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.
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How a Vintage Rolex Obsession Can Drive You CrazyHollywood Reporter, November 26th
The vintage collector is a radically different beast than the average timepiece lover, pining over objects that are rare, quite often unobtainable and wildly expensive. And when it comes to Rolex — where modest variations in coloring, fonts and serial...Read more
Togetherness in Watch CollectingInternational New York Times, November 26th
The next purchase at auction, this time at Christie's, was a “significant one,” Mr. Griffin said, “a Rolex 8171 self-winding triple-calendar moon phase from the early 1950s.” His wife added: “When I saw it, ... They keep the vintage watches at their...Read more
The Personal Time Lines of Five A-List Watch CollectorsHollywood Reporter, November 26th
My go-to watch: I have a Rolex Daytona that I absolutely love and wear probably more than any other watch. The classic elegance of this ... The other is a vintage yellow gold Cartier Tank Americaine quartz with a diamond bezel. A classic watch with a...Read more
What Regina King, Tim Story Have in Their Hallowed Watch CollectionsHollywood Reporter, November 25th
King got her first serious watch, a vintage Rolex, in 1999, when she was filming the Lifetime telefilm Where the Truth Lies with Marlee Matlin in Portland, Ore. "There's no sales tax up there, so I thought this was the opportunity to take the leap...Read more
A Beautiful Rolex Submariner From the Commander of Sealab IIIBloomberg, November 23rd
Military provenance is one of the easiest ways to add tons of value to a vintage Rolex. While this Submariner didn't belong to James Bond himself, it was on the wrist of the commander of the U.S. Navy's Sealab III mission, and now it's hitting the...Read more
Watches Are Bad Investments—With One Notable ExceptionTIME, November 19th
“Vintage collecting has always been big, but in the last five years, it's exploded,” says Paul Altieri, a watch expert and CEO of leading pre-owned and vintage Rolex dealer Bob's Watches. Elbow-deep in that market every day for years, he's noted bubble...Read more
See What Collectors Paid for Modern and Vintage WatchesRobb Report, November 10th
Vintage Rolex timepieces commanded noteworthy prices. The Rolex Ref. 6062 Stelline in Pink Gold, an extremely rare chronometer wristwatch with triple date (lot 120) was bought by a U.S. bidder for CHF 315,750; and the collectible Rolex Ref. 6241 Paul ...Read more
Vintage James Bond Rolex Goes to AuctionWWD, October 28th
HAMMER TIME: Just as “Spectre,” the new installment of the James Bond franchise, hits the screens this week, a vintage Rolex timepiece worn by Sir Roger Moore's suave 007 in 1973's “Live and Let Die” is going under the hammer next week at Phillips in ...Read more