Alfred Davis and his brother-in-law Hans Wilsdorf founded Wilsdorf and Davis, the company that would eventually become Rolex SA, in London, England in 1905. Wilsdorf and Davis' main commercial activity at the time involved importing Hermann Aegler's Swiss movements to England and placing them in high-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, recounts 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 its upper-case letters have the same size, can 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 normally granted exclusively to marine chronometers.
In 1919 Wilsdorf left England due to wartime taxes levied on luxury imports as well as to 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, a private trust, in which he left all of his Rolex shares, making sure that some of the company's income would go to charity. Wilsdorf died in 1960; since then, the trust has owned and run the company.
In December 2008, following the abrupt departure of Chief Executive Patrick Heiniger for "personal reasons", the company denied that it had lost 1 billion Swiss francs (approx £574 million, $900 million) invested with Bernard Madoff, the American asset manager who pleaded guilty to an approximately £30 billion worldwide Ponzi scheme fraud. Rolex SA announced Heiniger's death on 5 March 2013.
As of 2010 Rolex watches continue to have a reputation as status symbols.
Among the company's innovations are:The first waterproof wristwatch "Oyster", 1926
The first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial (Rolex Datejust ref.4467, 1945)
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 wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial (Rolex Day-Date, 1956)
The first watchmaker to earn chronometer certification for a wristwatch (1910)
The first self-winding Rolex wristwatch was offered to the public in 1931 (so-called the "bubbleback" due to the large caseback), preceded to the market by Harwood which patented the design in 1923 and produced the first self-winding watch in 1928, powered by an internal mechanism that used the movement of the wearer's arm. This not only made watch-winding unnecessary, but kept the power from the mainspring more consistent resulting in more reliable time keeping.
Rolex participated in the development of the original quartz watch movements. Although Rolex has made very few quartz models for its Oyster line, the company's engineers were instrumental in design and implementation of the technology during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, Rolex collaborated with a consortium of 16 Swiss watch manufacturers to develop the Beta 21 quartz movement used in their Rolex Quartz Date 5100. alongside other manufactures including the Omega Electroquartz watches. Within about five years of research, design, and development, Rolex created the "clean-slate" 5035/5055 movement that would eventually power the Rolex Oysterquartz.
Rolex was also the first watch company to create a water resistant wristwatch that could withstand pressure to a depth of 330 feet (100 m). Wilsdorf even had a specially made Rolex watch (the watch was called the "DeepSea") attached to the side of Trieste, which went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The watch survived and tested as having kept perfect time during its descent and ascent. This was confirmed by a telegram sent to Rolex the following day saying "Am happy to confirm that even at 11,000 metres your watch is as precise as on the surface. Best regards, Jacques Piccard".
Rolex produced specific models suitable for the extremes of deep-sea diving, caving, mountain climbing, polar exploration, and aviation. Early sports models included the Rolex Submariner (1953) and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Sea Dweller. The latter watch has a helium release valve, co-invented with Swiss watchmaker Doxa, to release helium gas build-up during decompression. The Explorer (1953) and Explorer II (1971) were developed specifically for explorers who would navigate rough terrain, such as the world-famous Mount Everest expeditions. Another iconic model is the Rolex GMT Master (1954), originally developed at the request of Pan Am Airways to provide its crews with a dual time watch that could be used to display GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), which was the international time standard for aviation at that time and was needed for Astronavigation during longer flights.
Rolex is the largest manufacturer of Swiss made certified chronometers. In 2005, more than half the annual production of COSC certified watches were Rolexes. To date, Rolex still holds the record for the most certified chronometer movements in the category of wristwatches.
Rolex first used its "Cerachrom" ceramic bezel on the GMT-Master II in 2005, and has since then implemented ceramic bezel inserts across the range of professional sports watches. They are available on the Submariner, Sea Dweller-Deepsea, GMT Master II and Daytona models. In contrast to the aluminum bezel which it replaced, the ceramic bezel color does not wear out from explosure UV-light and is very scratch resistant.
Rolex SA offers products under the Rolex and Tudor brands.
Montres Tudor SA has designed, manufactured and marketed Tudor watches since 6 March 1946. Rolex founder Hans Wildorf conceived of the Tudor Watch Company to create a product for authorized Rolex dealers to sell that offered the reliability and dependability of a Rolex, but at a lower price. The number of Rolex watches was limited by the rate that they could product in-house Rolex movements, thus Tudor watches were originally equipped with off-the-shelf movements while using similar quality cases and bracelets.
Historically, Tudor watches have been manufactured by Montres Tudor SA using movements supplied by ETA SA. Since 2015 however, Tudor has begun to manufacture watches with in-house movements. The first model introduced with a in-house movement was the Tudor North Flag. Following this, updated versions of the Tudor Pelagos and Tudor Heritage Black Bay have also been fitted with an in-house caliber.
Tudor watches are marketed and sold in most countries around the world including the United States, Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, South Africa, many countries in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and countries in South America, particularly Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. Montres Tudor SA discontinued sales of Tudor-branded watches in the United States in 2004, but Tudor returned to the United States market in the summer of 2013 and to the UK in 2014.
Rolex has three watch lines: Oyster Perpetual, Professional and Cellini (the Cellini line is Rolex's line of "dress" watches). The primary bracelets for the Oyster line are named Jubilee, Oyster. and President. The watch bands on the models are usually either stainless steel, yellow gold, white gold, or rose gold.
The name of the watch lines in catalogs is often "Rolex Oyster Perpetual ______" or "Rolex ______"; Rolex Oyster and Oyster Perpetual are generic names and not specific product lines, except for the Oyster Perpetual 26/31/34/36/39 and Oyster Perpetual Date 34.
Within the Oyster Perpetual 26/31/34/36/39 lineup, there are three different movements; the 39 features the Caliber 3132 movement with the Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers (the Oyster Perpetual 39 is a less sporty variant of the Rolex Explorer 39mm as they share the same case, same bracelet and buckle, same bezel and same movement, with a different dial and different hands), while the 34 and 36 models have the Caliber 3130 featuring the Parachrom hairspring, and the smallest 28 and 31 models have Calibre 2231. The Oyster Perpetual Date 34 (or simply Date 34) adds a date display and date movement, plus the options of a white gold fluted bezel and diamonds on the dial.
Certain models from the Date and Datejust are almost identical, however the Datejust have 36 mm and 41 mm cases paired with a 20 mm bracelet, compared to the Date's 34 mm case and 19 mm bracelet. Modern versions of the Oyster Perpetual Date and Datejust models share Rolex's 3135 movement, with the most recent change to the 3135 movement being the introduction of Rolex's "parachrom bleu" hairspring, which provides increased accuracy. As the Date and Datejust share a movement, both have the ability to adjust the date forward one day at a time without adjusting the time; this feature is not confined to the Datejust. Compared to the Date, the Datejust has a much wider range of customization options, including other metals beyond stainless steel, various materials for the dial, and optional diamonds on the dial and bezel. The Datejust II, which was released in 2009, has a bigger case (41mm diameter) than the standard Datejust and it also features an updated movement, being only available in steel with white, yellow or rose gold on an Oyster bracelet. In 2016, Rolex released the Datejust 41, which has the same 41mm diameter case as the Datejust II, however the Datejust 41 has smaller indexes and a thinner bezel compared to the Datejust II.
Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf created the Air-King line to honor RAF pilots of the Battle of Britain. By 2007, the 1142XX iteration of the Air-King featured a COSC-certified movement in a 34mm case, considered by some a miniaturized variant of the 39mm Rolex Explorer as both watches featured very similar styling cues; the 34mm Air-King lineup was the least expensive series of Oyster Perpetual. In 2014 the Air-King was dropped, making the Oyster Perpetual 26/31/34/36/39 the entry-level Rolex line. In 2016 Rolex reintroduced the Air-King, available as a single model (number 116900), largely similar to its predecessors but with a larger 40mm case, and a magnetic shield found on the Rolex Milgauss; indeed the new 40mm Air-King is slightly cheaper than the 39mm Explorer (the Explorer lacks the magnetic shield but its movement has Paraflex shock absorbers that are not found in the Air-King's movement).
The 39 mm Rolex Explorer was designed as a "tool watch" for rugged use, hence its movement has Paraflex shock absorbers which gives the them higher shock resistance than other Rolex watches. The 41mm Rolex Explorer II has some significant differences from the 39mm Explorer; the Explorer II adds a date function, and an orange GMT hand which is paired with the fixed bezel's black 24-hour markers.
Notable models include:Air-King
Datejust (Datejust 36/41, Datejust II, and Lady Datejust 28)
Day-Date (Day-Date 36/40)
Explorer (Explorer and Explorer II)
GMT Master (GMT Master and GMT Master II)
Oyster Perpetual (Oyster Perpetual 26/31/34/36/39 and Date 34)
Sea Dweller (Sea-Dweller 4000 and Deepsea)
Submariner (Submariner and Submariner Date)
Yacht-Master (Yacht-Master and Yacht-Master II)
In the UK, the retail price for the stainless steel 'Pilots' range (such as the GMT Master II) starts from GBP5,600. Diamond inlay watches are more expensive. The book "Vintage Wristwatches" by Antiques Roadshow's Reyne Haines listed a price estimate of vintage Rolex watches that ranged between US$650 and US$75,000, while listing vintage Tudors between US$250 and US$9,000. The most expensive Rolex ever produced by the Rolex factory was the GMT Ice reference 116769TBR with a retail price of US$485,350. A Forbes magazine article on the Swiss watch industry compared the retail value of Rolexes to that of competing brands Corum, Universal Genève and IWC.
In tennis, Rolex is the official time keeper of Wimbledon and the Australian Open, two of the four Grand Slams. In golf, it is the official time keeper for two of the four majors, The Open Championship and the U.S. Open, as well as the PGA Tour and European Tour; the presenting sponsor for one of the five senior majors, The Senior Open Championship; and the official sponsor of the Women's World Golf Rankings.
Rolex is the title sponsor to the 24 Hours of Daytona, from which the Daytona model takes its name, along with the Rolex Sports Car Series. In 2013, Rolex became the official timekeeper to the FIA Formula 1 motor racing championship. Rolex has also been the official timekeeper to the Le Mans 24 Hours motor race since 2001.
Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh had a specially designed experimental Rolex Oyster Perpetual Deep-Sea Special strapped to the outside of their bathyscaphe during the 1960 Challenger Deep / Mariana Trench dive to a world-record depth of 10,916 metres (35,814 ft). When James Cameron conducted a similar dive in 2012, a specially designed and manufactured Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller Deep Sea Challenge watch was being "worn" by his submarine's robotic arm.
Ex-Formula 1 driver Sir Jackie Stewart has advertised Rolex since 1968. Others who have done so for some years include Arnold Palmer, Roger Penske, Jean Claude Killy, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
Tenzing Norgay and other members of the Hillary expedition wore Rolex Oysters in 1953 at altitude 8,848 m on Mount Everest while there are attestations and speculation that Sir Edmund Hillary either carried a Smiths Deluxe or a Rolex to the summit, or both.
Mercedes Gleitze was the first British woman to swim the English Channel on 7 October 1927. However, as John E. Brozek (author of The Rolex Report: An Unauthorized Reference Book for the Rolex Enthusiast) points out in his article "The Vindication Swim, Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge", some doubts were cast on her achievement when a hoaxer claimed to have made a faster swim only four days later. Hence Gleitze attempted a repeat swim with extensive publicity on 21 October, dubbed the "Vindication Swim". For promotional purposes, Hans Wilsdorf offered her one of the earliest Rolex Oysters if she would wear it during the attempt. After more than 10 hours, in water that was much colder than during her first swim, she was pulled from the sea semi-conscious seven miles short of her goal. Although she did not complete the second crossing, a journalist for The Times wrote "Having regard to the general conditions, the endurance of Miss Gleitze surprised the doctors, journalists and experts who were present, for it seemed unlikely that she would be able to withstand the cold for so long. It was a good performance". As she sat in the boat, the same journalist made a discovery and reported it as follows: "Hanging round her neck by a ribbon on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout". When examined closely, the watch was found to be dry inside and in perfect condition. One month later, on 24 November 1927, Wilsdorf launched the Rolex Oyster watch in the United Kingdom with a full front page Rolex advert in the Daily Mail. The Vienna Herald described the 1969 Apollo moon landing as: 'an event almost as significant as the time a woman swam most of the English Channel with a waterproof watch on.'
By the start of World War II Royal Air Force pilots were buying Rolex watches to replace their inferior standard-issue watches. However, when captured and sent to POW camps, their watches were confiscated. When Hans Wilsdorf heard of this, he offered to replace all watches that had been confiscated and not require payment until the end of the war, if the officers would write to Rolex and explain the circumstances of their loss and where they were being held. Wilsdorf was in personal charge of the scheme. As a result of this, an estimated 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered by British officers in the Oflag (prison camp for officers) VII B POW camp in Bavaria alone. This had the effect of raising the morale among the allied POWs because it indicated that Wilsdorf did not believe that the Axis powers would win the war. American servicemen heard about this when stationed in Europe during WWII and this helped open up the American market to Rolex after the war.
On 10 March 1943, while still a prisoner of war, Corporal Clive James Nutting, one of the organizers of the Great Escape, ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph (valued at a current equivalent of £1,200) by mail directly from Hans Wilsdorf in Geneva, intending to pay for it with money he saved working as a shoemaker at the camp. The watch (Rolex watch no. 185983) was delivered to Stalag Luft III on 10 July that year along with a note from Wilsdorf apologising for any delay in processing the order and explaining that an English gentleman such as Corporal Nutting "should not even think" about paying for the watch before the end of the war. Wilsdorf is reported to have been impressed with Nutting because, although not an officer, he had ordered the expensive Rolex 3525 Oyster chronograph while most other prisoners ordered the much cheaper Rolex Speed King model which was popular because of its small size. The watch is believed to have been ordered specifically to be used in the Great Escape when, as a chronograph, it could have been used to time patrols of prison guards or time the 76 ill-fated escapees through tunnel 'Harry' on 24 March 1944. Eventually, after the war, Nutting was sent an invoice of only £15 for the watch, because of currency export controls in England at the time. The watch and associated correspondence between Wilsdorf and Nutting were sold at auction for £66,000 in May 2007, while at an earlier auction on September 2006 the same watch fetched A$54,000. Nutting served as a consultant for both the 1950 film The Wooden Horse and the 1963 film The Great Escape. Both films were based on actual escapes which took place at Stalag Luft III. It was also reported that in November 2013 the Rolex Speed King owned by Flight Lieutenant Gerald Imeson during the Great Escape was sold for £60,000.
In a famous murder case, the Rolex on Ronald Platt's wrist eventually led to the arrest of his murderer, Albert Johnson Walker—a financial planner who had fled from Canada when he was charged with 18 counts of fraud, theft, and money laundering. When the body was found in the English Channel in 1996 by a fisherman named John Coprik, a Rolex wristwatch was the only identifiable object on the body. Since the Rolex movement had a serial number and was engraved with special markings every time it was serviced, British police traced the service records from Rolex and identified the owner of the watch as Ronald Platt. In addition, British police were able to determine the date of death by examining the date on the watch calendar. Since the Rolex movement was fully waterproof and had a reserve of two to three days of operation when inactive, they were able to determine the time of death within a small margin of error.
Rolex watches are frequently counterfeited, often illegally sold on the street and online. Counterfeit Rolex watches vary in quality, with some using the cheapest of movements and others using automatic movements, some even with an ETA movement. However, most counterfeit watches are easily identifiable by jewellers and other experts. O. J. Simpson wore a counterfeit watch during his murder trial.
Rolex SA is owned by the private Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, which is registered as a charity and does not pay corporate income taxes. In 2011, a spokesman for Rolex declined to provide evidence regarding the amount of charitable donations made by the Wilsdorf Foundation.
<gallery> Image:Rolex Geneva 2.jpg|Rolex headquarters in Geneva Image:Rolex Bienne 03.jpg|Rolex factory in Biel/Bienne Image:Rolex1959.JPG|The Rolex sign in Vienna (2007) File:Twin Towers near Dubai Creek.jpg|The Rolex sign in Dubai (2007) File:Rolex in Beijing.JPG|Rolex Beijing File:Rolex Shanghai.JPG|Rolex Shanghai File:Rolexi in Ningbo.JPG|Rolex Ningbo