It is fair to say that Rolex has done more than any other manufacturer to develop the concept of the wristwatch. Throughout its history, now comfortably into its second century, it has consistently led from the front with a series of groundbreaking innovations in both technology and design; pioneering breakthroughs that have formed the basis of just about every timepiece in existence. It is an unsurpassed legacy, and the reason for their current status as the most successful watchmaker of all time. Below, we’ll take a look at some of Rolex’s most important milestones in the Rolex story and just how they were able to shape an entire industry.
24-year old German Hans Wilsdorf partners with his brother-in-law, Englishman Alfred Davis, to establish a watch company in Hatton Garden, London. At first, the pair import movements sourced from some of the finest manufacturers in Europe. Then, incorporate them into cases made by premium firms such as the Birmingham-based Dennison.
The Rolex Brand is Born
It is not until three years later in 1908 that the name Rolex is registered. With the coming of WWI, Wilsdorf recognizes the difficulty of trading in England with a German brand name, and in 1915 Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd officially became the Rolex Watch Co. Ltd.
An early major success for the firm comes when they send their first movement for testing at the School of Horology in Switzerland. They receive the world’s first chronometer rating for a wristwatch, the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, or COSC.
Precision Certificate Award
Four years later, their top performing watch will also become the first non-marine chronometer to be awarded a ‘Kew-A’, the highest order Precision Certificate issued by the Kew Observatory in the U.K.
1926, The Oyster
Having transferred the company headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland in 1919, within the next seven years, Rolex perfects probably the most important invention in the history of the wristwatch when they launch the Oyster.
Revolutionizing the way watches are perceived by the general public, the world’s first dust and waterproof housing does more than anything else for their reputation as robust functional items rather than pieces of delicate jewelry aimed primarily at women.
The following year, the Oyster’s standing is confirmed when Rolex’s first ambassador, British professional swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, wears one during her abortive effort to swim the English Channel. The watch Gleitze wore on a chain around her neck is found to be working flawlessly despite being entirely submerged for the 10-hour attempt.
1931, Automatic Movement
Building on the work of John Harwood from the Isle of Man, who patented the first self-winding wristwatch in 1923, Rolex goes on to develop the Perpetual movement. Improving on Harwood’s design by replacing his semi-circular weight with a unidirectional rotor able to turn a full 360°, the watch’s mainspring is kept at a constant tension, so vastly improving timekeeping accuracy.
The brand’s first models with the Perpetual mechanism are launched in 1933, the welcome convenience of an automatic movement marking the end to the dominance of traditional pocket watches.
Second only to the Oyster in terms of significance, it is this brainchild that establishes Rolex as the foremost name in watchmaking innovation.
To commemorate their 40 years in the business, Rolex releases a true cutting-edge creation, in the shape of the Datejust. The first automatic and waterproof wristwatch with a date function ever made, it is an instant success and becomes the brand’s flagship. To complement the watch itself, Rolex also issues a new type of bracelet, exclusively for their new charge; the Jubilee.
The Datejust is soon found gracing the wrists of the great and the good, with luminaries such as Churchill and Eisenhower taking ownership.
Three years later in 1948, Rolex introduce a magnifying lens over the date window, enlarging the numbers underneath by 2.5 times to aid legibility. It is christened the Cyclops and will go on to feature on the majority of the company’s date watches from then on.
Chuck Yeager becomes the first man to break the sound barrier when he pilots his Bell X-1 aircraft, nicknamed Glamorous Glennis, to Mach 1 on October 14th. On his wrist is a 34mm Rolex Oyster.
His and other test pilots’ exploits are immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff.
1953, The Explorer Series
The 1950s were a decade that belonged to Rolex. In 1953, an Oyster becomes the first timepiece to survive a climb to the top of the world when Hillary and Tensing summit Everest wearing Rolex watches. The incredible achievement gives rise to the Explorer series.
It is not the first time the company’s models have seen the roof of the world however. 20 years previously, a pair of modified Westland biplanes piloted by Flight Lieutenant D.F. McIntyre and Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, known as Lord Clydesdale, fly over the peak, both equipped with Oysters.
The same year, Rolex release the ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph, a handsome 36mm piece with a design feature that will go on to define the brand. Actually borrowing the concept from a 1937 prototype by Rolex called the Zerographe, the Turn-O-Graph becomes the first production model to include a graduated, rotating bezel.
And during that year and the next, underwater pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau films his Oscar-winning The Silent World, a documentary detailing the marine life beneath the ocean waves. On his wrist is the forerunner to Rolex’s most famous creation, the Submariner.
1954, The Submariner
The Sub is formally introduced, with the ref. 6204, at Baselworld. Although not the first dive watch, it is the one that captures the public’s imagination.
Dreamt up by Rolex director and keen diver Rene P Jeanneret and released to capitalize on the explosion in popularity of scuba diving following the invention of the aqualung by Cousteau and French engineer Emile Gagnan, the watch takes its first steps towards its current status as possibly the most iconic timepiece ever made.
By the end of the decade it has been through nearly a dozen references, refined and cultivated, and become part of the accepted horology landscape.
1955, The GMT-Master
By the mid-fifties, transatlantic travel is falling within reach of more people with the introduction of the revolutionary long distance airliner, the Boeing 707. Drastically reduced flight times between continents brings with it the new problem of jetlag, and Rolex is approached by Pan-American to fathom a solution to the sometimes debilitating effects being felt by its pilots.
The watchmaker’s solution is the GMT-Master, starting with the ref. 6542. With the inclusion of a second hour hand, as well as the rotating bezel concept found on the Turn-O-Graph and the Sub, wearers are now able to easily keep track of a second time zone, offsetting some of the condition’s worst properties. In addition, the bi-color scheme on the bezel gives the GMT a distinctive visual appeal, and it becomes another emblematic model in the growing Rolex stable.
This is also the year the brand perfects the Twinlock crown, a system which seals the watch internally and ensures waterproofness to 300ft.
1956, The Rolex Day-Date President
Described as the most creative, varied and unusual model ever launched by the brand, the Day-Date makes its first appearance in 1956. Only released in precious metals, a tradition that has never been broken during its now 60+ year run, the watch quickly takes over the flagship mantle from the Datejust. Like that model, the Day-Date is a revolution. It is the first to have the day of the week written out in full, in a window above the 12 o’clock index. And again like the Datejust, the new piece gets its own exclusive bracelet; the President.
However, with it being aimed very much at the elite, as well as finding its way on to the wrists of several heads of both countries and companies, it is not long before the watch itself is being referred to, unofficially, as the President.
It is also the year that saw Rolex release its first antimagnetic watch. With the world entering the atomic age, scientists working in environments with strong magnetic fields were in need of reliable timepieces shielded from the harmful effects. By shrouding the mechanism in a soft iron Faraday cage, the ref. 6541 Milgauss was able to withstand up to 1,000 Gauss.
1960, The Rolex Deep Sea Special
Rolex stamp their authority on the world of underwater watches when the prototype Deep Sea Special accompanies the bathyscaphe Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the lowest part of the world’s oceans.
Piloted by Jacques Picard and USN Lieutenant Dan Walsh, the submersible dives to 35,787ft, into a small valley in the trench floor known as the Challenger Deep. The vessel, crew and watch all survive the incredible pressures of around 1 metric tonne per square centimeter, with the Deep Sea Special working faultlessly.
52 years later, James Cameron will repeat the accomplishment solo, again with a custom made Rolex watch joining him.
1963, The Cosmograph Daytona
Rolex make their first serially-produced chronograph. With a manually-winding caliber, it fails to make an impression and sales are poor. Some dealers take to giving it away as a free incentive with the purchase of another Rolex model.
It is called the Cosmograph Daytona.
1967, The Rolex Sea-Dweller
In collaboration with French commercial diving firm Comex, and drawing on the knowledge gleaned from their escapades aboard the Trieste, the brand releases a new dive watch that remains waterproof down to 2,000ft.
Fitted with a patented helium escape valve, or HEV, the Sea-Dweller overcomes the problem of the watch’s crystal being forced out by expanding gases on saturation divers’ long ascent back to the surface.
1971, The Rolex Explorer II
Sharing a name with the Everest-inspired legend but little else, the Explorer II arrives in 1971. Intended for those who survey polar regions or underground caverns, it, like the GMT-Master, includes a second hour hand. However, the bezel is fixed, so it doesn’t function as a true dual time zone watch and, as such, sales are muted.
Today, it is seen as the essence of Rolex’s golden age and is becoming something of a cult favorite.
1992, The Rolex Yacht-Master
The Rolex range gets its first all new model since the Daytona, nearly 30 years previously. A more luxurious take on the legendary Submariner, the Yacht-Master is a well-appointed nautically-themed watch rather than a rough and ready diver. It becomes the first to be released in the brand’s own combination of metals dubbed Rolesium; a mix of steel and platinum. It is also the first of Rolex’s sports models to be made available in three sizes, with a 40mm, a mid-size 35mm and a ladies 29mm. More recently, it was also the recipient of the first rubber strap from the brand; the Oysterflex.
Eight years later, the Yacht-Master II is unveiled. Much like the pair of Explorers, these two watches share very few similarities. The YMII is Rolex’s most complicated model to date, featuring a programmable timer with mechanical memory and flyback function. It is designed for skippers to calculate the precise starting sequence of sailing regattas.
2012, The Rolex Sky-Dweller
Launching few new models, Rolex have contented themselves recently in perfecting the watches already in their catalog, and in bringing out commemorative versions of their most popular creations.
The Submariner, for instance, celebrated its 50thanniversary with the ref. 16610LV—a green bezeled edition popularly known as the Kermit. It was followed in 2010 by a model that also had a green dial, dubbed the Hulk.
Most of the true innovations have taken place on the inside. Rolex calibers continue to lead the way in precision and longevity, thanks to the brand’s use of state-of-the-art materials and lubricants.
But in 2012, they presented a watch actually more complicated, and certainly more useful, than even the Yacht-Master II.
The Sky-Dweller is for luxury travelers, a GMT that also features the company’s first annual calendar. It carries over the skipper’s watch’s Ring Command Bezel to control the various functions, and is sometimes referred to as a dual time zone Day-Date.
It continues the brand’s foray into more functionality as well as moving with the times and producing larger pieces. The Sky-Dweller is 42mm; the Yacht-Master II is 44mm.
Rolex’s hundred years at the top have been marked with a series of unparalleled achievements which have brought the world of horology to where it is today. As an entity, they continue to push the boundaries, cementing their position as the greatest watchmakers of all time.
We can only wait and see what the next years and decades will bring.