Sunday, August 12, 2007

Watch Brands History - Article 2 (Rolex)

In 1908, Rolex was founded by Mr. Hans Wilsdorf, a German National Citizen. Initially the company was named Wilsdorf & Davis as Wilsdorf founded company together with his brother in law. At the time, mostly pocket watches were produced by Swiss watch manufacturers as manufactures still had difficulty to produce accurate and reliable movements in such small size that they would fit in a wristwatch. Wilsdorf was a perfectionist who improved the standards for watch making as he did strive for smaller and more accurate movements that transformed style and fashion from larger pocket watches to smaller more practical wristwatches. Aegler, a small Swiss company agreed to supply Wilsdorf with movements small enough to be worn on the wrist. Wilsdorf's production included a variety of case designs: casual, formal and sporty.

In 1910, Rolex sent their first movement to the School of Horology in Switzerland. It was awarded the world's first wrist watch chronometer rating. Wilsdorf recognized two major requirements for watches: 1) To keep accurate time, and 2) To be reliable. With the Chronometer Award, 'accuracy' of timekeeping was considered to be under control and Wilsdorf started to work on improving the reliability of his watches. One of the main problems at the time was, that dust and moisture would enter in the watch case and progressively damage in movement. To solve, one would need to develop a completely dust and waterproof watch case. Dust and water would enter watch cases via the casebook and via the crown. Wilsdorf developed a screw crown and casebook mechanism that revolutionized the watch industry.

The first waterproof watch was cleverly advertised around the world. At the time, the public was rather skeptical if the watch would be really waterproof. However, after seeing a watch in an aquarium in the shop window, many people were convinced. Around the world one could see windows of watch shops with an aquarium and submerged Rolex watches. This campaign created an enormous brand awareness for Rolex. Since then, Rolex has continued to be at the forefront of the watch making industry. Today, almost every watch manufacturer followed Rolex and offers waterproof watches. The Rolex Prince, developed in 1928 became a best seller with its dual dial and rectangular case. In 1931 Rolex invented the "Rotor" - a semicircular plate of metal that with gravity, would move freely to wind the watch. Thus, the Rolex "Perpetual" (automatic) movement was born. Rolex's star has risen much higher since those days of the First World War. "People want to own a Rolex because it shows that they made it.". It is something to which you aspire and then treat yourself after a successful venture or a windfall.

Industry watchers say that what distinguishes Rolex from other premium timepieces is its signature look--a big, round face paired with a wide metal band--that's become as familiar on a basketball court as at a black-tie reception. Identifiable from across a room, the Rolex look has an unrivaled, near-universal appeal. Sportsmen value its ruggedness, adventurers its reliability and royalty its elegance.

But the best-known Swiss watchmaker has always been something of an outsider in Geneva. Perhaps it's because the company didn't start out Swiss. As mentioned, Rolex was founded in London, in 1905, by the 24-year-old Wilsdorf, a German who became a British citizen after taking an English bride. It was an era when national borders tended to define men's ambitions, but Wilsdorf thought big from the beginning. In 1908, before anyone had uttered the term multinational, Wilsdorf trademarked the word Rolex, a name that's easily pronounced in different languages and short enough to fit on a watch dial. It's said that Wilsdorf dreamed up the word while riding a London bus, having been inspired by the sound a watch makes as it is wound. Rolex didn't leave England until after the First World War, when an import tax hike of 33 percent made receiving its Swiss-made movements prohibitively expensive.

The company's first decade was driven by its founder's relentless obsession with precision. "Wilsdorf wasn't content merely to invent the first wristwatch. He wanted to invent the first truly accurate wristwatch, one that you could actually run your life by." Validation came in 1914, when London's Kew Observatory certified a Rolex wristwatch to be as precise as a marine chronometer. It was the first time that a watch had received "chronometer" status--a classification that, even today, is held by a relative few timepieces.

Still, improved accuracy didn't immediately transform the wristwatch into an essential item in the common man's wardrobe. Dust, heat and moisture had a way of wreaking havoc with a wristwatch's intricate mechanical movements, and the earliest models required too much maintenance to be practical. Rolex's big breakthrough came in 1926, when Wilsdorf developed a case that was impervious and waterproof. The secret was a revolutionary double-locking crown that screwed down on the case like a submarine hatch to create an airtight seal. Recalling his difficulty in prying open an oyster at a dinner party, Wilsdorf christened his creation the Rolex Oyster.

Nearly 70 years later, the Oyster Perpetual has proved undaunted by the worst possible conditions. It has survived the depths of the sea with Jacques Piccard and the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary's Sherpa. It has retained its accuracy in subzero arctic temperatures, the scorching Sahara and the weightlessness of outer space. It has shrugged off plane crashes, shipwrecks, and speedboat accidents, broken the sound barrier, and been ejected from a fighter jet at 22,000 feet. Some of the most colorful recommendations are the cautionary tales: the Englishman who inadvertently laundered his Oyster in a scalding cycle, then rinsed, spun and tumble-dried it; the Australian skydiver who dropped his from 800 feet above the outback; or the Californian whose wife accidentally baked his in a 500-degree oven. In each case, the recovered Rolex was running perfectly.

By the advent of the Second World War, the Rolex name had become so prestigious in Britain that pilots in the Royal Air Force rejected inferior government-issued watches and used their paychecks to nearly deplete England's supply of Oyster Perpetuals. The compliment was duly returned: any British prisoner of war whose Rolex was confiscated had only to write to Geneva to receive a replacement. Yankee GIs returned home with a new trinket on their wrists. And so Rolex's romance with America began.

Before leaving Geneva, every Rolex watch must travel through a high-tech obstacle course of quality-control checks. Every dial, bezel and winder will be checked and double-checked for scratches, dust and aesthetic imperfection. The microscopic distance between its hour and minute hands will be painstakingly calibrated to ascertain that they are lying perfectly parallel. An ominous-looking air-pressure chamber will verify that each watch is waterproof to a depth of 330 feet. (The Submariner and Sea-Dweller divers' models are guaranteed to 1,000 and 4,000 feet, respectively.) And every watch will engage in a precision face-off against an atomic-generated "überclock" that loses but two seconds every 100 years. Only after successfully passing dozens of checkpoints does a watch receive the Rolex seal.

Such attention to detail limits Rolex's production to about 650,000 watches a year, based on industry estimates. "That might sound like a lot," insists Lister of Christie's, "but it's very far below market demand." But, as André Heiniger once said, "We've never wanted to be the biggest, but certainly one of the finest in the field."


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