Historical Horology: A Brief History of Rolex

Posted on 30 June 2013 by Patrick Kansa

 

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Rolex can certainly be a polarizing brand. To many (myself included), it represents “tried-and-true”, in terms of design, execution, and reliability. That isn’t to say that the other camp (viewing them as stale and boring) is wrong – there’s just differing views. Whichever side you find yourself coming down on, read on to get a glimpse into the past, and see what’s driven Rolex to where they are today.

When you look at a Rolex (be it yesterday’s model or today’s), you see a watch that has come from a lineage that started back in the early 1900′s. Early in the history of the Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd. company was formed, Rolex sent their movement off to the School of Horology in Switzerland (in 1910) – and was awarded the very first chronometer (wiki) rating in the world. This was followed a few years later (in 1914) by a Class “A” Certificate of Precision from the British Kew Observatory – another first.

It appears that it was, after receiving these two certifications denoting the utter precision of their movements, that the company decided that every Rolex would attain the same levels of accuracy. Fortunately for us, this quest for accuracy looks to have been maintained through to our current day – and as a happy side effect, reliability was brought along for the ride.

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And for those who state that Rolex doesn’t innovate, the history books tell a different story. In the mid-1920′s, Rolex made available to the public the very first waterproof watch – along with which came the screw-down crown and the Oyster case. How waterproof was it? Enough to survive a swim across the English Channel in 1927! Then, in the early 1930s, they introduced the world’s first self-winding (or automatic) watch. For someone out in the elements (whether for work or adventure), not having to worry about winding your watch to keep on-time was certainly a boon.

Going back to their first innovation (waterproofing), in 1953 Rolex became the first to create a watch with a WR rating of 100m. You might not think of that as much, but considering that many of today’s watchs (60 years down the road) aren’t much more than simply water-resistant, it’s a testament to their efforts. This pursuit of the watery depths (Rolex was aimed at adventurers in no small part) that led to other models that survived descents (and back) to the Mariana Trench, as well as the first automatic helium escape valve (HEV) in 1971. It wasn’t just in the water that they innovated. Up in the air, Rolex introduced the GMT Master (in 1954) that enabled two separate time zones to be tracked – this being most famously done by the PanAm pilots.

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It’s worth noting that, while these innovations on their own are important, if the movement inside can’t withstand what the wear throws at it, accuracy and reliability go out the window. Rolex noted that conventional hairsprings are made of an alloy that was susceptible to magnetic fields and shocks – a potential recipe for a compromised movement. This led to the creation of the blue Parachrom hairspring that is unaffected by magnetism, and can be up to 10 times more precise in the event of a shock.

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Then again, if you’re innovating inside the movement, you want to ensure it’s protected, right? Rolex found in the 1980′s that their Submariners were susceptible to corrosion and pitting in the caseback threads, where water could sometimes work in and corrode the 316L steel (which is the steel we see in many dive watches today). This led Rolex to move to a different steel (904L) that is more resistant to chloride (you know, the salt part of salt water). This in turn forced other changes in the manufacturing process, as the 904L is a much more difficult metal to work with.

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So, while the innovation that Rolex undertakes is a bit more subtle than we see from other high-end brands, it’s all done in the name of a more accurate, more reliable, and longer lasting watch. These elements combine to something that’s greater than the sum of the whole (IMO), and can certainly explain why so many would aspire to own a Rolex. If you’d like a more in-depth look at this history, as well as some discussion of their ceramic bezel process, you’ll want to check out this post over on WatchProSite (link), where I learned most of the information in this post.

Images are sourced from the WatchProSite thread

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