In a new series of articles, we’ll be exploring what lies behind the well-known, prestigious watch brands we all know and love. This week, we’re looking at arguably the most popular luxury watchmaker of all – Rolex.
When you think about luxury watches, Rolex is usually the first brand to spring to mind. This is not surprising, as they are universally acknowledged as being the best at what they do. Their timepieces have been designed with the utmost care and attention, using only the best materials, and have been tested to the very limits. Over the decades, Rolex has certainly proven its worth as THE luxury watch brand.
While some may argue for other luxury watch brands, Rolex can indeed prove its top dog status. The Reputation Institute releases an official ranking of the world’s most reputable companies each year, called the Global RepTrak. Rolex have succeeded in taking the top spot for the 2018 rankings, followed by Lego, Google, Canon and Walt Disney. They are certainly a force to be reckoned with, but how did they reach such illustrious heights?
When was Rolex founded?
Rolex is known as a Swiss watch brand, and as the majority of luxury watches are made in Switzerland, one would assume that is where Rolex was born. In fact, Rolex moved to Geneva 14 years after the company was founded; it may surprise you to learn that Rolex actually began in London.
In 1905, a man named Hans Wilsdorf set up a watch distribution company and became interested in developing better quality wristwatches. At the time, men tended to use pocket watches while wristwatches were seen as more of a feminine accessory, and so the focus tended to be on the beauty of the design rather than accurate timekeeping. Wilsdorf saw the potential for improvement, however, and set about making more precise, practical pieces which could be worn on the wrist.
Although Wilsdorf found success quickly, he continued to improve upon his earlier models; he was determined to create the most precise chronometric movement in the world. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long for his hard work to pay off, as just 5 years after he founded the company he achieved the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, something which had never been awarded to a wristwatch before. Four years later, in 1914, Rolex was awarded a class ‘A’ precision certificate from Kew Observatory. This certificate was very exclusive and had previously been reserved for highly precise scientific instruments, marine chronometers specifically. This cemented Rolex’s status on the world stage, and in 1919, Wilsdorf moved the company to Geneva – the watchmaking capital of the world.
Where did the name Rolex come from?
Legend has it that Wilsdorf wanted to find a name which is easy to say, works in many languages, and which looked good on a watch dial. Choosing a name consisting of 5 letters meant that it was not to short, and not too long, and could easily be centralised using the middle letter. Many names were considered, and Wilsdorf himself is quoted as saying that;
“I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.”
What made Rolex so famous?
Hans Wilsdorf continually strived to improve every component of the wristwatch over the years, and made quality and innovation a priority from day one. Of course, in order to prove that your watches really are the best, they must be tested in a range of conditions and situations – the more extreme the better. Rather than perform tests in a lab and simulating these extremes, Rolex would encourage sportspeople, aviators, explorers and sailors to wear their timepieces, and report on how well they worked under pressure. This proved to be an invaluable marketing tool. Here are some of their most newsworthy feats:
Crossing the Channel, 1927
Rolex created the first waterproof watch in 1926, called the ‘Oyster’ and its credentials were proven to the public with the help of an English woman named Mercedes Gleitze. In 1927, she took to the water for 10 hours in an attempt to cross the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster. She sent the following testimonial to Hans Wilsdorf:
“You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. . . . The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it.”
Flying over Everest, 1933
Flying over the world’s tallest mountain was an ambitious and risky idea in 1933, but an RAF squadron leader named Douglas Douglas-Hamilton - AKA Lord Clydesdale – led an expedition to do so in the April of that year. Using oxygen tanks in an open topped biplane, himself and three other crew members successfully flew over Everest, all wearing Rolex Oysters, which kept perfect time throughout.
Setting the land speed record, 1935
Sir Malcolm Campbell wrote to Rolex in 1935, saying;
“I have now been using my Rolex Watch for a while, and it is keeping perfect time under somewhat strenuous conditions.”
These strenuous conditions included setting the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Incredibly, Sir Campbell managed to reach over 300mph in the iconic Bluebird, all whilst wearing his Rolex watch.
Reaching the summit of Mount Everest, 1953
Although Lord Clydesdale’s expedition took humankind over Everest for the first time in 1933, the summit of the world would not be reached on foot until 1953, by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, his Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer. The expedition members were all equipped with Rolex Oyster Perpetuals, and a new watch – the Oyster Perpetual Explorer – was created in homage to their amazing feat.
Being tested at CERN, 1956
CERN in Switzerland is the world’s leading particle physics laboratory, and houses the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator. In 1956, they confirmed that the Rolex Milgauss watch was able to resist magnetic fields of up to 1,000 gauss, which is a measurement of electromagnetic induction. To put this into perspective, a strong refrigerator magnet is around 100 gauss.
Diving into the Mariana Trench, 1960 & 2012
There have only been two manned expeditions to the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the world’s oceans at 37,800 feet. Rolex watches have joined both of these expeditions, but not necessarily on the wrists of those who were brave enough to venture down into the deep. Rolex watches were actually attached to the outside of the submersibles – the Trieste in 1960,and the Deepsea Challenger in 2012 – both of which came back in full working order.
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