The Visionaries Who Built Rolex
Incredibly, for a company that has been in existence for over a hundred years, the leadership of Rolex has only changed hands six times, three of which happened in the last 10 years.
It has always been an incredibly secretive and insulated brand, even today, and that cloistered philosophy extends to the people allowed to run it.
Technically a non-profit charitable trust, the private firm is wholly owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, named after the man who started the business in 1905.
Today, it stands as the single most successful watchmakers of all time, worth somewhere in the region of $8 billion.
Below, we’ll look at the people who brought Rolex to its current position, at the very top tier in the world of horology.
Hans Otto Wilhelm Wilsdorf was born in Kulmach, Bavaria on March 22nd, 1881.
An orphan by the age of 12, he was brought up by his maternal uncles and attended a boarding school in Coburg before going on to study business at university in Bayreuth, the former hometown of Richard Wagner.
After moving to Geneva, he first worked for a pearl dealer before going on to join Cuna Korten, a Swiss company that exported fine pocket watches. With his gift for languages, being fluent in English, German and French, he was in charge of handling the business correspondence from Cuna Korten’s European vendors. It was this experience that gave Wilsdorf both his grounding in strategic marketing as well as his love of watches.
After completing his compulsory national service in the German army in 1902, he moved to London, where he again worked for another luxury watchmaking firm, further enhancing his knowledge of every aspect of the industry.
He met and married Florence Frances May Crotty and gained British citizenship. Crucially, he also gained a brother-in-law, Alfred James Davis, and the two set up in business together in 1905, when Wilsdorf was just 24 years old.
Opening a store at 83 Hatton Gardens in central London, to this day the heart of the city’s jewelry quarter, the new company of Wilsdorf & Davis specialized in selling rather than manufacturing watches. They sourced the finest components from all over Europe, and particularly Switzerland; movements from Aegler, for instance, and bracelets from Gay Frères, the legendary accessory maker who also crafted bracelets for the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet.
The watches they created were then sold on to jewelers, who would add their own name to them.
Yet, although the firm had become one of the most successful in the watch trade in just a few short years, Wilsdorf was desperate to have his branding included on the dial, something that no one in his position had ever been able to convince jewelers to agree to.
By 1908 he had hit upon the name Rolex. Much like Kodak, it is a word that has no meaning, but had a few points in its favor as far as Wilsdorf was concerned. It was short enough to fit on a watch face and still leave room for the jeweler’s own mark. It was easy to memorize, had a pleasant sound and would be pronounced the same in any language.
However, it would still take a further 20 years before all the watches the company sold would carry the name. At first, Wilsdorf inscribed Rolex on one in every six models that passed through his hands, then on two and later three, helped on by the successes the business was having. In 1914, for example, a 25mm Rolex wristlet watch became the first non-marine chronometer to be awarded a class ‘A’ certificate for accuracy by the Kew Observatory. Wilsdorf & Davis was slowly becoming synonymous with an uncompromising commitment to excellence.
That was also the year WWI broke out in Europe and anything sounding even remotely Germanic was due a particularly frosty reception in Britain, so in 1915 the brand officially became Rolex and, with an enormous tax hike following the war, Wilsdorf left London for new offices in Geneva, Switzerland.
By 1925 he had run out of patience and invested heavily in an extensive advertising campaign, which succeeded in persuading dealers to include the name Rolex on five out of every six watches they sold. And two years later, the company perfected the single most important innovation in the evolution of the wristwatch; a waterproof and dustproof housing called the Oyster. It marked the last time a model would leave their manufacture without the Rolex name on it.
Not only was Wilsdorf a remarkable visionary, inflexible in his demands for products of the highest quality, he was also single-minded in his determination to control every facet of his company. By partnering with fellow luxury watchmaker Carl F. Bucherer in 1924, the pair were able to resist being consumed by the Federation of Swiss Watch Manufacturers, the powerful cartel that dominated the industry. It became one of horology’s most successful alliances and changed the face of watchmaking forever.
Wilsdorf remained at the helm of Rolex until his death in 1960, a driving force guiding the company to ever greater heights of innovation and success. He was the brilliant mind behind not only the Oyster, but also the Perpetual automatic movement, and some of the most iconic watches in history were created in his tenure. Models such as the Submariner, the GMT-Master, the Milgauss, the Datejust, the Day-Date and the Explorer all benefitted from Wilsdorf’s direction.
When his wife passed away in 1944, he transferred all his shares in Rolex to the Hans Wilsdorf Trust, which put statutes in place ensuring that the company could never be sold or made public. It remains in control of Rolex today.
It may be more than 50 years since his death, but the influence of Wilsdorf and his genius for design and marketing can still be felt in every Rolex product released. A true giant in the world of horology, he created the single most successful watchmakers in history.
Perhaps even more than Wilsdorf himself, his successor André J Heiniger is the man credited with making the name Rolex a byword for luxury and affluence.
He became only the second director in the company’s history when he took over the reins in 1962, two years after Wilsdorf died at the age of 78.
Born in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland in 1921, the former lawyer joined Rolex in 1948 and had risen to the position of head of Rolex South America by the time the chief executive’s position opened up.
With a catalog of some of the most innovative models available from any manufacturer to work with, Heiniger set about transforming the company’s reputation from being the maker of technically impressive tool watches to one of the ultimate lifestyle brand—the timepiece of choice for the wealthy and influential.
In fact, the famous quote attributed to him that seems to most sum up his leadership style is the one where a friend asked him how the watch business was going.
“I’ve no idea,” he replied. “Rolex is not in the watch business. We are a luxury business.”
A very private man, and so a perfect fit for the notoriously circumspect brand, Heiniger was seldom seen in public. One of the rare occasions he appeared was to present the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, an accolade for achievements in science, exploration and the environment that Heiniger himself created in 1976 to commemorate the invention of the Oyster case. Held every two years, the $75,000 prize is presented to five recipients with particularly notable accomplishments.
After his retirement in 1992, Heiniger stayed on as Chairman of Rolex, and subsequently Chairman Emeritus, from 1997 until his death on January 3rd2000, aged 79.
He was the man responsible for bringing Rolex to where it is today. An enigmatic, low-key figure, his 34-years at the helm revolutionized the brand.
André Heiniger’s son Patrick joined Rolex in 1986 as commercial director. Born in Buenos Aires in 1950, he, like his father, had trained as a lawyer and specialized in international and intellectual property law.
He took over as managing director when André retired in 1992 and as CEO from 1997.
He reinforced the brand image that his predecessor’s had built up, further consolidating Rolex’s position in the market as the creators of timeless design classics worn by the successful and accomplished.
However, his time at the head will be forever remembered for his overseeing of the complete vertical integration of the company’s manufacturing base. Rolex had been buying up the assorted firms that supplied them with the various components of their watches for decades, but it was Patrick who masterminded the consolidation of more than 30 separate sites down to just four, immense, purpose-built facilities, in and around the canton of Geneva.
Handling the entire production from start to finish, the complexes guarantee Rolex complete autonomy. At Acacias, the world HQ building houses the R&D department and is where final assembly and testing takes place. Dials are made at Chéne-Bourg, which is also home to diamond and jewelry setting. The 11-storey Plan-Les-Ouates, five levels of which are underground, is where Rolex operates its own gold foundry and where it makes its cases and bracelets. And finally, the enormous base at Bienne is the production facility for the brand’s range of class-leading movements.
That last marks another triumph for Heiniger Jr’s legacy. He was the man who finally managed to purchase one of Rolex’s longest standing collaborators, Aegler. The Swiss watchmakers had been supplying the brand with calibers since Wilsdorf’s earliest days and bringing them in under the Rolex umbrella was the final step in giving the company absolute control.
In 2002, Patrick created the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a philanthropic program to help pass on artistic heritage to future generations and to help young artists develop their skills under the guidance of world renowned teachers.
Patrick retired from Rolex in 2008, but not before being honored with the insignia of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor and being appointed Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.
There was an air of controversy surrounding his departure, and the famously taciturn company said very little as to why their esteemed head left so abruptly. They were, though, quick to quash any rumors about lost investments in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.
Tragically, in 2013, the reason for his exit became clear when Patrick Heiniger died aged 62 of a ‘long illness’.
Although only a relatively short term compared to his forerunners, the second Heiniger to run Rolex left an indelible stamp, bringing complete independence to the legendary watchmaker.
On December 20th2008, for the first time in the company’s history, Rolex took on a CEO from outside either the Wilsdorf or Heiniger families.
Bruno Meier, chief financial officer at Rolex since 2005, was a logical choice to take over the top job.
With the financial crisis hitting hard, the well-connected former banker who had previously run Deutsche Bank’s operations in Switzerland, was the man to steady the ship.
While other manufacturers were feeling the pinch, the breadth of Rolex’s reputation safeguarded the brand from the worst of the fallout. As Meier himself said at the time, “In a period of crisis, Rolex is a safe haven. For the client, and also the retailer.”
However, like some of the more sought-after watches on the vintage market, Meier appears to have been something of a transitional model.
Just three years after his appointment, and with the Swiss watch industry enjoying a resurgence, particularly in emerging markets such as Hong Kong and China, he was replaced by the head of Rolex Italia, Riccardo Marini.
The result of a decision to ‘update corporate structures in order to continue the dynamic development of the brand, prepare for the future and cope with a pickup in markets’, Bruno Meier made way for Gian Riccardo Marini on 3rdMay, 2011.
Marini’s family were among the first Rolex retailers in Italy, teaming up with Franco Locatelli and Ronchi (the first to sell Rolex in Milan) to create ROMALO in 1947.
In the 1970s, Riccardo became commercial director at ROMALO, setting up their first service center for training Rolex dealers and vendors, and in 1993, the company became a full subsidiary of the brand.
He has been mainly associated with strengthening Rolex’s ties with golf and sailing, as well as directing the creation of limited edition pieces.
Yet, like Meier before him, Marini was barely given time to warm his seat, and found himself replaced by a new face in 2014.
The company’s sixth CEO, and the fourth since 2008, Dufour arrived just three years after Marini landed the main role.
With the impeccable pedigree of not only being the head of resurgent watchmakers Zenith since 2009, he was also trained under the tutelage of Jean-Claude Biver, once chief of luxury brand Hublot and the man usually credited with saving the watch industry from the quartz crisis.
As with Marini replacing Meier, it is not clear why the Italian’s duration was so short-lived, but his age is sometimes touted as possible reason.
Marini was 64 when he took over at Rolex; Dufour was a youthful 45. The brand could well have been looking to freshen up its image with a younger audience, while still maintaining its standing with its faithful old guard of fans. The new man would seem the ideal age to span the generations.
Whatever happens, the fate of the world’s leading luxury brand seems to be in safe hands. How long Dufour lasts is anybody’s guess, but hopefully he will be given plenty of time to leave a definitive mark of his own.
Photos from Rolex and Rolex Magazine.