Rolex was founded in London 1908 by a German, Hans Wilsdorf. Originally, the firm was named Wilsdorf & Davis. Davis was Wilsdorf’s brother-in-law. In the early years, the company worked with Aegler, a Swiss company, to provide movements for their wristwatch designs.
It wasn’t until 1910 that Rolex submitted their first movement to the School of Horology in Switzerland. In 1914, London’s Kew Observatory certified a Rolex watch to be as precise as a marine chronometer. This was the first time a watch had received a chronometer rating.
Wristwatches had several challenges to overcome. Many were not accurate, nor were they reliable. The chronometer award proved Rolex watches to be accurate. The next hurdle to overcome for watchmakers was making a watch waterproof. Rolex was able to design a new screw-down crown and casebook that would eliminate moisture seepage. To prove their watches were waterproof, Rolex placed their watches submerged in filled aquariums in watch shops around the world. The model was named “Oyster.” Wilsdorf chose the name after experiencing difficulty opening an oyster at dinner one evening.
While promoting the “Oyster” in aquariums brought brand awareness to Rolex, Wilsdorf was looking for other opportunities. He learned of a British woman who was planning to swim across the English Channel. Wilsdorf provided her with an “Oyster” and hired a photographer to follow her trek. As she emerged from the channel, her watch had remained waterproof. Wilsdorf then took out a front page ad in the London Daily Mail stating: “The Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements: Moisture Proof, Waterproof, Heat Proof, Vibration Proof, Cold Proof, Dust Proof.”
In 1931, Rolex developed the “Rotor,” the first automatic movement. This movement offered a metal plate that would rotate internally as the wearer moved their arm. This would keep the watch wound. The model was called the “Perpetual.”
By World War II, Rolex had become the timepiece of choice for the British Royal Air Force. Pilots snubbed the government issued watches for the more prestigious Rolex “Oyster Perpetual” model. Rolex, in turn, offered any British prisoner of war whose Rolex watch had been confiscated a free replacement.
Wilsdorf died in 1960 and in 1962, the company’s board of directors appointed André Heiniger as the new managing director. Heiniger had worked under Wilsdorf for 12 years and had a similar vision in mind for the Rolex brand.
With the arrival of the Japanese quartz watches on the market, numerous Swiss factories closed. While Rolex eventually developed a quartz watch, it remained a small fraction of its overall business. Rolex produces approximately 650,000 watches every year.