Company Type: Private
Founded London, England, UK (1905)
Founder(s) Hans Wilsdorf, Alfred Davis
Headquarters Geneva, Switzerland
Key people Gian Riccardo Marini (CEO)
Rolex SA is a Swiss watchmaking manufacturer of high-quality, luxury wristwatches. Rolex watches are popularly regarded as status symbols and BusinessWeek magazine ranks Rolex No.71 on its 2007 annual list of the 100 most valuable global brands. Rolex is also the largest single luxury watch brand, producing about 2,000 watches per day, with estimated revenues of around US$3 billion (£1.75) (CHF3.02 billion) (2003 figures).
In 1905 Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded “Wilsdorf and Davis” in London. Their main business at the time was importing Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movements to England and placing them in quality watch cases made by Dennison and others. These early wristwatches were sold to jewellers, who then put their own names on the dial. The earliest watches from Wilsdorf and Davis were usually hallmarked “W&D” inside the caseback.
In 1908 Wilsdorf registered the trademark “Rolex” and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The company name “Rolex” was registered on 15 November 1915. The book The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History by Jeffrey P. Hess and James Dowling says that the name was just made up. One story, never confirmed by Wilsdorf, is that the name came from the French phrase horlogerie exquise, meaning “exquisite clockwork” or as a contraction of “horological excellence”. Wilsdorf was said to want his watch brand’s name to be easily pronounceable in any language. He also thought that the name “Rolex” was onomatopoeic, sounding like a watch being wound. It is easily pronounceable in many languages and, as all letters have the same size, allows to be written symmetrically. It was also short enough to fit on the face of a watch.
In 1914 Kew Observatory awarded a Rolex watch a Class A precision certificate, a distinction which was normally awarded exclusively to marine chronometers.
In 1919 Wilsdorf left England due to wartime taxes levied on luxury imports as well as export duties on the silver and gold used for the watch cases driving costs too high and moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland where it was established as the Rolex Watch Company. Its name was later changed to Montres Rolex, SA and finally Rolex, SA. Upon the death of his wife in 1944, Wilsdorf established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation in which he left all of his Rolex shares, making sure that some of the company’s income would go to charity.
The company is still owned by a private trust and shares are not traded on any stock exchange.
Among the company’s innovations are:
• The first waterproof wristwatch “Oyster”, 1923
• The first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial (Rolex Datejust ref.4467, 1945
• The first wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial (Rolex Day-Date)
• The first wristwatch case waterproof to 100 m (330 ft) (Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner ref.6204, 1953)
• The first wristwatch to show two time zones at once (Rolex GMT Master ref.6542, 1954)
• The first watchmaker to earn chronometer certification for a wristwatch