History of Rolex

written by YWH team 1 January 2016
History of Rolex

History of Rolex
Founded: 1905
Founding place: London, United Kingdom
Founded by: Hans Wilsdorf & Alfred Davis
Current headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
Owned by: privately held
Official name: Rolex S.A.

The history of Rolex starts in the 20th century when the German business man Hans Wilsdorf founds Wilsdorf & Davis in 1905, together with Alfred Davis. Alfred Davis is Wilsdorf’s brother-in-law and they import Aegler movements from Switzerland to England. These movements were placed in high-quality watch cases made by several companies (one of them is Dennison) and sold to jewelers. The jewelers brand those wristwatches with their own names and most of these pieces were hallmarked “W&D” inside the case back.

Strangely enough nowadays Rolex claims that the history of Rolex starts in 1905, which is correct, but there is not a word about Alfred Davis on their website. While he owned 50 percent of the company, even when it was renamed to Rolex, and he appears to have invested at least as much as Wilsdorf. Maybe even more.

Wilsdorf’s childhood and move to London

Let’s roll back a little to 1881 when Wilsdorf was born in Kulmbach, Germany. His father is a German hardware store owner, his mother a descendent of the Maisel brewing dynasty. At the age of 12 Wilsdorf suddenly becomes orphan and he and his siblings were left in the care of his aunt and uncle. They sell the family hardware business and placed the proceeds into the Wilsdorf Trust until the heirs reached of age. It is the basis for the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, started later in Wilsdorf’s life.

So when he finishes his boarding school at the age of 18, or maybe later, he has some money to invest. Although the story goes that his inheritance, about 33,000 German gold Marks, was stolen when traveling to London, in 1903. But in London he meets Alfred Davies, who has money to invest. They start Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd. in 1905, and this is where the history of Rolex unofficially starts. Later, Wilsdorf and Davis become relatives when Davis marries Wilsdorf’s younger sister.

Wilsdorf & Davis doesn’t sound very sexy

In 1908 Wilsdorf & Davis registers the trademark “Rolex” in Switzerland, in 1912 in England. Wikipedia claims that the company name “Rolex” was registered on 15 November 1915. So technically the history of Rolex 1908 could also be seen as the starting date. The name Rolex is just a fantasy name with one purpose: people throughout the world should be able to pronounce the name, Wilsdorf and Davis think. And they are right.

In 1919, Rolex purchases a percentage of the Aegler company in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland and begins to call itself Aegler S.A. Rolex Watch Company. Now they can control the delivery and quality of movements even more. In the same year Wilsdorf buys out Davis and moves the office to Geneva. There it has the name “Rolex Watch Company”, later registered as “Montres Rolex S.A.” on the 17th of January 1920.

The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation

In 1945, after his wife May dies, Wilsdorf founds the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation as he has no heirs. It’s a remarkable moment in the history of Rolex. All shares of the company are moved into the foundation or trust. Within the trust strict direction is described on how the company should run after Wilsdorf’s death. This to ensure that the company would never merge with another company, be sold, or publicly traded. Wilsdorf also specifies precise direction on the distribution of dividends. Donations to charity in honor of his late wife, for example. Funds for a watchmaking school, a fine arts academy, and business and social science faculty at universities. Funds for the Swiss watch research lab in Neuchatel as well as help to build a language library for blind people, and an exhibition pavilion in Lucerne for animal protection.

Nowadays Rolex is the largest single luxury watch brand in the world, producing about 2,000 watches per day. The company is still owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, and according to Wikipedia, does not pay corporate tax. And to celebrate the registration of their brand name in 1908, they release a Rolex 1908 model in 2023 – marking 120 years of Rolex.

The history of Rolex:

1881 – (22th of March) Birth of Hans Wilsdorf in Kulmbach, Germany
1893 – Wilsdorf becomes orphan at the age of 12
? – Founding of the Wilsdorf Trust by Wilsdorf’s uncle and aunt
1903 – Wilsdorf moves to London
1905 – Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis found Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd.
1908 – Wilsdorf & Davis registers the trademark “Rolex” in Switzerland
1908 – Wilsdorf & Davis opens an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
1910 – Wilsdorf & Davis obtains the first Official Swiss Chronometer certificate
1912 – Wilsdorf & Davis registers Rolex in the United Kingdom
1919 – Rolex buys a part of the Aegler company
1919 – Rolex moves to Geneva, Switzerland
1920 – (17th of January) Wilsdorf registers Montres Rolex S.A.
1925 – (2nd of May) Rolex trademarks the crown or coronet logo in Geneva
1925 or 1926 – Buys a patent from Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret for a new winding stem and button/crown
1926 – The name Rolex begins to appear on every dial
1926 – (29th of July) Patents and registers the world’s first waterproof case, the Oyster
1931 – Rolex invents and patents the Perpetual Automatic Rotary Winding Mechanism
1944 – Wilsdorf’s wife May dies
1945 – Founds the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation
1946 – Rolex launches a sub brand called Tudor
1960 – (6th of July) Hans Wilsdorf dies

2023 – The Rolex Perpetual 1908 is launched

The full list of oldest watch brands in the world might interest you…

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