Rolex is the world’s most widely recognized luxury watch brand. That global recognition is the product of decades of success in a range of fields, from early timekeeping records to a string of important firsts, not to mention film appearances and associations with James Bond, Paul Newman, and other notables. Here are 10 key things you should know about Rolex.
1. Early Days
In 1905, Hans Wilsdorf and his business partner and brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, founded Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd. in London. In 1908, Wilsdorf registered the trademark “Rolex” and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The company officially changed its name to Rolex in 1915. There are various stories about the origin of the Rolex name, none apparently confirmed by Wilsdorf himself. One is that Wilsdorf followed the lead of George Eastman, who invented the “Kodak” name for his own company. Eastman’s success started a trend of short, invented brand names. Another story is that Rolex is a sort of portmanteau of the French phrase horlogerie exquise. Regardless of the inspiration, the name certainly caught on.
2. Patents and Firsts
Rolex claims, or has been credited with, a wide range of watchmaking patents and firsts. Here is a sampling:
In 1910, a Rolex was the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, granted by the Official Watch Rating Center in Bienne. In 1926, Rolex patented the first waterproof watch – its famous Oyster.
The Datejust was born in 1945, bringing us the first self-winding wristwatch to indicate the date in a window on the dial. Rolex became the first watch to break the sound barrier on the wrist of pilot Chuck Yeager in 1947.
Launched in 1953, the Submariner was the first divers’ watch waterproof to a depth of 100 meters. That same year, Rolex reached the summit of Mt. Everest with the expedition that included Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
In 1960, Rolex was the first company to send a watch to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. In 1967, Rolex patented the helium escape valve. Rolex became the first brand to use 904L stainless steel in 1985.
Rolex is also know for creating an array of trademarked names for its innovations. These include Twinlock and Triplock waterproof screw-down crown systems. Parachrom is a material developed, patented and manufactured by Rolex for use in hairsprings, Everose is an 18k rose gold developed, patented and produced by Rolex in its own foundry. The Paraflex shock absorber system helps protect the movement from shocks.
3. Kew A Certificates
In days gone by, when ships relied on marine chronometers to navigate, timekeeping accuracy was a paramount concern not only to sailors, but to entire nations. Manufacturers sent their finest handmade and hand-adjusted marine chronometers to be tested at astronomical observatories, such as those at Neuchâtel, Geneva, Besançon and Kew. Each observatory applied its own standards, and Kew reportedly applied the strictest of all. The tests were far more demanding than those employed by COSC today. For decades, only hand-adjusted marine chronometers with detent, or chronometer, escapements passed the tests. At Kew, chronometers that performed especially well received an A-class certificate.
In 1914, a Rolex wristwatch received the first-ever Kew A certificate for a timepiece of that type. During the 1940s, Rolex submitted a series of 145 small wristwatch movements to Kew for testing. To the amazement of practically everyone (except perhaps Hans Wilsdorf and his staff), 136 of the movements received Kew A certificates. The movements Rolex submitted were among the least expensive it produced – 10 ½ “’ Hunters, though each was fitted with standard production balance wheels and escapements intended for another movement, making the “Kew A” movements a sort of hybrid. These movements were specially hand finished, and each was adjusted by Rolex’s master timer, Jean Matile. Most of the movements were used in steel, 32 mm Oyster Speedking watches, while 24 of the movements were placed in 34 mm gold cases and sold as model 6210. Needless to say, today these watches are among the most sought-after by collectors.
4. James Bond
Rolex has close connections with several real-life celebrities, but the most famous connection may be with the fictional character James Bond. Rolex collectors differ on some of the details surrounding which Rolex models appeared in which films, but it is settled that in his original 14 Bond books, Ian Fleming mentioned only one brand as belonging to 007 – Rolex. So, when Bond made the jump to the big screen, he naturally wore Rolex. Sources vary slightly on which models appeared in which movies, but it seems safe to say that Rolex appeared in these Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, and License to Kill.
The relationship produced a watch known to collectors as simply the “James Bond Sub.” Most agree that this designation belongs to the ref. 6538, which was produced from 1954 to 1959. Some refer to all early Submariners without crown guards as James Bond Subs. However you choose to define it, a legend was born.