Rolex During the World Wars
Throughout history, the human race has never been more inventive than during times of war and conflict.
It’s a sad truth, but a truth all the same. Everything from Duck tape to microwave ovens to the internet has come about as a result of wartime research; sometimes by happy accident, other times after desperate efforts as enemy forces encroached.
It is the same story for the wristwatch. The horrors of combat are responsible for turning them from fragile pieces of ladies jewelry into vital basic equipment for the frontline. From there, with their image for a male audience transformed by the battlefield, it was only a short jump into the civilian world. The noncombatant at home wanted to be seen as just as tough as returning veterans. As Samuel Johnson said, ‘every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’
The pocket watch, for hundreds of years the only way for a gentleman to tell the time, started suffering its death throes during WWI. Although military officers wearing wristwatches can be traced back as far as the Napoleonic Era, the rigors of the trenches marked the first time wars had been fought over vast distances. With line of sight no longer an option, attacks had to be coordinated over radio. That necessitated generals syncing their watches to ensure they launched offenses simultaneously. Having that watch ready at the end of their arm made the whole process far easier and safer than hunting inside a tunic, opening and closing the case and replacing it again.
The first examples were soldier’s own jerry-rigged efforts, taking their government-issued pocket watch and simply fitting it with a strap. But as the conflict drew on, several companies starting producing so-called ‘Trench Watches’, with Rolex among them. Luminous paint was introduced, as well as metal dials to replace the former porcelain, and unbreakable glass covered the face to add further protection.
So successful were they, for both the military and civilians that, by the outbreak of the Second World War, men’s wristwatches were outselling pocket watches by fifty-to-one.
Rolex and WWI
In 1914, when WWI broke out, Rolex had been in operation for just 9 years. Yet they had already scored some major victories in popularizing the wristwatch, creating the first model to be awarded the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision by the Official Rating Center in Bienne, as well as a Class A grade from the Kew Observatory in London.
But in 1915, the British government slapped an enormous 33.3% import tax on luxury goods entering the country, including watches. Rolex, which at that time would bring Swiss-made pieces into London to be checked before exporting them all over the world, were forced to open offices in Bienne, Switzerland. That way, they were able to bypass the capital altogether, so avoiding the levy.
With the pocket watch still the preferred timepiece for men of the era, Rolex would buy in movements from the finest manufacturers in the industry, the likes of Cortebert and Aegler, and fit them inside beautifully made cases from A. L. Dennison among others.
As the war continued however, the demand for trench watches increased and several manufacturers turned to producing them. The majority were little more than the standard pocket watch with wire lugs soldered top and bottom in order to hold a strap.
Even so, Rolex’s longtime partner Aegler were specialists in constructing highly accurate calibers small enough to fit into ladies models, and these now proved ideal for this new breed of men’s watch—keeping their pieces at a wearable size under a uniform sleeve.
A handful of these Rolex trench watches still survive today. Rarely above 32mm in diameter, but still particularly legible thanks to the simplicity of their dial makeup and outsize numerals, their pocket watch origins are plain to see. Some even have a Hunter-style case front protecting the watch.
By the end of the war in 1918, there had been a complete turnaround in the wristwatch’s reputation. They were now battle-hardened and proven and, with Rolex’s two biggest groundbreaking innovations on the not-too-distant horizon, set to only get stronger.
Rolex and WWII
The intervening years brought both the waterproof Oyster case and the Perpetual self-winding movement from Rolex. These, more than anything before or since, revolutionized the wristwatch, making them crucial accessories for men.
And not just any men. In 1933, the Houston Expedition achieved the first ever flight over Mount Everest, with all four aviators piloting their pair of Westland biplanes above the highest peak on earth while wearing Rolex Oysters.
Back on terra firma, British pioneer Sir Malcolm Campbell clocked up armfuls of land speed records in his Bluebird racer, becoming the first man to break 300mph along the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935.
Even though he was an official Rolex ambassador, he still insisted on buying his Oyster watches himself, talking admiringly of their robustness despite the bone jarring vibrations and inundation of fine debris to which they were subjected.
So, by the time Hitler started his campaign in Europe in 1939, Rolex’s reputation as makers of practical and sturdy wristwatches was well known.
Switzerland had been guaranteed neutrality from hostilities by their signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1815. Yet the country’s military was mobilized in just three days and the Swiss government passionately condemned the fascist advance, refusing to deport any of their Jewish citizens to the Nazi death camps.
But the Swiss watchmaking industry remained very much nonaligned, with all but one company happy to sell their products to military forces on both sides. That one was, of course, Rolex.
Although founder Hans Wilsdorf was German by birth, his support for the allies was unwavering. He even put in place a policy of sending prisoners of war replacements for confiscated watches, telling them not to ‘even think about payment’until they were home safe.
Among the most sought after references for captive officers at the time was the ref. 3525. One of Rolex’s first attempts at a chronograph, the so-called ‘Monoblocco’ (named for its one-piece construction) housed a Valjoux movement, as would a somewhat more successful chrono model a few years later; the Daytona. The ref. 3525 was especially prized for its accuracy, and became instrumental in the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III in 1944; later immortalized in the classic movie The Great Escape.
Commanding officers ordered a number of Monoblocco models from Rolex, using their precision to time the movements of guards and their generous amounts of radium lume in the pitch black escape tunnels.
In all, the brand sent out more than 3,000 watches to detained personnel, many with handwritten letters from Wilsdorf himself.
For those still fighting, Rolex also remained the watch of choice. WWI had been the first war fought in the skies, and a dependable watch had become critical in the cockpit.
Pilots, particularly of the RAF, had taken to buying Oysters out of their own pockets in the 1930s. Larger in size and more readable than the standard issue government pieces, they were better suited for the stresses of a dogfight.
After the heroic defense of the U.K. in the Battle of Britain of 1940, Wilsdorf heard of the renown in which his timepieces were held and set about making a series of models specifically for the airmen.
Becoming known as the ‘Air’ watches, they comprised the Air Tiger, Air Lion, Air Giant and, a name still familiar today, the Air King. All were bigger than the usual watches of the day, with simple three-handed dials that were exceptionally legible. By the end of the war in 1945, only the Air King was still in production and has remained so, bar a two year stint of R&R starting in 2014, until today.
And 1945 was also the year that brought us possibly the most famous and universally recognized icon from Rolex ever. The Datejust, beginning with the ref. 4467, was introduced to commemorate the brand’s 40thyear in operation. The radical design was the first self-winding, waterproof wristwatch with a date function and, perhaps more than anything else, set Rolex on its path to the total domination of the industry.
Switzerland’s neutrality in WWII was a major contributing factor to the success of their watch industry.
Timepiece manufacturing in other countries, particularly America, was halted in order to concentrate on the war effort, elevating Rolex and the other Swiss brands high above the competition. Furthermore, Hans Wilsdorf’s anti-Nazi stance and help to the allies set both him and his company apart as being very much on the right side of history.