This 1969 18K gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona sold for $450,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2018. It is similar to the watch worn by actor Paul Newman that sold for $15.5 million plus buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy: Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
For more than a century, Rolex has been a pioneer of excellence, distinction, elegance and accuracy in timepieces. Its products are worthy of being worn in any setting, even the most extreme. A Rolex has been carried to the top of Mount Everest, traveled to the depths of the Marianas Trench while strapped to the outside of a submarine, and flew to the International Space Station – all without losing even a second of time. Such heroic accomplishments spring from humble origins.
According to the accepted lore, in 1905, two brothers-in-law opened a shop in London called Wilsdorf & Davis, which specialized in accurate and affordable timepieces. Hans Wilsdorf had some experience with timepieces, particularly watches, thanks to his previous work in 1900 as a stem-winder with the Cuno Korten watchmaking company. Alfred Davis was the London company’s main investor and handled the business side of the new partnership.
One of the earliest wristwatches from Wilsdorf & Davis still without the Rolex brand name, but with the initials W&D etched inside the sterling silver case cover that sold for $1,500 plus buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy: Auctionata U.S. and LiveAuctioneers
In the late 19th century, pocket watches were the dominant style of timepiece. They were usually worn in a vest and attached to a chain. Smaller so-called “wristlets,” worn on the arm, were the province of women. It was said that gentlemen “…would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch.” But war changed everything.
More precisely, the Boer War started the cultural shift that made wrist-worn watches acceptable to men. The local Boers, or farmers, fought the controlling British for independence in what is now South Africa from 1899 to 1902. Wilsdorf learned that soldiers had found themselves fumbling for pocket watches during battle and, faced with the grim risk of losing precious seconds while under fire, began strapping watches to their wrists. This practice inspired Wilsdorf to create a wristwatch for men. He chose the name “Rolex,” a word that had no particular meaning. It is believed to have popped into Wilsdorf’s head during a bus ride in London.
A simple Rolex original watch from 1908 using Jean Aegler watch movements in an exterior case possibly by Denninger, the main supplier of early Wilsdorf & Davis watches, sold for $800 plus buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy: Don Presley Auction and LiveAuctioneers
Initially, Wilsdorf worried that his Rolex wristwatch would not achieve the same level of accuracy asa pocket watch. To his delight, his invention was recognized by the Society of Horology in 1910 for its highly accurate chronometer. In 1914, it received a coveted “Class A Certificate of Precision” from the King’s Observatory, becoming the first wristwatch ever to earn this honor from the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society. After these triumphs, Wilsdorf was quoted as saying that “…pocket watches will almost completely disappear and wrist watches will replace them definitively!” In 1915, the London company officially changed its name to Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. It switched to “Rolex SA” about five years after that.
Improvements in precision were the hallmark of Rolex throughout the early period, yet Wilsdorf was never satisfied. He strived to make Rolex watches more useful, accurate and stylish, for every setting.
By 1908 the new name of Rolex started to appear on watches such as this ladies 9K gold trench-style bracelet watch that sold for about $417 plus buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy: Fellows and LiveAuctioneers
In 1926, Rolex introduced the Oyster, the first watch that was completely waterproof. The Oyster Perpetual, introduced in 1931, was not only waterproof but also the first self-winding watch. The Tudor, a more affordable watch, debuted in 1952. The Submariner, a watch certified to be waterproof to 200 meters, arrived in 1959.
While a new authentic Rolex starts at about $6,500, Hans Wilsdorf insisted on a more affordable, but no less accurate watch, in his Tudor line introduced in 1952 such as this 1960s era military grade men’s watch that recently sold for $750 (without buyer’s premium). Image courtesy: Rare Treasures and LiveAuctioneers
Along the way, Rolex unveiled vast improvements such as the “Just in Time” automatic date/time movement in 1945, and the Cyclops view window over the date function in 1954, created in part to accommodate Wilsdorf’s nearsighted wife.
Since the beginning, Hans Wilsdorf was obsessed with attention to detail, and his wristwatches reaped the benefits of his toil. He insisted that the name Rolex be the definition of perfection itself. Because he aimed high and hit his target, Rolex resultedly became a target for counterfeiters.
The first clue to authenticity, according to Rolex experts, is the weight of the watch itself. Rolex watches are forged from 904L stainless steel, which has a higher concentration of nickel, copper and chromium to provide higher resistance to corrosion and wear. Most Rolex watches that are not factory-made will use a lower-grade 316L steel and will feel much lighter, like the Tudor model that was intended as a more affordable option.
Factory-made Rolex watches have markedly smooth sweep motions of the second-hand dial; they don’t stutter or shake with each movement (the Oyster quartz watch is an exception). The crystal lens of the Cyclops will be magnified no less than 2.5 times, completely filling the lens itself, and it is made as one piece, not two. Genuine Rolex products should have no imperfections of any kind, in any detail. The etchings, stems, fasteners, lettering, watchbands, caseback, crystal bezel and even the raised edgings around the watch face should be flawless. The manufacture of every component should be crisp, clear and precise.
Rolex watches also have a model number, which is placed behind the 12 o’clock clasp, as well as a serial number, typically located behind the 6 o’clock clasp. The engraving “Original Rolex Design” should appear above the model number. Watches dating from 2002 or later feature a small coronet, hardly visible, that is laser-etched under the “6” on the dial.
If you aren’t sure whether a Rolex watch is factory-made, and it isn’t possible to place it next to a confirmed authentic example prior to completing a purchase, the next best thing is to heed the expert advice to “buy the seller first and then the watch.”
Hans Wilsdorf died in 1960 at the age of 79 and gave 100% ownership of Rolex to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. This nonprofit operates the company, using all proceeds strictly for humanitarian, philanthropic and educational purposes in and around Geneva to include “…food banks, elderly charities, scholarships, [and] school prizes with a special emphasis on the reduction of individual excessive debt,” according to its website.