A lot has been written and said about Rolex’s founder Hans Wilsford. He created what has become the most popular watch brand in the world and, as far as I can tell, one of the largest too. Contrary to what some might believe, Wilsdorf was not a watchmaker in the same way the founders of Breguet, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin were watchmakers. He did learn watchmaking and started his career working on pocket watches, but it seems that, unlike the aforementioned brands, he himself did not achieve the same levels of proficiency in engineering and watchmaking as the others did. However, Hans Wilsdorf was a visionary and keen businessman. What made Rolex become Rolex was the succession of inventions that were different at the time they came out, albeit not technically revolutionary, paired with magnificent marketing campaigns.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a few key creations from the brand and how Wilsdorf managed to bank on them to ensure the growth and stellar reputation of the brand.
Creating and Marketing the Oyster Case
Rolex was not the first watchmaker/brand to look into making watch cases that would protect the movement from outside elements, notably water. As early as 1891 a Swiss watchmaker by the name of Francois Borgel invented a sealed watch case (where the case-back was threaded down) which, alas, didn’t keep moisture away. The problem was the crown mechanism, and brands such as Omega and Rolex worked on various solutions to create a hermetic watch case, however the results weren't good enough. It wasn’t until the mid 1920’s that Wilsdorf came across a patent for what we now know as a screw-down crown. In 1926, he found a way to transfer the patent to one of Rolex’s case-maker and then onto himself, and shortly after trademarked the name “Oyster.” His genius continued in marketing the new water-resistant case: the same year, he had Mercedes Gleitze wear a Rolex Oyster when she crossed the English Channel.
The Datejust and First Date Aperture
Strong of having created the Oyster case, Hans Wilsdorf set out to create the perfect everyday watch. Not a dress watch or sports watch, but an everyday watch. Enter 1945 and the creation of the first Datejust, ref. 4467 made of solid 18K yellow gold. Measuring 36mm in diameter, the Datejust was equipped with an Oyster case—making it water resistant—as well as the first movement endowed with a date complication—making it functional—and a Jubilee bracelet—making it elegant and versatile. Wilsdorf put a lot of thought and innovations into this model celebrating the brand’s 40th anniversary. It wouldn’t be long before that Rolex created a “lady” version with a smaller case. Although the watch in itself was impressive, Wilsdorf made it popular thanks to glamorous ads featuring attractive women (who looked like secret agents) and prominent politicians who could “only wear” a Rolex Datejust to be competent at their job.
Mount Everest and the Explorer 1
Hans Wilsdorf got two bases covered thus far: water-resistant and everyday watches. His ambitions for greater and better things probably motivated him to continue thinking outside the box—something he was clearly good at looking at the Oyster case and Datejust—and led him to create a watch for mountaineers, one meant to be used in extreme conditions. Learning about the ninth attempt to ascend Mount Everest in 1953, Wilsdorf loaned a new type of Oyster Perpetual watch (I didn’t talk about the self-winding movements called “Perpetual”) to the British expedition. Sir Edmund Hillary is said to have worn the Rolex when he reached the summit of Mount Everest. Wilsdorf ’s idea was to test the new model in the harsh conditions faced by the mountaineers and, if successful, to use it as the perfect marketing backdrop. The expedition was successful and resulted in outstanding ads promoting the first Explorer 1, as shown below.
Transcontinental Air Travel and the GMT Master 1
After creating watches for mountaineers and explorers, Hans Wilsdorf saw the opportunity to beat many brands to the punch by creating air-travel ready watches. More specifically, watches that could be used and useful for transcontinental pilots. Although commercial transcontinental flights began at the end of World War II, it wasn’t until the 1950s that airlines developed routine cross-Atlantic travel. This meant pilots would more often than before find themselves living across different time zones. Wilsdorf found a solution and created the first GMT Master I in 1954, ref. 6542. It was Turn-o-Graph to which Rolex added a GMT bezel and a fourth hand. In good Wilsdorf fashion, ads featuring businessmen, pilots, actors and actresses promoted the new type of watch Rolex had created. One famous ad shows Sheila Scott, a British aviator and the first person to fly over the North Pole in a small plane.
Hans Wilsdorf passed away in 1960, which is why this article only covered creations the brand put out while he was at its helm. Under his leadership, Rolex released the most important innovations the brand has ever put out since its inception in 1905. This isn’t to say that the Swiss brand stopped innovating after Wilsdorf’s death, quite the contrary, but he was the man behind the most important models Rolex is known for today. One could argue that Rolex would have remained a modest brand and probably vanished during the Quartz Crisis if it were not for Wilsdorf’s vision and dedication to constantly innovating and thinking outside the box. And one could further argue that it was Wilsdorf’s keen business sense and eye for marketing that propelled Rolex to be the giant brand it has become—because many other brands have innovated before but none are recognized for their innovations in the same way Rolex has been.
Featured image: www.montrespubliques.com