Everyone talks about Rolex luxury timepieces and their magical charms, but how many people know a great deal about the legendary Swiss manufacturer?
Headquartered in the picturesque international city of Geneva, the leading name in watches was founded in 1905 by then 24-year-old Hans Wilsdorf (1881-1960), and today relies on 4,000 watchmakers in more than 100 countries to keep it ticking.
Rolex pioneered the development of the wristwatch and is at the origin of many major watchmaking innovations, which has put the company at the forefront of creativity and function. Some of the best-known and most venerable timepieces include the Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch, introduced in 1926; the Perpetual rotor self-winding mechanism invented five years later; and the technically savvy Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master II, launched in 1955. The latter was startling in its innovation back then. The watch was a must for long-distance travel across time zones and was capable of displaying the time in different places on the planet due to the additional 24-hour hand and the rotatable 24-hour graduated bezel, a grooved ring holding the covering of the watch face. (This became the official watch of the now-defunct Pan American Airlines.)
In addition, the prolific company has registered more than 400 patents in its illustrious history.
“The status of Rolex and its unique identity of the brand are products of history driven by a passion for innovation and a constant quest for excellence,” an executive representing the company says. “It is a fascinating succession of pioneering achievements encompassing a watchmaking, industrial and human adventure.”
Rolex is a completely integrated and independent watchmaking company built on strict and uncompromising values with themes to perpetuate its passion for perfection. This longtime mission is now in the hands of CEO Jean-Frederic Dufour, who took over in 2015 from Gian Riccardo Marini.
According to Forbes, Rolex, with 6,000 employees at the brand’s four Swiss sites, has annual sales of about $4.6 billion. The company owes its success and status to the values inherited from Wilsdorf, and to the guiding principles it has continuously promoted: the spirit of enterprise, a visionary outlook and the constant pursuit of perfection.
Prices vary for the different timepieces and can rise to many thousands of dollars + for one unit. Paul Newman’s iconic Cosmograph Daytona, one of the rarest timepieces in the world, was sold for $17.8 million from an anonymous bidder at a 2017 Phillips auction. This is reportedly the most expensive watch ever sold at an auction.
Through Wilsdorf’s genius and unusual capacity to embrace all fields of the company’s activities from technology and communication, to organization and distribution as head of Rolex for a half century, he set the course for adventure.
Born in Bavaria, Germany, Wilsdorf honed his watchmaking skills in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, during an era when pocket watches were the rage. But he wisely saw the potential in a wristwatch for the 20th century despite the fact that they were not precise and were widely viewed as jewelry for women.
Wilsdorf believed the wristwatch was destined to become an everyday object for both men and women, provided it could be precise, waterproof, robust and reliable. His stroke of genius was to anticipate what is now taken for granted, and to contribute to making the wristwatch what it is today.
Testimonials and superstars
In 1927, the year after the Oyster was launched, Wilsdorf equipped a young professional swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, with the innovative wristwatch for her to wear as she swam the English Channel. After more than 10 hours in the water, the watch emerged in perfect working order. With accompanying positive news coverage, Gleitze became the first Rolex ambassador, since she was a witness to the performance of the Oyster. (It was in a case equipped with a patented system consisting of a screw-down bezel and winding crown, all hermetically sealed for optimal protection.)
“It became the first wristwatch that defied the elements, an essential feature for those engaged in exploration or sports,” says the Rolex executive.
Since then, Rolex, which Wilsdorf named because it was short, pleasant sounding and easy to pronounce in any language, has accompanied many men and women who have broken long-standing records, defied the elements and explored the globe’s most forbidding frontiers—from the tallest mountaintops to the deepest oceans.
As they pushed the boundaries of human endeavor, these pioneers also provided a demanding proving ground for the Oyster wristwatch which has proven to be a reliable and practical timepiece in any circumstance.
Those who have become Rolex ambassadors and continue to promote the products at high-end events and other functions, include talented athletes, artists and performers who share the company’s lofty ambitions for their chosen fields. Through its philanthropy programs and sponsorships, Rolex is actively involved in supporting the arts, sports and exploration, and encourages the spirit of enterprise as well as the conservation of natural resources.
Stars who have helped elevate Rolex to divine status include golfer Jordan Spieth, tennis stars Roger Federer and Garbiñe Muguruza; skier Lindsey Vonn; opera star Placido Domingo and film legend Martin Scorsese.
“Rolex has a knack for selecting winners as their ambassadors,” says Keith Pelley, CEO of the European Golf Tour, who has applauded Rolex’ commitment to the tour and other championship events.
Rolex at its four Switzerland locations
Switzerland is the crucible where Rolex watches come to life because of the savvy of more than 6,000 employees at the company’s four sites, each on the cutting edge of watchmaking technology.
The team at Geneva’s world headquarters campus designs, develops and produces all of the essential components of its watches, from the casting of the gold alloys to the machining, crafting, assembly and finishing of the movement, case, dial and bracelet. Each watch must pass more than 20 different drop tests before its launch. (The process varies in time from watch to watch.)
Geneva is home to management, research and development, design, communication activities, sales and after-sales operations. It is also where the final assembly of watches from components delivered by the other three sites and final quality control of the finished product takes place.
The Plan-les-Ouates site brings together all of the development and production activities for watch cases and bracelets, from the casting of gold and forming of the raw materials to the machining and polishing of finished components. Comprising six wings linked by a central axis, this is the largest of the Rolex sites and home of the foundry where the company creates the 18K gold alloys used for its watches—yellow gold, white gold and Everose gold, an exclusive pink alloy developed exclusively for the brand.
“At this site, a flurry of activity from a strange white robe behind a safety-glass screen continues day and night,” says the Rolex executive.
An articulated arm solidly anchored on a base subjects the watch to a series of seemingly random movements repeated at regular intervals. In fact, the robot simulates the typical movements of a Rolex wearer, alternating between everyday gestures and the action of the arm during sports like jogging. Plus, a few low-intensity shocks are added for more assurance of reliability. The robot is designed to simulate years of wear in a week to give the designers quick feedback on their assumptions as to how the watch will behave.
The Bienne site is the production facility for the movements of all Rolex watches, which are put in motion by some 2,000 workers. The components, often tiny and of complex geometry, are manufactured with a precision of the order of a few microns. Such intense execution allows 100 percent of Rolex movements to meet the accuracy of the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute. The assembly and regulating of the movements are carried out entirely by hand, by highly skilled operators and watchmakers.
The Chene-Bourg location houses the development and manufacture of the dials, plus the gemology and gem-setting activity. Here the faces of the watches take shape thanks to a magical combination of high technology and the dialmakers’ command of their craft.
Current ambitions and future designs
Rolex is constantly introducing new timepieces and brand extensions to excite current customers and interest new ones of all ages, especially the younger market of potential wearers.
For example, there is a new generation of the Oyster Perpetual Datejust 36 introduced in 1956—the first self-winding wrist chronometer to indicate the date in a window on the dial. The new version comes in either Everose Rolesor combining Oystersteel and 18K Everose gold, or yellow Rolesor combining Oystersteel and 18K yellow gold.
The new Oyster Perpetual Datejust 31 offers a redesigned case and a range of new and original dials. In 18K white, yellow or Everose gold, the new versions are equipped with caliber 2236 which sits at the cutting edge of watchmaking technology. Like all Rolex washes, this one carries the Superlative Chronometer certification, ensuring excellent performance on the wrist.
Rolex is introducing a sparkling gem-set version of the aforementioned Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona. On the new 18K Everose gold watch, the bezel is set with a gradation of sapphires in rainbow tones. The case is adorned with 56 brilliant-cut diamonds set into the lugs and crown guard, and the dial features 11 baguette-cut sapphire hour markers, each of which match the color of the corresponding point on the bezel. The chronograph counters are in pink gold crystals, a material with a shimmer effect created during the crystallization of a pink gold alloy by means of a special Rolex developed process.
Also on the horizon for the brand is a new Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea, a professional diver’s watch. It offers a 44 mm case with redesigned lugs and sides and a broader Oyster bracelet, as well as a correspondingly adapted Oysterlock folding safety clasp. The repeated testing on this type of watch ensures the wearer that it will function even in extreme depths up to 12,800 feet.
As Rolex continues to dominate the market and introduce new models created with the latest technology, the one thing that remains constant is the moxie and mantra of pioneer Wilsdorf.
His influence will always be evident in the aesthetics and intrinsic characteristics of a product that has remained faithful to its origins, as well as the company’s ability to draw on its heritage to continuously advance toward unparalleled innovation.
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