A Rolex By Any Other Name
Along with being one of watchmaking’s undoubted pioneers, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf was also a master salesman, in possession of an astounding marketing acumen.
He elevated the brand to the last word in aspirational products, both through his unyielding commitment to quality as well as groundbreaking promotional tactics.
He was the man who invented the idea of aligning his watches with renowned figures of the day, the so-called Testimonees—what we now call ambassadors.
But at least some of the mystique, what made his watches something to actually strive for rather than merely being part of the everyday, was the price. From the very beginning, Wilsdorf ensured a Rolex was a sizeable investment. It required parting with a not unsubstantial amount of money, for when you felt you had earned yourself a reward after achieving something special.
In that way, buying a Rolex watch was an event in itself and that whole approach, what marketers call ‘price conditioning’, is still at the forefront of their advertising strategy today. They are, to borrow a term from another campaign, reassuringly expensive.
When is a Rolex not a Rolex?
However, Wilsdorf was well aware there was a huge market for people who wanted a fine quality watch but could not afford a Rolex. As early as 1909, just four years after establishing Wilsdorf & Davis which would go on to become Rolex itself, he was looking for ways to accommodate them. He started establishing other brands, selling models that would cost considerably less but still be of excellent quality.
Records show the first of these separate entities was registered under the name Omigra, but it was cancelled just four months later after Wilsdorf, presumably, realized how close it was to the already proven and highly successful Omega brand.
Over the next handful of years he tried and quickly abandoned a number of different names—Falcon, Genex, Lexis, Hofex, and the thankfully very short-lived Rolexis and Rolwatco, among others.
It wasn’t until the start of 1911 that Wilsdorf hit on one that stuck, at least for a little while, and it followed his own principle of piggybacking on an already renowned name.
The business name Marconi Lever was registered by Wilsdorf on the 24thJanuary 1911, christened after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian communications innovator and inventor of the radio.
It was the first of the ‘other’ brand names to be used for any length of time, and while at this point Wilsdorf was not manufacturing watches himself, instead buying in the best components from several different watchmakers and combining them into one case, he was adamant his trade names be kept distinct.
So the Marconi watches would not be sold through Rolex’s agents and they would not have the word Rolex on them anywhere; not on the dial or the movement. In fact, the movement was often the only difference between the two. Rolex models used calibers made by the legendary Aegler ébauche manufacturer. Those fitted inside the Marconi watches mostly came from either Beguelin or The General Watch Co., a firm established in 1848 to build movements aimed at the lower end of the market and, incidentally, founded by the Brandt brothers who later started Omega.
However, there were two problems with the first of Wilsdorf’s subsidiary companies, which turned out to be insurmountable.
Firstly, the name. By the time Wilsdorf adopted it, Marconi was an already highly-regarded supplier of wireless equipment, so every advert put out by Wilsdorf was unintentionally publicizing a different company.
And secondly, it was no secret that Marconi watches were basically the much more expensive Rolex watches, but with a different movement. And no one really cared about the movement, so sales for the cheaper brand soared at the expense of the more costly one. If, after all, you could have a ‘Rolex’ watch for a fraction of the price, why wouldn’t you?
Unicorn & Others
Wilsdorf, still learning his chops, ditched the Marconi brand in 1919, renaming it Unicorn. Yet he ran into a similar problem. With unicorn being a recognized noun, it could not be registered as a unique brand name, so he had to list his new business under both Unicorn Lever and Unicorn Watch.
Like Marconi, these were ostensibly Rolex watches, just with a cheaper movement and aimed at those whose budget wouldn’t quite stretch to the full-blooded originator. And again like the Marconi, the Unicorn models outsold the Rolex by huge amounts. For all Wilsdorf’s attempts to differentiate between them, the public, still taking its first tentative steps into the new phenomenon of the wristwatch, wanted the best they could get for the least amount of money.
It was the same story with two other rebrands of the sister company, Rolco and Oyster Watch Co. Both offered enough of what people were wanting from a Rolex to make buying an actual Rolex unnecessary.
In 1926 however, Wilsdorf got it right.
The major difference between the Tudor watches and those of the other Rolex sub-brands which had preceded them was Wilsdorf’s willingness to promote them as an actual Rolex product.
They could be sold by the main brand’s network of authorized retailers, which the Marconis, Unicorns and others could not. Some of the earliest pieces, almost exclusively sent to the Australian market, even had ‘Rolex Watch Co. Ltd.’ on the dial under the Tudor tag.
The idea behind them however was just the same; a Rolex watch for non-Rolex money—or as a fairly condescending advertisement at the time put it, they were for, ‘the man whose purse may be modest, yet whose aspirations are high’.
With all pretense out the window, the Tudor watches suffered a similar identity crisis as their forerunners. Almost indistinguishable from a Rolex in every way the buying public cared about, the only thing they didn’t offer was quite the same bragging rights.
In 1946, Wilsdorf decided to set Tudor out on its own and registered the company as Montres Tudor S.A, a joint stock business with Rolex owning all the shares.
Once freed from the overpowering shadow, Tudor flourished. Following the mother ship’s model line, the Tudor Oyster collection was released in the mid-forties, benefitting from the patented waterproof cases Wilsdorf had devised in 1926. That was followed by the Tudor Prince series, the doctor’s watch, the following decade.
The Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner ref. 7922, the first diving watch from the company, developed with the assistance of the French Navy, was released in 1954, just a year after the Rolex Sub. The company would go on to enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with many of the world’s military forces, including both the U.S and U.K navies.
Today, Tudor, rather than being seen as a poor man’s Rolex, has successfully forged its own image and excellent reputation. The modern Black Bay and Pelagos ranges are highly sought after, and prices for some vintage examples are starting to rival those of the comparable Rolex product.
More importantly, the recent releases from the brand have Tudor’s first all in-house movement, further closing the gap between the two firms.
The Rolex sister companies have a long, fascinating and often confusing history. Most interestingly of all, they show how Hans Wilsdorf started to get to grips with the intricacies of marketing, learning ways of setting Rolex apart, not only from his own brands, but from every other watchmaker in the world.