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
(continued from page 1)
"Watches just don't get hotter without being stolen. I've never seen anything like it," says Girdvainis. "The Daytona is actually worth more on the secondary market than its retail price. I mean, here's a watch that--assuming you could find one, that is--you could pick up new and turn around and resell for a $2,000 profit. And in steel. It's unbelievable." Jack Winer, vice president of marketing at Alpha Omega Fine Watches, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, concurs: "Want a gold one with a black face? Tough, but not a huge problem. But a steel one with a white face? Next to impossible. We probably only get three all year, and we're the premier watchseller in greater Boston."
Winer is no stranger to Daytona desperation. Despite being an industry insider, it took him two years to track down the stainless-steel Cosmograph he wears on his wrist. And he thinks he got off easy. "These days," he says, "a dealer's waiting list can be as long as five years." Some may find solace in Rolex's new white-gold Daytona: a similar model at three times the price.
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. 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, Dowling says. "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.
To launch his company's new timepiece into the popular consciousness, Wilsdorf came up with an ingenious publicity stunt. After learning that a young British woman named Mercedes Gleitze was planning to swim across the English Channel, he presented her with a Rolex Oyster and dispatched a photographer to chronicle her endeavor. When Gleitze emerged triumphantly from the sea, her Oyster was keeping perfect time and, true to its name, had remained waterproof. Wilsdorf capitalized with a splashy front-page ad in London's Daily Mail newspaper, touting "The Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements: Moisture Proof. Waterproof. Heat Proof. Vibration Proof. Cold Proof. Dust Proof." It was the genesis of the famous Rolex testimonial ad campaign that continues to this day.
If the first Oyster had an Achilles' heel, it was its winder button. The watch was hermetic only when the button was screwed down. To discourage people from toying with the winder, Wilsdorf came up with another innovation that propelled the industry forward even further. In 1931, Rolex introduced a "perpetual" rotor that literally rewound a watch with every flick of the wearer's wrist. The world's first successful automatic watch, says Girdvainis, became the bedrock of the Rolex empire. "The Oyster Perpetual is really what makes a Rolex a Rolex--it's waterproof, with a tiny engine that you power every single time you move your arm."
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.
Though he lived in Geneva for 40 years, Wilsdorf never became a Swiss citizen. He died a Briton in 1960 and was remembered by colleagues as a good-humored, fatherly man who loved life as much as he loved a fine watch. Two years after his death, the company's board of directors appointed 41-year-old André Heiniger as Rolex's new managing director. While working under Wilsdorf for 12 years, Heiniger had come to share his boss' vision for the company, as well as his high energy level and sanguine outlook. All three traits proved invaluable when the Swiss watch industry found itself slipping into oblivion.
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Paul Altieri — March 12, 2013 9:16pm ET
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