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Rolex Watch Co.

Rolex Watch Co.


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Rolex was founded in London, in 1905, by the 24-year-old Wilsdorf, a German who became a British citizen after taking an English bride. It was an era when national borders tended to define men's ambitions, but Wilsdorf thought big from the beginning. In 1908, before anyone had uttered the term multinational, Wilsdorf trademarked the word Rolex, a name that's easily pronounced in different languages and short enough to fit on a watch dial. It's said that Wilsdorf dreamed up the word while riding a London bus, having been inspired by the sound a watch makes as it is wound. Initially the company was named Wilsdorf & Davis as Wilsdorf founded the company together with his brother in law. Rolex didn't leave England until after the First World War, when an import tax hike of 33 percent made receiving its Swiss-made movements prohibitively expensive.


The company's first decade was driven by its founder's relentless obsession with precision. "Wilsdorf wasn't content merely to invent the first wristwatch. He wanted to invent the first truly accurate wristwatch, one that you could actually run your life by." Validation came in 1914, when London's Kew Observatory certified a Rolex wristwatch to be as precise as a marine chronometer. It was the first time that a watch had received "chronometer" status--a classification that, even today, is held by a relative few timepieces.


Still, improved accuracy didn't immediately transform the wristwatch into an essential item in the common man's wardrobe. Dust, heat and moisture had a way of wreaking havoc with a wristwatch's intricate mechanical movements, and the earliest models required too much maintenance to be practical. Rolex's big breakthrough came in 1926, when Wilsdorf developed a case that was impervious and waterproof. The secret was a revolutionary double-locking crown that screwed down on the case like a submarine hatch to create an airtight seal. Recalling his difficulty in prying open an oyster at a dinner party, Wilsdorf christened his creation the Rolex Oyster.


To launch his company's new timepiece into the popular consciousness, Wilsdorf came up with an ingenious publicity stunt. After learning that a young British woman named Mercedes Gleitze was planning to swim across the English Channel, he presented her with a Rolex Oyster and dispatched a photographer to chronicle her endeavor. When Gleitze emerged triumphantly from the sea, her Oyster was keeping perfect time and, true to its name, had remained waterproof. Wilsdorf capitalized with a splashy front-page ad in London's Daily Mail newspaper, touting "The Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements: Moisture Proof. Waterproof. Heat Proof. Vibration Proof. Cold Proof. Dust Proof." It was the genesis of the famous Rolex testimonial ad campaign that continues to this day.


If the first Oyster had an Achilles' heel, it was its winder button. The watch was hermetic only when the button was screwed down. To discourage people from toying with the winder, Wilsdorf came up with another innovation that propelled the industry forward even further. In 1931, Rolex introduced a "perpetual" rotor that literally rewound a watch with every flick of the wearer's wrist. The world's first successful automatic watch became the bedrock of the Rolex empire. "The Oyster Perpetual is really what makes a Rolex a Rolex--it's waterproof, with a tiny engine that you power every single time you move your arm."


Nearly 70 years later, the Oyster Perpetual has proved undaunted by the worst possible conditions. It has survived the depths of the sea with Jacques Piccard and the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary's Sherpa. It has retained its accuracy in subzero arctic temperatures, the scorching Sahara and the weightlessness of outer space. It has shrugged off plane crashes, shipwrecks, and speedboat accidents, broken the sound barrier, and been ejected from a fighter jet at 22,000 feet. Some of the most colorful recommendations are the cautionary tales: the Englishman who inadvertently laundered his Oyster in a scalding cycle, then rinsed, spun and tumble-dried it; the Australian skydiver who dropped his from 800 feet above the outback; or the Californian whose wife accidentally baked his in a 500-degree oven. In each case, the recovered Rolex was running perfectly.


Industry watchers say that what distinguishes Rolex from other premium timepieces is its signature look--a big, round face paired with a wide metal band--that's become as familiar on a basketball court as at a black-tie reception. Identifiable from across a room, the Rolex look has an unrivaled, near-universal appeal. Sportsmen value its ruggedness, adventurers its reliability and royalty its elegance. The design's evolution could be best described as glacial. There have been changes over the years, but it's all in the details. Take Rolex's first calendar watch, the Datejust. If you put a Datejust from 1945 beside a Datejust from 1998, you'll see the resemblance. There probably won't be a single part inside that's interchangeable, but the outward design has evolved ever so marginally."


Though he lived in Geneva for 40 years, Wilsdorf never became a Swiss citizen. He died a Briton in 1960 and was remembered by colleagues as a good-humored, fatherly man who loved life as much as he loved a fine watch. Two years after his death, the company's board of directors appointed 41-year-old André Heiniger as Rolex's new managing director. While working under Wilsdorf for 12 years, Heiniger had come to share his boss' vision for the company, as well as his high energy level and sanguine outlook. All three traits proved invaluable when the Swiss watch industry found itself slipping into oblivion.


Just as video killed the radio star, the quartz boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s nearly snuffed out the mechanical timepiece faster than you can say "Seiko." By substituting low-cost, digital technology for labor-intensive artisanship, the Japanese sent the Swiss horology industry into crisis mode. Yet while most of Geneva's watch houses feverishly hitched their star to the digital bandwagon, Rolex stuck resolutely to its mechanical guns. By the time the dust had settled, more than half of Geneva's watch manufacturers had gone under. Fully a third of the survivors, including such prestigious names as Omega, Longines, Blancpain, Tissot, Rado, and Hamilton, were subsumed into a publicly owned consortium to avoid bankruptcy. This fate won't befall Rolex. Wilsdorf, an heirless widower at his death, created a private trust run by a board of directors to insure the company would never be sold.


What made Rolex so resilient? "The single most important thing that saved Rolex is that up until then the company had only been run by two managing directors: Hans Wilsdorf and André Heiniger. They really never had to worry about this quarter's results. They could think long-term appeal: 'Where will we be in five or ten years' time?' That's a completely different philosophy than at another watch house. Even in times of uncertainty, Rolex's greatest policy was never to adopt change for change's sake." Revealingly, the single quartz model developed by Rolex in the 1970s never exceeded 7 percent of the company's total production. (Today, that figure is 2 percent).


"If Rolex had gone to quartz there's no way it would have the image and prestige it has now." And being a private company without external shareholders, Rolex can better afford to remain aloof to fads than many of its counterparts. That means no chunky cases, no madcap numerals, no avant-garde shapes--nothing that's going to look dated in a decade's time.


Consider the care taken to decorate the inside of a Rolex--the parts the wearer never even sees. At the company's Geneva headquarters, Rolex's craftsmen, dressed in white laboratory smocks, pull up to ergonomically designed workstations, then execute minute operations in near silence. Each component of every tiny movement is sculpted with swirls, lines or loops. Every angle is rounded and polished to a brilliant shine. This provides absolutely no value to the consumer, except as a gesture of the brand's refinement.


That Rolex produced its own movements separates it from most other well-known mechanical brands. More than 200 craftsmen and technicians will work on a watch before it acquires Rolex certification.


Before leaving Geneva, every Rolex watch must travel through a high-tech obstacle course of quality-control checks. Every dial, bezel and winder will be checked and double-checked for scratches, dust and aesthetic imperfection. Only after successfully passing dozens of checkpoints does a watch receive the Rolex seal.

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Date:  16th Dec 08

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