History of Men’s Rolex Watches
It is far from an exaggeration to say that no other manufacturer has done more to popularize the men’s wristwatch than Rolex.
Founded in 1905 as Wilsdorf & Davis, their early breakthroughs of the Oyster case, the first workable waterproof housing, and the Perpetual movement, the first commercially-produced self-winding mechanism, offered never-before-seen levels of both convenience and resilience. Together they completely transformed the image of a timepiece worn on the wrist—no longer items of fragile jewelry owned exclusively by women, now essential accessories for men from all walks of life, from the smartest business leaders to the toughest soldiers.
The steady progression built on the foundations of those two pioneering developments have brought us many of the most iconic, recognizable and sought after watches of the last century, and it is a process that is very much ongoing. Rolex still leads the industry, constantly innovating new materials and evolving improved technologies.
Today, they are so far ahead of the competition in terms of worldwide renown that their name has become a byword for notions of luxury, ambition and achievement.
The Early Triumphs
The middle of the 20thcentury was by far the most important period for Rolex as a manufacturer. They celebrated their 40thyear in operation in 1945 with the release of the Datejust, a revolutionary timepiece that represented the very first waterproof, automatically winding watch ever made with a date function.
It was the model to put the brand on the map, and it marked the start of a period of incredible inventiveness that is still yet to be equaled.
The brand began forging its identity as the maker of watches that were at once hardy enough to be worn in the most demanding conditions, yet so elegantly designed there was no outfit or environment where they looked out of place.
In the space of three or four years of the 1950s, they gave us the Explorer, based on the Oyster models that had accompanied the first ascent of Everest; the Submariner, the legendary blueprint for every dive watch that followed; the GMT-Master, even today the world’s most recognized traveler’s timepiece; the Day-Date, the ultimate in aspirational indulgence; and the Milgauss, made for scientists leading the way in the new Atomic Age.
In doing so, Rolex invented the concept of the modern tool watch—pieces with functions and features devised to help wearers carry out their occupations, whatever they may be.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the brand had built a portfolio of some of the most important names in horology. It is a core family that remains at the pinnacle of watchmaking to this day, all still very much identifiable as from the same DNA as those introduced some six decades ago.
The Middle Years
The 1960s and 1970s saw the lineup swell with several more vital additions. Specifically, the Daytona, Rolex’s first serious attempt at a chronograph, a piece which has since gone on to rewrite the rules for all sports watches; the Sea-Dweller, another groundbreaking watch that proved a match for the extraordinary demands of the professional saturation diver; and the Explorer II, perhaps their toughest and most no-nonsense creation to date.
Alongside these new models, the established pieces were subjected to a constant and unremitting series of revisions and updates intended to keep them at the forefront of their chosen specialties.
However by the end of the 70s, the quartz crisis had taken a heavy toll on the mechanical watch business and Rolex was forced to move away from the persona it had so carefully cultivated for itself and adapt to a completely new landscape.
Although Rolex had engaged with quartz technology to a certain degree, bringing out battery-powered versions of the Datejust and Day-Date in 1977, they did so with no great enthusiasm. Their hearts belonged first and foremost to the artistry of classic watchmaking and its centuries of heritage and tradition.
What’s more, they were prepared to gamble on the public’s love affair with the hyper accurate and extremely cheap quartz watches coming in from Japan and America waning too, bringing discerning customers back to the world of gears and springs.
It was a gamble that paid off. By repositioning their offerings as the product of sublime craftsmanship and refinement, they became the definitive lifestyle brand. Rolex watches were now something to strive for, a reward for having succeeded reaching a major milestone, and something to hand down to future generations. As such, pieces that had once been made to withstand the roughest treatment began emerging cast in precious metals and set with diamonds and other gemstones on their dials and bezels.
Correspondingly, prices began to rise too, creating the inherent exclusivity that is essential to all luxury goods.
At the center of this transformation was the Daytona, a model which had suffered lackluster sales for the first 25-years of its existence. Frustrated by its manually-winding movement, customers had left it languishing on dealers’ shelves, with those wanting a chronograph well served elsewhere.
But in 1988, it was fitted with its first automatic caliber, a heavily-reworked version of Zenith’s El Primero. Coinciding with a more decadent era and the beginning of the watch collecting phenomenon as a whole, demand for the Daytona exploded.
However, supply was restricted by Rolex’s reliance on a third party for its caliber and it sent impatient would-be buyers back into the archives for the very models they had ignored for so long. Soon, first generation examples started changing hands for large sums, giving birth to the vintage and preowned market which has boomed ever since.
With the Rolex name now synonymous with thoughts of affluence and success, the brand started reflecting their fresh persona in their output. The early nineties saw the release of the Yacht-Master, a more sumptuously appointed nautical watch based very much on the venerable Submariner.
Similarly, in the following decades they began to address the one perceived shortcoming of their range with the introduction of a pair of highly complicated pieces. Where their reputation had been built on creating the last word in simple, three-hand models, with perhaps a GMT function or a very occasional chronograph, the new millennium brought with it the Yacht-Master II, an incredibly complex countdown timer with a mechanical memory aimed at regatta competitors, and the Sky-Dweller, an entirely different take on the dual time zone watch coupled with the only annual calendar ever to emerge from the Geneva compound.
The innovations continued in the rest of the range as well, with calibers constantly improved, and with the Daytona finally receiving the brand’s own Cal. 4130, every one of the company’s engines was now produced in-house.
Today, Rolex is beyond question the most famous watchmaker in the world, and their collection of timepieces contains a gallery of some of the most illustrious and coveted watches ever made.
Rolex Men’s Watches Milestones
|1905||Hans Wilsdorf partners with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis and sets up shop in London’s Hatton Garden district. Wilsdorf & Davis start out assembling watches by installing imported Swiss movements into high quality cases and supplying them to jewelers to sell under their own names.|
|1926||Having renamed the business Rolex in 1915 and moved operations to Geneva five years later, the company’s first major invention came in 1926 with the creation of the waterproof and dustproof Oyster case, a hermetically sealed housing that protected the watch’s delicate inner workings. The following year, Wilsdorf hits on the concept of the Rolex testimonee when he gives young British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze an Oyster watch to wear during her attempt to cross the English Channel. After 10 hours submerged, the timepiece is in perfect working order.|
|1931||The second radical innovation from Rolex comes when they perfect the Perpetual movement, a self-winding caliber powered by the motion of the wearer’s arm. Together with the Oyster case, they form the backbone of the brand’s offerings until the present day.|
|1945||Rolex commemorate 40 years in the business with the release of the Datejust, the first self-winding, waterproof wristwatch in the world with a date function.|
|1953||The Rolex Explorer makes its debut to celebrate the successful ascent of Mount Everest by Hillary and Tensing. The same year, the Rolex Submariner, the first dive watch waterproof to 100m, also surfaces. It will go on to become the most famous diver of all time.|
|1955||At the request of, and in cooperation with, Pan Am, Rolex launches the GMT-Master. Its two-tone bezel and additional hour hand enables wearers to keep track of a second time zone and so help combat the sensation of jetlag brought on by the new transatlantic routes.|
|1956||The Day-Date emerges, the first wristwatch to display both the date and the day of the week spelled out in full. It takes over flagship duties from the Datejust. Another new addition, the Milgauss, joins the lineup—able to withstand huge electromagnetic fields due to its soft iron Faraday cage inside the main case.|
|1963||After several lukewarm attempts at a chronograph, Rolex release the Daytona into full-scale production. Although highly capable, it too fails to capture the imagination due to its manually-wound movement.|
|1967||Teaming up with French commercial diving specialists COMEX, Rolex develop the Sea-Dweller. Waterproof to an incredible 610m, its mainadvantage over the Submariner is the Helium Escape Valve, or HEV. The small one-way regulator allows for tiny helium bubbles which had built up inside the case during deep dives to seep back out before they could expand and damage the watch.|
|1971||The Explorer II, a model aimed at polar explorers and speleologists, is brought out. Featuring a distinctive orange 24-hour hand, it lets adventurers keep track of day and night in the most demanding of environments.|
|1977||Rolex introduce the Oysterquartz models, based on the Day-Date and Datejust. Although highly popular, they are produced in limited numbers of just 1,000 units per year.|
|1978||The Sea-Dweller 4000 takes over from the original, doubling the already formidable depth rating.|
|1988||The underperforming Daytona has its fortunes completely revolutionized by receiving its first automatic movement. Almost overnight it goes from the perpetual also-ran to the hottest ticket in horology.|
|1992||The Yacht-Master, a more luxurious take on the Submariner blueprint, arrives, the first Rolex sports watch to be available in three sizes; a 40mm, a mid-size 35mm and a ladies 29mm.|
|2000||The Daytona is given a Rolex-made caliber, the Cal. 4130, completing the collection as the last watch to receive an all in-house movement.|
|2007||The follow-up to the Yacht-Master, the Yacht-Master II, marks an entirely new direction for the manufacturer. Far and away the most complicated Rolex watch to date, the regatta chronograph features the world’s first programmable countdown with mechanical memory.|
|2008||Underlining their domination of the luxury dive watch market, Rolex unleash the Sea-Dweller Deepsea, a massive watch capable of surviving a plunge to 3,900m, more than 100 times the depth any human could survive.|
|2012||The Sky-Dweller becomes the brand’s standard-bearer as the ultimate traveler’s watch, with its dual time zone capability and the first and only annual calendar complication Rolex has ever built into one of their models.|
Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.