In this episode of our series of podcasts, CEO of Watches of Switzerland Group, Brian Duffy is back in conversation with author and renowned Rolex expert James Dowling. The podcast delves deep into the major breakthroughs of Rolex and how it became one of the most recognisable luxury watch brands in the world. Both Brian and James discuss Rolex’s recent product developments, their iconic models, as well as the brand’s association with the sea and exploration.
History – major breakthroughs
1905 – At this time, London was the largest city in the world. It was the hub of the English empire, as well as a commercial city that made money from the trade. It was the perfect time for this young gentleman known as Hans Wilsdorf to start up his business and to seek his fortune.
1910 – Chronometric Precision was the first element that Wilsdorf knew that he had to conquer. It was difficult and it took a vast amount of work and time to make the watch accurate. The journey for chronometric precision led to success and Rolex was the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision. Wilsdorf also decided to take a new direction and had a vision to create wrist watches that would make him different from his competitors that were selling pocket watches. He also had a very accurate watch that differentiated him from the crowd.
1926 – The first waterproof watch – the next major development Wilsdorf had to overcome was to make the watch waterproof and dustproof. Overtime dust, dirt and moisture affect the performance of a wrist watch. Wilsdorf found a way to make the watch impermeable to all of these elements so that the watch was much more usable on a day to day basis. The Rolex Oyster was introduced that featured a sealed case to provide optimal protection.
1931 – Perpetual movement – Wilsdorf patented and invented the first self-winding mechanism with a perpetual rotor. The evolution of the iconic brand emerges at this point as Wilsdorf now has a watch that is accurate, waterproof and automatic (perpetual). Early automatics have a tiny winding crown and there was a reason for this. As the watch was accurate enough, there was no need to wind the watch.
Modern icons such as the Rolex Datejust was introduced. It was the first ever watch that has a see through date through a window. The evolution of the cyclops developed the Oyster Perpetual further, to an Oyster Perpetual Datejust that became the iconic watch of the second half of the 20th century.
The Rolex Day-Date was a model that Rolex attempted to produce that was top end of the market. The Day-Date was one of the first wristwatches to provide the traditional date display, and displays the day of the week. It now comes in 26 languages.
The Submariner has always been a niche model. For a long period of time, there was only a limited number of the Submariner that was produced. In the 60’s, people realised that diving was fun as a recreational sport, and so this watch began to take off. As the 60’s progressed and people began to dress more casually, big watch dials became a trend.
The GMT was the first ever Rolex watch that James bought from The Watches of Switzerland. As James travelled and did a lot of business in the US, it was important for him to know the time instantly whilst in another country. Thanks to an ingenious mechanism operated via the winding crown, the GMT allows the traveller to adapt to their new time zone without it affecting the accuracy of the watch.
Association with the sea and exploration
In the 30’s, the pilots of the RAF flew over Mount Everest whilst wearing Rolex watches. This led to the launch of the Explorer and the Everest. In 1953, the British Army expedition conquered Everest and the entire team were equipped with Rolex’s. The brand then reintroduced the Explorer and it still remains in their catalogue today. The movement of this watch has no difference to the movements fitted into any other Rolex’s. However, when the Explorer was first introduced, the movement was lubricated with a different type of oil so that it can withstand lower temperatures.
1960 was when Rolex was involved with the expedition to the deepest part of the ocean. A series of watches were built and these were tested under extreme pressure until they finally found a design that worked. The watch that achieved the deepest depth was attached outside the submersible, and after several hours at a depth, the watch came out unscathed and was kept in time. This led to the introduction of Rolex’s divers watches such as the Sea-Dweller.
A new series of movements were introduced from 2015 with accuracy and durability in mind. The 3235 and 3255 are gradual evolution of their existing product range. With so much development of the series, there is new accuracy (-2 secs a day) to the movement. The watch only requires servicing every ten years and there is never the need to change the time because of its reliability.