely have their watches seized by their captors. But amazingly, they were given the opportunity to order replacements to be sent to them, and Rolex obliged. The Swiss company, while officially neutral, made no secret of their support for the Allied forces and sent new watches to the camps for free, on the understanding that prisoners would pay for them upon their release—the honor of British officers being beyond doubt.
Several of the RAF pilots imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, the camp in what is now Poland that was immortalized in the movie The Great Escape, received a selection of Rolex watches, which were highly prized even then for their precision and, crucially, the brightness of the radium lume in their hands and dials—handy should you find yourself in the dark for an extended period of time.
The extreme accuracy of the watches was used to time the movements of the prison guards, aiding in the escape of more than 70 prisoners through the tunnels dug under the camp.
(If you’ve never seen the movie, they all get away and live happily ever after!)
So without Rolex, we would have been robbed of the sight of Steve McQueen, the coolest man who ever lived and the only prisoner of war to wear a leather jacket as a military uniform, leaping barbed wire fences on a motorbike.
Those are six of the things we do actually know about the world’s number one watchmaker. As you’d expect with a history as long and illustrious as Rolex’s, there are a wealth of other stories and legends surrounding the brand. It’s up to you to choose which ones to believe.