When Was the First Rolex Ever Made?
Depending on your love of technicalities and semantics, the first watch Rolex ever produced could either be categorized as being from as early as 1905, or almost 100 years later.
The company that would go on to become Rolex was formed in London at the start of the 20thcentury, not as a manufacturer but as an assembler and distributor. Founded by Bavarian entrepreneur Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, the pair bought in movements from a variety of Swiss watchmakers and installed them in cases made by firms from both Switzerland and the U.K.
These completed timepieces, the vast majority of which would be either ladies models or pocket watches (as a man wearing a wristwatch was essentially unheard of at the time), were then supplied to various third party jewelers to sell. Most would be traded under the retailer’s own name, but a few would have the Wilsdorf & Davis logo somewhere on the case as well. So, it can be argued that these composite pieces were theoretically the first Rolex watches, although it is something of a stretch.
Yet Wilsdorf, perhaps the industry’s greatest visionary, was the one to pioneer the wristwatch as a male accessory. As such, from as far back as 1901, he set himself to popularizing the concept in the public’s mind, and that led him into partnership with a name which is central to the Rolex story.
Rolex and Aegler
The Aegler Watchmaking Company was established in 1878, in a town sitting on the border between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland. As such, the place is usually referred to by two names interchangeably; Biel (in German) and Bienne (in French).
By the time Wilsdorf came knocking some 20-or so years later, Aegler had already forged an enviable reputation for itself as a manufacturer specializing in highly accurate and, crucially, small movements for women’s watches. What set them apart, other than their tiny dimensions, was the use of lever escapements, a far more precise setup than the cylinder escapements still being used by practically every other comparable operation.
The size and precision of the calibers were perfect for Wilsdorf’s idea of the watches he wanted to make, and he placed a huge order with the firm, starting an association which would endure for generations.
As the relationship blossomed, with the acceptance of wristwatches for men growing by the year, Rolex undertook to use only Aegler’s movements for its catalog of models, and in turn, Aegler vowed to supply only Rolex.
However, it is not quite as simple as that.
The headache-inducingly complicated goings-on between Rolex and Aegler continued for decades.
In 1920, Hermann Aegler, son of original founder Jean Aegler, became one of the owners of Rolex when he bought 6,960 shares of the company and was appointed to the board, next to Wilsdorf and Davis. In a reciprocal move at the end of the 20s, both Rolex and Gruen, their second biggest client, purchased shares in Aegler. The firm was then renamed Aegler, Society Anonyme, Manufacture des Montres: Rolex et Gruen Guild A, meaning Aegler Inc; makers of watches for Rolex and Gruen Guild A. Not the snappiest title (and Guild A refers to the highest grade watches Gruen made), but this was actually the first time Rolex officially owned any part of the operation which had been supplying its movements for over 20 years, although the two remained separate legal entities.
All continued quite happily until the end of the 1930s when both Rolex and Gruen sold their shares back to Aegler, who, in turn, sold their Rolex shares back to Wilsdorf, meaning each concern was now owned by their original family.
Far from signifying a corporate fallout, it was a move that only strengthened the connection between the two and it was at this point the exclusivity agreement began. Aegler would only sell to Rolex, and Rolex would only buy from Aegler, with the exception of chronograph movements, which Aegler didn’t make. As a symbol of the new understanding, Aegler even renamed their factory ‘Manufactre des Montres Rolex SA’.
But, their name above the door or not, the point stood that Rolex did not own its caliber manufacturer. In fact, at one point, the company had 27 different parts suppliers dotted all over Geneva, equipping them with every component of their watches.
It seems strange in the modern age to think of Rolex, now the poster child for vertical integration, in that way, but their drive towards complete self reliance didn’t really start until the 1990s.
That was when Patrick Heiniger, only the third CEO in the company’s history, took over from his father, the legendary Andre Heiniger. It was Patrick’s focus to bring all Rolex’s sub-contractors under the same umbrella, starting with their largest case maker, Genex.
In 1998, they finally acquired longtime bracelet creator Gay Frères, before going on to take over Beyeler, their traditional dial maker. Others followed, such as crown manufacturer Boninchi, until those more than two dozen disparate companies were all housed inside three enormous Rolex uber-factories; Chéne-Bourg, Plan les Ouates and Les Acacias.
Nevertheless, while the movements were made by a manufacture called Rolex, and the contract which existed meant no one else was going to get their hands on one, it was still an independently held company. That, at long last, came to an end on 26thMarch 2004 when the ‘Manufactre des Montres Rolex SA’ was sold outright to Rolex by the Borer family, which had taken over from the Aeglers in 1969.
With that final piece of the puzzle in place, you could say that by the letter of the law, and pedantry, the first watch created after signing over the deeds on the 26thMarch 2004 is technically the first Rolex watch ever made!
Whether you take that view or are of the belief that the initial offering Hans Wilsdorf ever physically touched in 1905 is the one, it is interesting to see just where and how the company developed. By forming allegiances with the best in the business, creating timeless designs and maintaining a ruthless commitment to quality, Rolex were able to completely change the image and appreciation of the wristwatch. And far from resting on their laurels, it is a practice that continues today.
Featured Photo Credits: Rolex of Geneva via Wikimedia Commons & Public domain photos.