Discover the 8 things you may not have ever known about one of the largest and well known watch brands: Rolex.
Roots of the Name
Who is Mr. Rolex? Is the name an acronym for something? What does it all mean? Unlike countless other luxury watch brands on the market, there’s little out there in the way of documentation out there on the birth of the name Rolex.
Founded by Hans Wilsdorf in 1905, and formally named in 1908, it is said that Wilsdorf was fixated on conceiving an easy to remember, catchy, simple name that would “look good on a watch dial”. The name Rolex supposedly just hit him one morning as he was travelling through the city streets of London, and the rest is history. It’s funny to think, with that kind of origin story, we could have just as easily wound up talking about Rolette, Rotex, Dalex, or countless other combinations!
Crossing the Channel
One of the more frequently told tales of Rolex, and one that really kicked off the brand’s legacy of putting their money where their mouth is by partnering with those willing to take on new challenges, it was only a year after the launch of the Rolex Oyster—the world’s first waterproof and dustproof watch—that an example was strapped to the wrist of Mercedes Gleitze for her swim across the English Channel.
The crossing with Rolex was not her first though, as her first successful crossing came after 7 failed attempts, in early October of 1927. When pundits began questioning her success, a “vindication swim” was planned in later October, which is where Hans Wilsdorf saw an opportunity. After over 10 hours in the water Gleitze was unsuccessful at completing to crossing, though the Rolex Oyster on her wrist stayed dry and accurate through the journey.
Birth of the Oyster Perpetual
When you think of practical innovations in watchmaking, the self-winding rotor might just be one of the most commonly-used technological breakthroughs of 20th century watchmaking. Rolex unveiled the very first Perpetual movement back in 1931, in an era where bumper and hammer-style self-winding mechanisms were the only available options.
Opening up the winding mechanism to rotate 360-degrees not only vastly improved efficiency of winding, but also limited the wear-and-tear on the caliber over time. Though obviously improved on throughout the years through innovations in materials and design (most recently the “Grinder” self-winding setup created by Ulysse Nardin for the Innovision II and the new Freak Vision models), the core principle goes all the way back to this Rolex innovation.
A History of Exploration
These days watch journalists are constantly inundated with news of collaborations and partnerships that brands are engaging in, and more often than not it’s pretty easy to see through the marketing-speak. Cross-promotion of endeavors is great and all, but throughout the decades Rolex has been a pioneer when it comes to supporting explorers, expeditions, and simply those looking to conquer adventures previously thought impossible. Their watches were on the passengers of the first plane to fly over Mount Everest in 1933, they scaled the mountain for the first of many times in 1953, they dropped 37,800 feet into the Marianas Trench attached to the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960.
In recent years the brand revived their interest in land speed records, sponsoring the BLOODHOUND SSC land speed record attempt to hit 1,000mph. Rolex first got into the land-speed game by sponsoring Sir Malcolm Campbell back in the 1930s who went on to be the first to break the 300mph barrier back in the day (and held 9 world land speed records along the way).
The Functional History of Milgauss
The practical applications of anti-magnetism in a wristwatch these days are reaching a moot point these days, however back in the ‘50s the need for stable timekeeping in highly charged environments was a genuine issue. In places like CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research— there were significant practical benefits to Rolex developing the Migauss.
The original variation was designed to be able to resist magnetic fields of up to 1,000 Gauss, and while the current version holds the same name (Mil-Gauss = 1,000 Gauss), independent tests have proven that it is capable of handling a fair bit more. You know, should you ever get thrown up against the world’s biggest magnet or tour the turbine room of a large-scale powerplant.
The Rolex Zenith Crossover
1986 marked major change for the Rolex Daytona in the form of a transition from the manually-wound Valjoux 72 based caliber to its first automatic caliber, though not of Rolex’s own creation. The brand turned to Zenith, who offered up the El Primero caliber 400 as a base for Rolex to build their new icon.
Now this was anything but a matter of “plug and play”, and the modifications made to turn the El Primero into the Rolex caliber 4030 were anything but subtle. First, increasing the size of the free-sprung balance and balance spring with a Breguet overcoil, changing the escapement, and bringing the caliber’s oscillating rate down from 5hz to 4 (36,000 beats per hour down to 28,800) were on the task list.
The new balance setup, though more complicated, yielded better accuracy, whereas the decrease in oscillating rate meant for longer service intervals. Alongside these changes, and deleting the date complication among other things, Rolex kept roughly half of Zenith’s inner workings. This bulletproof caliber proved to be just what collectors wanted, and it remained in production right through until the year 2000, when the brand revealed its first in-house caliber to launch in the last 50 years—the 4130.
The Seriousness of R&D
Whether we’re talking ancient history or modern times, Rolex has always remained at the forefront of innovation. Maintaining a very targeted focus, the brand doesn’t subscribe to the “why not” approach to watchmaking, and thus doesn’t build things like double tourbillon watches, repeaters, or grande complications. Instead, every innovation they pursue has some sort of purpose, starting from the Oyster case, the Perpetual rotor, and the Milgauss, this spirit of furthering the craft is ever present.
The idea behind using 904L steel rather than the industry-standard came because it is more corrosion resistant and produces a nicer polish than 316 does. When Rolex decided to finally offer watches on a rubber strap in 2015, they created the perfect rubber strap with thin steel supports inside the rubber to ensure it outlasts any conventional rubber strap on the market. It’s little things like this that keep the massive powerhouse those extra steps ahead of the competition at every turn.
True Rarity—The Rolex 4113
By now you’ve got to be sick of the neverending vintage Daytona hype that started during the lead-up to the sale of Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona (don’t worry, it will continue with the Phillips Daytona Ultimatum auction on May 12th). The fact of the matter is, though the Daytona has become immensely collectible, there’s another rare bird in the Rolex archives that in so many ways is far more worthy of coveting—the Rolex 4113 split-seconds chronograph in steel.
The last known example to sale fetched north of CHF1,000,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2016, which is peanuts compared to Newman’s Daytona, however here’s what’s crazy. Only 12 examples of the 4113 were ever produced back in 1942, they were gifts to competing racing drivers back in 1942, and only 8 of those are known to still exist. You can talk Daytona all you like, but in our eyes, this will always be the ultimate in Rolex Unobtanium.
Author: Justin Mastine-Frost