Most of the features we take for granted in modern watches, like being waterproof, dustproof and self-winding, first appeared in a Rolex, the definitive Swiss timepiece. Which is funny because the company behind it started trading in London back in 1905.
It was set up by a 24-year-old German, Hans Wilsdorf, along with his English brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, under the decidedly unfancy name of Wilsdorf & Davis. They imported Swiss watch internals, known as movements, from Hermann Aegler, put them into cases supplied by third parties and sold them to jewelers. Fairly humble beginnings, but Wilsdorf had bigger plans (the subsequent career of Davis has not been chronicled so well, but it is assumed Wilsdorf bought him out at some point).
Wilsdorf was not a watchmaker, but that didn’t stop him from establishing operations in Switzerland in 1908 and registering “Rolex” as a trademark. The name’s origin has been open to conjecture. Choose from the onomatopoeia of a watch being wound, a contraction of the French term horlogerie exquise (which means “exquisite watchmaking”) or just a made-up name in the hope that anyone around the world will find it easy to pronounce, as well as being short enough to fit on a watch face.
Rolex did not invent the wristwatch. That distinction had already gone to Patek Philippe in 1868. But the company’s watchmaking was indeed exquisite, earning a Class A certificate in 1914 from England’s Kew Observatory for timekeeping precision, an honor only previously bestowed upon marine chronometers.
However, there was still the problem of water, dust, grease or any other foreign substance small enough to work its way into the case, and the weak point was the winder. It needed to be hermetically sealed. Another Swiss horological concern, Georges Peret and Paul Perregaux, had come up with a lock-down winder that had to be partially unscrewed to operate. One of Wilsdorf’s talents was recognizing a good idea and getting the patent, which is exactly what he did here. The Oyster was born.
“Oyster” is the name given to the waterproof case, inspired when Wilsdorf was at a dinner party and trying to shuck a particularly resistant oyster, quipping that he hoped his new watchcase would be just as difficult to open. These days, the back of a Rolex case is torqued down to the tune of almost 3.7 ft-lb, which may not sound like much for a V8 engine, but it’s a lot if all you have is a shucking knife.
Wilsdorf’s marketing acumen turned out to be as spot-on as the smooth-sweeping second hand of his products. He put a Rolex on the wrist of anyone stretching the boundaries of human endeavor, like Mercedes Gleitze, who swam the English Channel in 1927, or Sir Malcolm Campbell, who set a land speed record of 301.3 mph at Bonneville in 1935.
In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first men to conquer Mount Everest. A Rolex watch was part of their kit. In 1960, a specially made Rolex was attached to the outside of a submarine (a bathyscaphe, strictly speaking) piloted by Jacques Piccard that went to the Mariana Trench, the lowest part of the Earth’s crust, over 36,200 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
In every extreme instance, the watches carried on keeping perfect time as if they were sitting in the display case of a Geneva jewelry store. By this time, they were also enjoying another useful feature: a self-winding mechanism.
The idea was far from new. It was invented by a watchmaker called Perrelet in 1770, but it took some time developing it as an application in which a wearer’s wrist movement supplied the energy. It was perfected by Emile Borer, Rolex’s head of R&D, in 1931. Now the winder only had to be used for occasional adjustments, making the seal more reliable. The system was dubbed “Perpetual.”
Over the years, there have been many models based on the Oyster Perpetual, like the Submariner, the Explorer, and the Cosmograph Daytona. While other high-end companies have migrated to cheaper digital movements, Rolex stands by its all-mechanical construction. So perhaps $5,800 or so for a Submariner (with the “Mercedes-Benz” hands; the hour hand bears a three-pointed star emblem) is not so expensive. Maybe that’s what they mean by “quality time.”