History of Rolex Pocket Watches -

History of Rolex Pocket Watches

Every great company has to start somewhere. For Rolex, that somewhere was London in 1905.

What would go on to evolve, many years later, into the most successful and recognizable watch brand in the world began not as a manufacturer, but as a strictly commercial enterprise.

Originally named Wilsdorf & Davis, it was founded by Bavarian-born entrepreneur Hans Wilsdorf and his English brother-in-law Alfred Davis. Setting up shop in Hatton Garden, the city’s jewelry district, the two men didn’t actually produce a single component themselves in their formative years. Instead, they assembled watches with parts imported from some of the finest Swiss makers. These completed timepieces were then sold onto other jewelers, sometimes as a co-branded effort, with the W&D logo next to the retailer’s, or else with their trademark nowhere to be seen.

Although Wilsdorf was a visionary who saw, sooner than most, the appeal and utility of the wristwatch, many of these early pieces created by the two were pocket watches. By far the most prevalent at the time, pocket watches had been around since the 16thcentury, invented by a fellow countryman of the Rolex founder, Peter Henlein.

When Wilsdorf first formed his company, wristwatches were still very much the preserve of women, and usually aristocratic women at that.

Before the pair of groundbreaking innovations Rolex themselves brought to the fore decades later; the waterproof Oyster case and the Perpetual automatic movement, these timepieces, known as wristlets, were particularly fragile, delicate items. In addition, with high-born ladies seldom required to be punctual to any great degree, the movements inside were serviceable but not especially accurate.

While the very first inklings of a transition between the two were being felt, a man wearing a wristwatch at the time would have been at best unusual, and at worst laughable.

It would take several more years and, crucially, the horrors of WWI, before a watch worn on the arm became more popular than one hidden away in a vest pocket.

A Question of Timing

The wristwatch had several challenges to overcome before it would outstrip the pocket watch, other than its image problem among men. The main hurdle was its vulnerability to the elements.

Sheltered by the wearer’s clothing, pocket watches were largely spared the worst of the exposure to dust and moisture that could seep inside their cases and render their internal movements useless. Also, the Hunter style examples, as opposed to the open-face type, featured a hinged metal lid to cover the dial and crystal, offering an extra level of protection.

They were, as well, significantly larger than the wristwatches of the day, giving them a number of advantages. Firstly, they were far more legible, having greater space for the numerals and hands. And it also meant the calibers could be bigger, leading to an inherent stability and durability, as well as superior accuracy.

Yet, even with all these points in their favor, Wilsdorf was willing to bet on the wristwatch taking over as the preferred way to tell the time. As such, he poured the majority of his efforts into the new trend, meaning Rolex pocket watches are few and far between.

By 1910, they had created the first ever chronometer certified wristwatch, issued by the Observatoire de Montres Suisse, which would later go on to become the COSC, matching the precision of the era’s pocket watches. Four years later, the Kew Observatory in the U.K. awarded them a Class ‘A’ precision certificate, something reserved only for the incredibly exact marine chronometers before then. Both those calibers had been made in conjunction with longtime associates Aegler, a manufacturer that specialized in making small movements for ladies watches. It was a relationship which endured all the way up until 2004 when Rolex finally bought out the company.

Yet in all that time, the two only made one pocket watch movement together, an unorthodox design with a sub dial for the running seconds. For the rest, they outsourced their mechanisms from elsewhere and added their own finishing touches, from companies such as Cortebert, for example, who also supplied the likes of Hamilton.

Much like with their dalliance with quartz technology more than half a century later, Rolex maintained only the bare minimum interest in pocket watches, and kept their main focus on developing the best automatic wristwatches in the world.

Later Pocket Watches

By the 1940s, there had been a complete reversal of fortunes between the watch types. Following the Second World War, wearing a pocket watch had become highly unusual and wristwatches were the obvious victors, their reputation cemented mainly by Rolex’s inventiveness.

But the company continued to make a tiny number of pocket watches as late as the 1970s, more as a novelty than anything else. Issued as part of the Cellini line, Rolex’s range of non-Oyster and mainly hand wound dress pieces, you can still find these available today, and prices are not wholly unreasonable. Expect to pay somewhere in the region of $5,000 for one, while models from the 30s in good condition can go for nearly twice that. Of course, the rarest examples from Wilsdorf & Davis’s earliest days will cost a small fortune if you ever manage to find one for sale in the first place.

Rolex Pocket Watches Milestones

1905 Hans Wilsdorf forms a new watch company in London, England with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis.

Wilsdorf & Davis starts life in business by assembling well-respected timepieces from components sourced from some of the finest Swiss manufacturers and selling them to other vendors to retail under their own names. As was the trend at the time, many of these first pieces are pocket watches.

1910 Rolex achieves a notable distinction of creating the first ever chronometer certified wristwatch, issued by the Observatoire de Montres Suisse. It proves they can be as accurate as the ubiquitous pocket watch, and ushers in some of the earliest signs of a change in public image.

Wilsdorf himself is confident the wristwatch can succeed as they are more suited to being fashionable items made to reflect a wearer’s personality, and as such people might conceivably want to own several different models to pair with different outfits. Pocket watches, by comparison, tended to become heirlooms, handed down through the generations and more rarely replaced.

Ironically, another reason Wilsdorf thought men might buy more than one wristwatch was the higher likelihood of them becoming damaged in day to day life, requiring the purchase of a new model. Pocket watches were more hefty by design and better protected by clothing.

1920s and 1930s Rolex continues development of the wristwatch, perfecting, in quick succession, the Oyster case and the self-winding Perpetual movement. More than anything else, these two breakthroughs start to sound the death knell of the pocket watch. However, the company continues to produce them, buying in movements from the best of the industry’s watchmakers and fitting them in beautifully made cases from the likes of A. L. Dennison.

They also build just one pocket watch caliber themselves, partnering with Aegler, with whom they will go on to work for decades.

1940s By the end of WWII, Rolex’s pioneering technology had more or less sealed the fate of the pocket watch. The automatic waterproof wristwatch was now the preferred accessory for men, and the pocket watch seemed like a relic of a bygone era.
1970s Rolex produces the last of their pocket watches, small 18k gold models attached to their Cellini line of ultra dressy timepieces.

Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.

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