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    

Vintage Rolex Submariner 5513 - Meters First - 1967 - No Reserve !!!!!Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust Watch Ref 17000 Vintage Good ConditionRolex Vintage Submariner 5513 Oyster Bracelet 78380/258 Tritium Rolex Submariner 14060m No Date Men St.steel Automatic Watch Y 2002Rolex Tudor 'small Rose' Prince Oysterdate Vintage Automatic Watch 1962Vtg Rolex Milgauss Watch Ref 1019 Anti Magnetic Stainless 1976+extra Parts 1016 Awesome 18k Gold Colorful Tuxedo Dial Ss Ladies Rolex Datejust W Diamond BezelGenuine Rolex Lady 79173 Factory Diamond 18k Gold Ss Datejust Watch Box PapersVintage 9ct Gold Rolex Tudor Royal Gents Wrist Watch Ca1965 No ReserveVintage Rolex Bubbleback 18k Rose Gold Untouched Exotic Dial Bubble Certificate Best Rolex Speedking This Year Vintage Original Dial 4220 WatchRolex Gmt 1675 Pointy Crown Guard Coke Bezel WatchMens Rolex Yachtmaster 16622 Platinum Stainless Steel Oyster Band 40mm F SerialScarce Original 5508 1958 Rolex Submariner Case Bracelet James BondRolex Vintage Cosmograph Daytona 16523 18kt Gold /stainless Steel 39mm Tritium Rolex Cellini Prince 5440-8 18k Gold Mechanical Men's Watch W/ B&p D-serialAuthentic Rolex 18238 18k Solid Gold Day-date Double Quick Set President WatchRolex S/s Black Dial Submariner 16610 Date Automatic Wrist Watch Box & Papers NrMens Rolex Stainless Steel/18k Yellow Gold Datejust W/ Silver Diamond Dial 16013Mens Rolex Datejust Watch,18k Two Tone Jubilee, Mother Of Pearl Diamond DialRolex Cellini Swiss Made Luxury Ladies Manual 18k Solid Gold 1976 Watch C222Genuine Vintage Rolex Explorer 1520 Matte Dial MovementGenuine Mens X Serial 16610 3135 Rolex Submariner Watch 1 Year WarrantyRare Vintage Rolex Silver Case Mens Manual Wind WatchHuge Vintage Watch Lot Of 32 (bulova Burberry Rolex Croton Waltham Benrus & MoreRare 1951 Vintage Rolex Model 6094 Oysterdate Precision Steel WatchVintage Rolex Explorer Gilt Chapter, 1016 Registered Design, Sn. 158 Yr 1962Rolex Watch Mens Stainless Steel & 18k Gold Submariner 16613 Black Dial & BezelAmazing Men's Rolex Submariner 2 Tone 18k Gold&s.steel 16613 Black Dial 40mm Genuine 18k Gold Steel Ladies Datejust Rolex Oyster Perpetual Watch 6917Antique 9ct Gold Rolex Trench Wristwatch - London 19141977 Vintage Rolex 18k Gold Day-date President Ref. 18038 "tiger Eye Stone Dial"Rolex Datejust Ladies 2tone 14k Gold & Steel Watch Pink Mop Diamond Dial 6917Rolex/bucherer Heavy 18k Gold Vs1/f Diamond Flip-top Mechanical Ladies WatchRolex Ladies 2tone Oyster Perpetual Watch - Mop Diamond Dial - Jubilee BandSuper Rare California Dial 1960 Men's Rolex Oysterdate 6694 Minty ConditionRolex Vintage 1960/70s Tudor Manual Wind, 9k Cushion Case.....clean ConditionTudor By Rolex- Princess Oysterdate- 18k Gold-capped Auto Ladies Watch - Lovely!Vintage Solid 9ct Gold Ladys Rolex 15jewel Half Hunter Wristwatch, London 1919Mens 18k Gold Rolex President 18038 Day/date C.1992 Wrist Watch Box & Papers NrEstate ~ Rolex Ladies President 18k Solid Gold Datejust Custom Diamond Bezel WowVintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust Mens Two Tone 14k Gold/stainless Watch Vintage Rolex Date 1505 18k Solid Yellow Gold Oyster Bracelet Ref 7205Rolex Mens 18k Gold President Quickset W Solid Gold PresidentialLadies Rolex Datejust President Solid 18k Gold W Diamond Dial & Jubilee BraceletRolex Gmt Master Ii Yellow Gold. Ceramic Bezel. All Boxes, Papers Etc. 116718Rolex Vintage Datejust 1601 Rose Gold 18kt 36mm Blue Dial Automatic Chronometer Rolex Oyster Perpetual Airking Precision Wristwatch Model 5500 Stainless SteelVintage Stainless Rolex Datejust 1007 Oyster Perpetual Superficially ChronometerGenuine Vintage Rolex Tudor Oysterprince Model 74000 Automatic Men's WatchRolex Heavy 14k Gold Elegant .72ct Vs1/f Diamond Mechanical Ladies WatchMens Rolex 14k Gold Cap Tudor Oyster Perpetual Prince Oyster Date AutomaticVintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Hand-winding Mens WatchUnworn Rolex Datejust 116200 One Month Old Box Papers Tags WatchRolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner Date 116610ln Wrist Watch For MenVintage Men's Rolex Date 2 Tone 14k Gold&ss Model#1505 Silver Dial Box&papers.Vintage Rolex Cal 1530 Watch Movement (fix Submariner 5510 ) In Custom Made CaseVintage Rolex Precision 8961,18k Sold Yellow Gold Hand-winding 35mm With CrownRolex 6430 Oyster Speedking Precision Mid-size Hand-winding Vintage Mens WatchMens Automatic Rolex Datejust Stainless Steel 16030 Jubilee Dial