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    

Rolex Chronograph Anti-magnetic Pre-daytona Ref 6034 Vintage Watch Circa 1950sRare Rolex 6263 Daytona Valjoux 727 Rolex Pro Hunter Steel Band Watch Up For AuctionRolex James Bond 5508 1958 No Crown Guard 1530 WatchRare Vintage 9ct Gold Rolex Precision Mechanical Wind Mens Watch WristwatchTag Heuer Chronograph Automatic Carrera Calibre 16 Watch Rolex Omega TimepieceVintage Rare Men's Rolex Oyster Precision 6144 Manual Winding Black Dial WatchAuth Rare C1963 Mens 5513 A Rolex Oyster Submariner Black Dial Ss Wrist WatchVintage Rolex Tudor Jumbo Oyster Prince Date Day 7017/0 Circa 1978, Serviced!Rolex Tudor Hand Winding Vintage Swiss Watch Textured DialRare Tudor Submariner 7016 Rose Dial Automatic, Rolex Crown & CaseTudor Vintage Prince Oysterdate Automatic Men's Watch By Rolex Vintage Rolex Explorer Ii 16550 Stainless Steel Date Gmt Automatic Movement Rolex Gmt Master Ii Switzerland Stainless Steel Automatic 2006 Man's 16710 Watc Lovely Unusual Rare 1930s Rolex Tudor Honeycomb Dial Vintage Midsize Mens WatchRolex Submariner Oyster Perpetual No Date Automatic Ref 14060 Stainless Steel PRolex Datejust Two Tone MenRolex Oyster Perpetual DatejustMens 1964 Rolex 14k Gold Date Ref# 1503 All Original White Face Nice ConditionRolex Datejust 18k & Stainless Steel Oyster Band Champagne Dial 16233 N Reserve1947 Vintage Original Rolex 18k Gold 2- Register Chronograph Ref. 2508Rolex Oyster Royal Precision Ref 6426 Or 6427Rolex Gmt Master Ii 16710Rolex Datejust Men Stainless Steel Watch Jubilee 18k White Gold Bezel Black Dial14k/ss Ref.6694/cal.1215 Rolex Oysterdate Precision 1959's MensRolex Oyster Precision Hand-winding Men's Watch 6424 W/extra Band, Link, BoxRare Vintage 1958 Mens Rolex Oyster Chronometer Ref 1002 Black Dial Ss WatchRolex Vintage Submariner 168000 Tropical Dial Faded Bezel R Series 40 Mm PapersVintage Rolex Submariner Oyster Perpetual - 1680 Matte White Tritium Dial 1978 Rolex Submariner Serti Diamond 18k Gold Steel Genuine Dial 16613 Watch W BoxRolex Submariner 16610 Sel No Holes. Great Condition. Serviced 1 Year Ago.Rolex Cellini 4109 Swiss Made Luxury Lady Manual 18k Yellow Gold Watch 1976 C401Rolex 1500 Oyster Perpetual Date Cal.1570 Automatic Men's Watch!Rolex 1601 Swiss Made Automatic Gold And Stainless St Men's 1969 Watch C400Very Rare Mens 14k Gold Rolex Oyster Chronometer Ref 6593 25j Wrist WatchRolex 1601 Vintage Men Auto 1972 Swiss Made Solid Gold Stainless St Watch C275V.rare Mens Rolex Prince Brancard Ultra Prima Observatory 14k Gold Filled WatchRolex Yachtmaster 16622 Stainless Steel & Platinum 40mm Automatic Watch K SeriesRolex Submariner No Date Black Dial Automatic Mens Watch 1406042 Mm Rolex Bubble Back Niello Vintage Men's Watch Antique Military Ww1 Trench Rolex Submariner 16613 Blue Dial Mens Watch Rolex Watch100% Authentic Rolex 6694 Precision Manual Turquoise Dial Oyster Bracelet WatchFine Rolex Tudor Monarch 18k Gold Ss Stainless Steel Date Men's Wrist WatchRolex Datejust 16013 36mm Black Tapestry Dial Steel Gold Jubilee Fluted WatchVintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust Stainless Steel 1601 Jubilee Band 70s NrRolex Tudor Ladies Solid Gold Vintage Watch 1955 Serviced, PapersRolex Datejust Mens 2tone 14k Gold Stainless Steel Jubilee W/ Black Dial 1601Estate ~ Rolex Datejust 2 Tone 14k Gold Oyster Porcelain White Dial Ladies WatchEstate ~ Rolex Date Datejust 2 Tone 14k Gold Dial Ladies Watch ~ Box & PapersRolex Date 6917 Two Tone Oyster 14k Gold Stainless Steel Ladies' Watch @ $1 NrEstate ~ Rolex Date Datejust 2 Tone 14k Gold Jubilee Gold Dial Ladies Watch~niceRolex 18k Yellow Womens Presidents With Custom Diamond Face And Diamong BezelVintage 1950s Rolex Watch Self WindingMens Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date 34mm Stainless Steel 15200 Watch 2000 Mint!Rolex Ladies 14k/ss Datejust - Mother Of Pearl Diamond Dial - Jubilee Band Rolex Cellini 3833 Swiss Made Solid 18k Gold Mens Manual Luxury 1969 Watch C273Stunning Rare Vintage 1950s Fancy Lugs 18k Solid Gold Rolex Chronometer Watch1960s Rolex 18k Gold Bracelet Vintage Genuine Estate Find 19mmRolex Tudor Ladies Solid Gold Vintage Watch 1958 Serviced