Founded in 1905 as Wilsdorf and Davis, the company that would become Rolex has British and Swiss roots. It was established in London as an importer of Swiss Aegler wristwatch movements, which Wilsdorf and Davis inserted into cases and sold to jewelers, who would then put their store name on the dial. The word "Rolex" was trademarked in 1908 so that Wilsdorf and Davis would have a name of their own to put on some of these watches.

It is not precisely clear where the word "Rolex" came from. Most authorities say the name derives from horlogerie exquise, which is French for "exquisite watch making." Others, including wristwatch collector Jeff Hess, believe the name was simply made up.

And then there’s the story of how Hans Wilsdorf’s partner and brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, wanted his watches to have the quality of a Rolls Royce and the ubiquity of a Timex. Borrowing the beginning and end of those two venerable brands, Davis created a new one of his own, or so the legend goes.

Whatever its origins, the name stuck, but wristwatches were still a curiosity at the beginning of the 20th century. To gain the public’s trust, Aegler had its movements tested by timing laboratories in Bienne, while Wilsdorf and Davis did the same at the Kew Observatory in England. In 1914, the movement was awarded a Class A Certificate, Kew’s first chronometer rating for a wristwatch.

In 1920, Rolex relocated to Geneva, where it remains headquartered to this day. But the major event of the 1920s for the growing company was the introduction of the Rolex Oyster in 1926. This waterproof wristwatch was given a serious test (and garnered much publicity) a year later when a young stenographer named Mercedes Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster when she became the first British woman to swim the English Channel.

The vintage Oysters from the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s are among the most collectible Rolexes on the market today. Especially rare is the original Oyster from 1926, with its classic cushion-shape case, and the first Rolex Oyster Perpetual, a self-winding wristwatch developed in 1931.

Other vintage Oysters to look for are the Piccolinos from the 1930s, the "bubble-back" models from the 1940s, the cloisonné-dial watches from the 1950s, and the commemorative Rolex Oyster Observatory Chronometer "Kew A" Certificate from 1953...

Another Rolex watch model to gain prominence in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s was the Prince, a slender, rectangular dress watch with cases made of sterling silver and various combinations of pink, white, and yellow gold — the striped cases are particularly handsome.

After the war, in 1945, Rolex celebrated its 40th anniversary with the Datejust, the first self-winding chronometer to show the date in a window on the dial. The 1950s brought the Submariner (1953) and GMT (1954) lines, the latter a favorite of Pan Am pilots and test pilot Chuck Yeager. The Explorer also appeared in the 1950s — its most famous customer was Sir Edmund Hillary, who wore a Rolex Explorer when he summited Mt. Everest in 1953.

Finally, in 1961, Rolex introduced its Cosmograph Daytona line to mark the 24 Hours of Daytona race (Rolex was one of the race’s sponsors). The most collectible watches in this vintage Rolex line are the so-called Paul Newman Daytonas, whose sub-dials are in a contrasting color from the main dial, and whose sub-dial faces feature blocks instead of lines to mark unnumbered minutes and decorative crosshairs at their centers. Paul Newman Daytonas can be further verified by making sure they have any of the following Reference numbers: 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264, or 6265.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Watch and Clock Museum

National Watch and Clock Museum

This virtual museum, created by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, lets you stroll through tim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Tudor Rolex Submariner 7928 Unpolished Case Recently Serviced From 1964Rolex Submariner Anniversary Green Bezel Black Pvd Coated Watch 16610 No ReserveGenuine 1680 Rolex Red Submariner 1970s Watch Bought From Original OwnerGenuine 16220 Orig Blue Roman Dial Rolex Datejust For Big Man Box Papers No Hole16200 Roman Blue Dial Steel Gents Rolex Datejust Watch W Box PapersRolex Tudor Monte Carlo Heritage Chronograph 70330n With Certificate No ReserveSs Rolex Gmt Master Ii 16710 Pepsi Red / Blue Bezel Solid End Links - Y SerialVintage Rolex Tudor Oyster Royal WatchRolex Submariner 1680 Caliber 1570 Movement Watch 1971 Rolex Tudor Submariner Vintage Oysterprince 7928 Stainless Steel Small RoseRolex Explorer 2 (immaculate)1986 Rolex 16800 Submariner Date Stainless Steel Man's Watch, Excellent ExampleVintage Rolex Date 1505 18k Solid Yellow Gold Oyster Bracelet Ref 7205Rolex Tudor Circa 1965 Submariner For The Collector, Fully Serviced!!Rolex Tudor Circa 1964 Submariner For The Collector, Running!!1981 Rolex Ref 15010 Oysterdate Quick Set Cal 3035 Automatic Self-windingRolex Submariner 16610 Pre OwnedRolex 1675 Gmt-master "pepsi" Vintage Oyster Perpetual Watch TimepieceVintage 1980s 15037 Rolex Mens Date Gold Watch Box Papers Time MachineMens Rolex 2tone 14k Gold/stainless Steel Datejust Jubilee W/black Dial 1601Vintage Rolex Tripledate Moonphase Calendar 8171 Runs Stainless Steel Case.Rolex Date 6917 Two Tone Oyster 14k Gold Stainless Steel Ladies' Watch @ $1 NrRolex Oyster Speedking 1950s Lovely WatchMens Rolex Stainless Steel/18k Yellow Gold Datejust W/ Silver Diamond Dial 16013Scarce All Gold Ladies Rolex Oyster Perpetual Vintage Rare Rolex Bracelet Watch1950's Vintage Gents Rolex Oyster Tudor WatchTudor Men's Wristwatch. C1950. Made By Rolex.Men’s Vintage 17-jewel Rolex Tudor Aqua Wrist Watch With Rare Coin Bezel CaseRolex Oyster Perpetual Vintage Gmt Master Mens S/steel Ref 1675 Sold For Parts !Ladies Rolex 18k Gold/stainless Steel Datejust White Mop Mother Of Pearl DiamondRolex 1005 1957 Black Dial Cal 1560 Butterfly Submariner Gmt Movement Gold BezelRolex Explorer Ii 16570 Black Dial W/ Box And Papers 2008 M SeriesLadies Rose Gold Rolex Wrist Watch Enamel Dial Rolex Submariner Random 116610 Ceramic Mint 9.99/10 Cond All Docs/boxes!!Vintage Rolex Steel Submariner 6536/1 Stainless Steel 6536 1956 Rolex Datejust Ref. 16013 Quickset Automatic Mens Watch 18k Ss Gold Dial JubileeMost Desirable 18k Rose Gold White Gold Black Dial Rolex Cellini Mens Wrist WatcMens Rolex 14k Yellow Gold Shell Date Watch W/black Dial & Strap Band 15505Rolex 14000 Air-king Stainless Steel WatchRolex Yellow Gold Cellini Wristwatch Ref 5116/8Rare Vintage Mens Rolex President 1967 Date 18k Yellow Gold Watch 36mm - 1507Genuine Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust 14k/ Ss, Gray Dial - No ReserveRolex Stainless Steel Datejust W/president Band & "submariner" Blue Diamond DialRolex Milgauss 116400 Oyster Perpetual Green Crystal Watch *mint* No Reserve!!Rolex Date 69174 Jubilee Silver Dial 18k White Gold Fluted Bezel Ladies Watch NrRolex Date 15053 14k Solid Yellow Gold And Steel Oyster Bracelet Quick SetGenuine Rolex 116610 Ceramic Bezel Submariner Mens Wrist WatchRolex Yacht-master Platinum & Steel Mens 40mm Watch Box/papers 2012 166221966 Tudor (rolex) 7965 Oyster Prince Self Winding Rotor Mens Watch WorkingRolex Tudor Monarch Gentleman's Wristwatch. Stainless Steel. 100% Authentic 2003 Rolex 76080 Oyster Perpetual Stainless Steel Ladies WatchRolex Submariner Date Ss Stainless 18k Gold 16613 ~ Box & Booklets ~ Minty CondRolex President 18k Gold Datejust Original Black Diamond Dial 69178 Box & PapersMens Rolex 2tone 14k Gold/stainless Steel Datejust Jubilee W/black Diamond DialVintage Rolex Cal.1570 Complete Movement,adjusted 5 Positions ChronometerEstate ~ 2004 Rolex Yachtmaster Platinum & Stainless Steel 169622 Ladies WatchRolex 79174 Datejust Diamond Bezel & Dial Ladies WatchLadies Rolex 2tone 18k Gold/stainless Steel Datejust Watch Silver Diamond 69173Rolex Submariner Stainless 166101997 Authentic Rolex 18238 18k Solid Yellow Gold Day-date Double Q.s. President