Rolex, the world-renowned Swiss luxury watch manufacturer is known to be at the forefront of classic luxury watch design and innovation. The brand has long been a well-established symbol of excellence and prestige, but the historical roots of this illustrious and world-renowned luxury brand, now famous not only for its exclusive range of watches but also its extensive humanitarian efforts, lies in the nineteenth century in the small Bavarian town of Kulmbach.
It was here where, in 1881, its founder Hans Wilsdorf was born into a successful middle-class family of ironmongers. His mother sadly passed away when he was only 2 years old and his father when he was 12, leaving the young Hans in the care of his aunt and uncle who promptly placed him in a boarding school in Coburg, almost 40 kilometres away from Kulmbach. At the time, this would have been quite a distance from home for the young lad. While his uncles — his brother’s fathers who had sold the family business — were not indifferent to the Hans’ fate and ensured that he received a solid education, he recalled later in his autobiography that the way in which they forced him become self-reliant very early in life made him value and care for his possessions, virtues key to his eventual success. At school, Wilsdorf excelled not only at mathematics but especially at languages, which enabled him to have the confidence to go work abroad.
During his late teens, Wilsdorf finished boarding school and left for the French-speaking city of Geneva in Switzerland, where he started working as an apprentice with an international pearl-exporting company. Here he gained invaluable experience, and the fact that the company made such a tremendous profit without even producing anything of their own, but simply purchasing, sorting, grading, packaging and then re-selling pearls, proved to be a valuable lesson for the young Hans and would play a crucial role in his future dealings.
In 1900, at the age 19, he officially started his career in watchmaking when he moved from Geneva to the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he started working as an English correspondent with the watchmaking company Cuno-Korten, who at the time exported around 1 million Swiss francs worth of watches annually. He was hired precisely because of his fluency in English, since at the time, the biggest markets for Swiss watches were the British Empire and the United States. Part of his job at Cuno-Korten also entailed winding hundreds of pocket watches daily. While working there, Wilsdorf became enchanted with watch movements and watch movements and their accuracy — and this was the start of his lifelong passion.
In 1903 he moved to London to continue working in the watchmaking industry, and here, with a partner in his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, with whom he set up a watchmaking company called Wilsdorf and Davis in 1905. They aimed at producing high quality watches at affordable prices. With the business experience gained during his time in Geneva, he contracted a small Swiss watchmaker, named Hermann Aegler to produce watches for him.
At the time, wrist watches were frowned upon, but Wilsdorf was one of its earliest believers, and he convinced Aegler to start manufacturing these for his company. At the time he also registered the trademark Rolex in Switzerland. The name came to him one morning when sitting on the upper-level of a horse-powered double-decker, when he attempted to come up with a name by combining letters of the alphabet in every possible way, and as he put it “a good genie whispered in my ear: ‘Rolex’.” The name itself means absolutely nothing and was simply selected because it is so catchy.
When World War I broke out, he changed the name of Wilsdorf & Davis to the Rolex Watch company. By now it had expanded to having more than 40 employees on its payroll. However, when the British government introduced a 33% customs duty in 1915, Wilsdorf consequently moved his company’s headquarters to Switzerland.
Wilsdorf’s determination to produce wrist watches proved to be a most remarkable insight, but Rolex’s most revolutionary breakthrough would come in 1927, after it launched the world’s first commercially viable waterproof watch, called the Rolex Oyster. He decided to sponsor a watch to a young London typist, Mercedes Glietze, who at the time was about to attempt to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. Wilsdorf announced to the world media that she would be wearing his water-proof Rolex Oyster watch and that once she would emerge from the water, his watch would be perfectly on time. After swimming for almost 15 hours, Glietze’s Oyster was in perfect condition and right on time. She and her Rolex Oyster made headlines around the world. After the swim, Rolex published a full-page ad on the cover of the Daily Mail, a truly revolutionary manoeuvre which marked the birth of the so-called Testimonee Concept, the now well-established marketing strategy of using celebrity’s names and image to endorse that brand to the public. The significance of this achievement by Glietze — and Rolex — is amplified by the fact that, more than four decades later, following the 1969 Apollo Moon landing, the Vienna Herald described it as “an event almost as significant as the time a woman swam the English Channel with a waterproof watch on.”
After the success Rolex had with Glietze, the company also employed Sir Malcolm Campbell, a man who had set 9 new land speed records between 1924 and 1935, as brand ambassador.
In 1931 Rolex launched what it called the Rolex Perpetual, the world’s first self-winding watch. Its system was the first to use a 360° winding rotor, the mechanism of which still lies at the heart of every modern automatic watch.
During the second world war it had become common for British Royal Air Force pilots to wear Rolex. This meant, of course, that if they were captured and sent to POW camps, their watches would be confiscated. When Wilsdorf heard of this, he conducted an act of heroism and offered to replace all watches of all captured officers without cost until the war was over. Officers only needed to write Rolex and explain the circumstances of their loss and where they were being imprisoned. This gesture on the part of Hans Wilsdorf also greatly contributed to raising the morale among the allied POWs because it clearly communicated that Wilsdorf did not believe that the Axis powers would win the war. Wilsdorf’s policy only applied to officers, but when corporal Clive James Nutling ordered a Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph (valued at a current equivalent of £1,200) by mail directly from Hans Wilsdorf in Geneva, Wilsdorf was reportedly rather impressed that Nutling ordered such an expensive watch since most soldiers preferred much cheaper options. He wrote to Nutling saying that he “should not even think” about paying for the watch before the end of the war. This particular watch would also become historically-significant by playing a vital role in the famous “Great Escape” of prisoners from that camp, as it was used to time the patrols of the Nazi guards. In 2007, the watch and associated correspondence between Nutling and Wilsdorf sold at auction for a spectacular £66,000.
During the war Wilsdorf also suffered a personal tragedy, as his wife passed away in 1944. In her honour he set up the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, which inherited his 100% ownership stake in Rolex upon his death in 1960, thereby ensuring that some of the company’s income will always go to charity. This also ensured that Rolex cannot ever be sold nor distribute dividends to outside shareholders.
The company also helped solve a murder case in 1996. A Canadian criminal, Albert Johnson Walker, assuming the identity of the Englishman named Ronald Joseph Platt, murdered Platt while out on a fishing trip in 1996, dumping his body at sea. When the body was discovered two weeks later, the only identifiable object on it was his Rolex Oyster Perpetual wristwatch. British Police contacted Rolex with the watch’s serial number and service markings, and the company confirmed that the watch belonged to Platt. They were also able to approximate his time of death by examining the date on the watch, since the Oyster Perpetual had a reserve of two to three days and was fully waterproof.
Today, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation contributes immensely to humanitarian and philanthropic endeavours around the world such as food banks, elderly charities and scholarships. Additionally, it also finances the Geneva Watchmaking School, the Decorative Arts School of Geneva as well as the city’s Social and Economic Sciences University. Hans Wilsdorf had died childless, but the Foundation also provides for the needs of his nieces and nephews as well as their descendants. As Rolex’s sole owner, the charity naturally receives a large share of the profits, all of which is tax-free.
In 2015, the Foundation actually saved the Genevan football club, Servette FC, from bankruptcy. Furthermore, it both financed and managed the design of a spectacular bridge crossing Geneva’s Arve river, which had been appropriately named the Hans Wilsdorf bridge.
The foundation frequently describes its philosophy with the same word with which Wilsdorf christened that first durable, self-winding watch of his — a word that the foundation understands as signifying its commitment to “an unceasing quest for excellence”: perpetual.