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 Day-date President 18k Yellow Gold Ref 18038 Champagne Diamond Dial Watch1980 Vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-king Ref. 5500 "no Reserve"Rolex Vintage Tudor Royal ,textured Dial, Large 9k ( 34mm) Case........1950s.Vintage Large Size Gents Military Ww1 Rolex Sterling Silver Trench WatchRolex Oyster Precision Model 6066 Vintage Mens Watch 1948Superior Rolex 16264 Black Dial Thunderbird Mens Datejust Wrist WatchRolex Vintage Explorer Ii 2 1655 Rail Dial Oyster Band 78360 Rare Unpolished Gents Vintage Tudor / Rolex Oyster Elegante Stainless Case Leather Strap. 7960 Rolex Submariner Stainless Steel Ceramic 116610lnRolex Cosmograph Daytona Stainless Steel 116520bkso Wrist Watch For MenMens Rolex Datejust Stainless Steel Watch Jubilee With Submariner Blue Dial 1603Rolex Oyster Royal Precision Model 4444 Vintage Mens Watch 1948, Small Seconds16013 Rolex Datejust 18k Gold Steel Mens Quickset Watch Box Booklet TagsRolex Mens Oyster Precision 6427 Bracelet Stainless Steel WatchRolex 100% Genuine Oyster Perpetual Explorer Ii 16570 Sapphire 40 Mm Cal. 3185 Estate ~ Rolex Original Explorer 114270 Stainless Steel 36mm Black Dial~ Awesome16613 Rolex Submariner Blue On Blue Mens 18k Gold Steel Genuine WatchBeautiful Men's Rolex Yacht Master Model 168623 18kt Gold Year 2011 Or EarlierRolex Sea-dweller Deepsea 116660 Mens Stainless Steel 44mm **no Reserve Price**1968 Rolex Gmt-master Ref.1675 Mark I Long E Dial Pam Am Pilot WatchRare Rolex Cushion Case 1920s 9ct Solid Gold Vintage Mens WatchMens Stainless Steel 1959 Rolex Date Ref# 1500 Head OnlyRolex Vintage Chronograph Ref 2508 Mens S/steel 36mm Nice DialRare 1920s Military Art Deco Rolex Unicorn Vintage Retro Sunburst Dial Watch Vintage Tudor / Rolex Royal, 9ct Rolex A.l.d. Case. Cal.1156. Leather Strap. Rolex Daytona 16523 Two-tone Zenith Movement Chronograph Watch W/ AccessoriesRare Find Rolex Pie Pan President Day Date Box Papers All Genuine 1803Rolex Precision Oysterdate 6266 Ss Men's Watch W/ Honeycomb Dial & Red DateMens Rolex 14000 Air-king Black Dial Oyster Perpetual Stainless Steel WatchRolex 1500 Swiss Made Automatic Men's 1969 Stainless Steel Dress Watch J210Superior 1601 Rolex Datejust 18k Gold Steel Genuine Diamond Pie Pan Mens WatchRolex Submariner 5513 Wrist Watch For MenMens Rolex Date 14k Yellow Gold & Steel Watch Black Diamond Dial 1ct Bezel 1505Running 1954 6084 Rolex Bubbleback Mens Watch Sweep Seconds VintageRolex Ss Submariner Date 16610 Wristwatch Oyster Bracelet + Boxes & Cert 2010Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Submariner Watch - Stainless Steel Men's Ref 16610Rolex Tudor Oyster Prince 25 Jewels Rubies 277267 1965 Rolex Strap57 Not WorkingRolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust Purple Dial Men's Watch Stainless Steel W/ Box Rolex: Gent's Gold Plated Oyster Perpetual Wristwatch C1950's Cal 1030. WorkingTudor Submariner 7016/0 Oyster Prince Automatic Circa 1969 W. Rolex Bracelet -nrVintage Authentic Rolex 36mm Datejust Ref 1601 Non Quick Set Automatic Cal 1570Rolex Tudor Rose Watch 7909 - 145356 For Parts Or RestoreRolex 1601 Vintage Men Automatic Swiss Made Gold Stainless Steel 1968 Watch C126Estate ~ Rolex Datejust Stainless Steel Mens Blue Dial Watch 16220 ~ GorgeousPre-owned Rolex Datejust 18k White Gold Bezel Diamond Dial Watch 116234Vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Mens Watch S. Steel Ref. 2280Rolex Explorer Ii 16570 Gmt, Serviced, Boxes/papers No Reserve! Excellent Cond!Mens Rolex Datejust Stainless Steel Watch Jubilee Band Black Diamond Dial 16031952 Rolex 6105 Oyster Perpetual Ovettone Datejust, Red Date, Steel & Gold, Nr!Rolex 100% Genuine Submariner 5513 Vintage Tritium Dial Rare Meters First Rare Vintage Rolex Submariner 5513 "meters First" Matte Dial OnlyRolex Submariner Oyster Perpetual S/steel 16610 Ceramic Blue Diamond Mens WatchMen Rolex Date Stainless Steel Watch Jubilee Style Band Silver Diamond Dial 1500Vintage Men's Rolex WatchGenuine Rolex Explorer 214270 Stainless Steel Black Arabic Dial Mens Watch Rolex Stainless & Gold Automatic Mens Date Watch Silver Dial Ref. 1505 C '1977 Rolex Datejust 6917 Ss/14k Gold 1.0ct Vs Diamond Bezel Mop Dial Ladies Watch2001 Box And Papers Mens Rolex Ss Thunderbird Blue Dial Ref#16264 Just ServicedVintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual 14k Gold Cap Ref:1024 Mens Watch Rolex Sea-dweller Deepsea