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.
Key terms for Vintage Rolex Wristwatches:
Chronometer: A watch that has been certified by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute not to lose more than four seconds per day, nor to gain more than six.
Cloisonné: A technique in which filaments of metal (often gold or copper) are soldered to a surface to create compartments that are then filled with ground enamel, fired, and polished.
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More Thanne Thrift Shop Offers More Than Meets The EyeNeon Tommy, October 22nd
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Meeting The Patek Philippe 5004 At IWJG New YorkForbes, October 22nd
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"After extensive research, we discovered there were few, if any, stores in the area offering high-quality, pre-owned designer handbags such as Hermes, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, as well as vintage watches such as Rolex, Patek, Audemars Piguet, and...Read more
Rolex Middle Sea Race: Escaping the Shroud of Mount EtnaBYM News (press release), October 20th
After yesterday's farewell in Grand Harbour, the 122 participating yachts in the Rolex Middle Sea Race have enjoyed a beam reach for the first day of the race, as they raced north east, leaving Malta in their wake, heading for the south east corner of...Read more
Kroplick's Chrysler wins at AmericanaThe Island Now, October 16th
Sunday's show featured more than 150 rare automobiles, such as a 1967 Ferrari P3/4 Chassis 0846 owned by James Glickenhaus, which took “Best Competition Car,” and a white 1912 Ford Speedster owned by Ed Virgilio, which won “Best Vintage.” “The show...Read more
LA watchmaker Cameron Weiss thinks his time has comeLos Angeles Times, October 14th
The San Diego native has entered a business that clings to conventions upheld by old-school firms like Rolex and Patek Philippe, whose hand-assembled timepieces are coveted for their intricacy and beauty. And now this upstart says he's trying to...Read more
From eBay Seller to $20 Million Revenue BusinessHuffington Post, October 13th
OJ adds, "In fact, Panerai is the only company that's ever been able to buy watches from Rolex, put their name on those watches, sell those watches with Rolex dials or Panerai dials. When Rolex collectors had finally owned every vintage Rolex watch...Read more
For Luxury Watch Buyers, One Just Isn't EnoughNew York Times, October 8th
They are people like Bill Bartlett, who last Thursday brought six of his 36 watches, most of them made by Rolex; Victor Calanog, a nattily dressed economist who came wearing a vintage rose gold perpetual calendar watch from Patek Philippe whose ticket ...Read more