Through times of War and Peace, Rolex Has Kept Time With Style and Precision
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98
Before the First World War, real men carried pocket watches. Wristwatches were a frivolous ornament for ladies. No self-respecting man's man would be caught dead with a timepiece on his arm. Even cowboys had a small pouch sewn into their Levi's (it's still there, though hardly anyone uses it any longer) to hold a watch.
That was before a young entrepreneur by the name of Hans Wilsdorf had a brainstorm that would change history. He reasoned that British officers on the front line would surely need to synchronize their troops, and that their traditional pocket watches--buried under uniforms and greatcoats--just wouldn't cut it. The man who had popularized the wristwatch for women less than a decade earlier, recognized his chance to capture what was
an untapped market and pounced. Soon Wilsdorf's young firm, Rolex, was trying to keep up with army officers' demand for its new big-faced men's wristwatch.
It's only fitting that Rolex was the first brand to bring virility to the watch, given its other trailblazing exploits. Even a partial list of company milestones is remarkable: first wristwatch, in 1905; first waterproof watch, in 1926; first self-winding watch, in 1931; first calendar wristwatch with the date on the dial, in 1945. "Lots of things we take for granted today--watches that are waterproof, watches that wind themselves--those are all Rolex inventions," points out James M. Dowling, coauthor of The Best of Time, an illustrated coffee-table tome that's become essential reading for Rolex collectors (of which there are legions).
Rolex's star has risen much higher since those days of the First World War. In a marble-clad hallway at the company's sleek Geneva headquarters stands what staffers jokingly call the "wall of fame," a portrait gallery of celebrated wearers that could double as a visual who's who of world-class achievers in the arts (Paul Newman, Cecilia Bartoli), sports (Jim Courier, Arnold Palmer, Jackie Stewart), politics (Henry Kissinger, Jacques Chirac) and science (Chuck Yeager, Richard Leakey). Even the Dalai Lama wears a Rolex.
"There's a reason why Rolex is the most copied watch out there," says Gary Girdvainis, the editor of International Wristwatch magazine. "People want to own a Rolex because it says 'Hey, I've made it.' It's something to which you aspire and then treat yourself after a successful venture or a windfall." In a 1990 Interbrand Group survey of the world's best-known brands, Rolex was the sole watchmaker to break the top 50.
Industry watchers such as Girdvainis 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. "The design's evolution could be best described as glacial," Dowling declares. "There have been changes over the years, but it's all in the details. Take Rolex's first calendar watch, the Datejust. If you put a Datejust from 1945 beside a Datejust from 1998, you'll see the resemblance. There probably won't be a single part inside that's interchangeable, but the outward design has evolved ever so marginally."
This timeless appeal often translates into an excellent investment. At Christie's auction house in London last September, the excitement created by the sale of a private collection of 360 Rolex watches dating from the 1910s to the 1990s surprised even the most nonchalant pundits. "Wristwatch auction history was made," recalls Christie's watch expert Roger Lister. "Bidders competed vigorously, sending prices well over presale expectations. It reflects the long-established fame of the Rolex watch, probably the most famous timepiece in the world."
The highlight of the auction was the sale of a cult icon--a late-1960s stainless-steel manual-wound Paul Newman Cosmograph Daytona (so named because the actor wore one in the 1969 racing flick Winning) that took the hammer for a cool $21,212, twice its estimated value. The Paul Newman, with its flashy dial and oversized indexes, wasn't an immediate success and was produced for a very limited time. Its meteoric ascent in popularity didn't begin until the mid-1980s. "The Italians were the first to go for it," recounts Dowling. "It was perfectly possible 16, 17 years ago to buy a Daytona at 20 to 25 percent under list price in England or America at the same time Italians would pay you 30 to 40 percent over list. Let's just say it was a nice little earner for quite a number of enterprising people."
By the time Daytona fever swept across Europe and the United States in the late 1980s, a relaunch was already in the works. Introduced in 1991, the updated Daytona replicated the original's racy chronograph--a built-in stopwatch that's perfect for timing the morning sprints of Kentucky Derby contenders or your nine-year-old's dash for first base--but added an automatic winder. "It took off like a rocket," remembers Dowling. Today, the $5,150 stainless-steel Cosmograph with a white face--the rarest combination and the one that Paul Newman reportedly wears offscreen--is one of the country's most-coveted timepieces.
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Paul Altieri — March 12, 2013 9:16pm ET
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