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.
"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.
Just as video killed the radio star, the quartz boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s nearly snuffed out the mechanical timepiece faster than you can say "Seiko." By substituting low-cost, digital technology for labor-intensive artisanship, the Japanese sent the Swiss horology industry into crisis mode. Yet while most of Geneva's watch houses feverishly hitched their star to the digital bandwagon, Rolex stuck resolutely to its mechanical guns. By the time the dust had settled, more than half of Geneva's watch manufacturers had gone under. Fully a third of the survivors, including such prestigious names as Omega, Longines, Blancpain, Tissot, Rado, and Hamilton, were subsumed into a publicly owned consortium to avoid bankruptcy. This fate won't befall Rolex. Wilsdorf, an heirless widower at his death, created a private trust run by a board of directors to insure the company would never be sold.
What made Rolex so resilient? "The single most important thing that saved Rolex," says Dowling, "is that up until then the company had only been run by two managing directors: Hans Wilsdorf and André Heiniger. They really never had to worry about this quarter's results. They could think long-term appeal: 'Where will we be in five or ten years' time?' That's a completely different philosophy than at another watch house. Even in times of uncertainty, Rolex's greatest policy was never to adopt change for change's sake." Revealingly, the single quartz model developed by Rolex in the 1970s never exceeded 7 percent of the company's total production. (Today, that figure is 2 percent).
"If Rolex had gone to quartz," says Girdvainis, "there's no way it would have the image and prestige it has now." And being a private company without external shareholders, Rolex can better afford to remain aloof to fads than many of its counterparts. That means no chunky cases, no madcap numerals, no avant-garde shapes--nothing that's going to look dated in a decade's time.
In 1992, Patrick Heiniger replaced his father as Rolex's managing director. Both Heinigers share the twin virtues of undying optimism and ironclad discretion, according to colleagues. It's a combination that generates intrigue among rivals and industry observers. "Actually, I'd call it angst," Girdvainis says, laughing, "because they've always been very secretive at Rolex about what they do and how they do it."
"Oh, hugely secretive," echoes Dowling. "I'm only being partly facetious when I say the only organization that might be comparable is the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. They were always an outsider company in Switzerland. Their top executives almost never do interviews. Essentially, their philosophy has always been to let the product speak for itself. At Rolex, the product is an obsession."
Consider the care taken to decorate the inside of a Rolex--the parts the wearer never even sees. At the company's Geneva headquarters, Rolex's craftsmen, dressed in white laboratory smocks, pull up to ergonomically designed workstations, then execute minute operations in near silence. Each component of every tiny movement is sculpted with swirls, lines or loops. Every angle is rounded and polished to a brilliant shine. This provides absolutely no value to the consumer, except as a gesture of the brand's refinement.
That Rolex has always produced its own movements separates it from other well-known mechanical brands. More than 200 craftsmen and technicians will work on a watch before it acquires Rolex certification. "There's so much more to a Rolex than the average person will ever need," says Dowling. "And in that sense it's the Mercedes-Benz of wristwatches. It's overengineered. Not because Rolex wants to squander money but because that's just the way they do things."
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."
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is a Paris-based freelance writer.