When you think of a luxury watch brand, you’re likely to think about Rolex. The company has built one of the most iconic names in the watch industry that’s synonymous with luxury, quality, and success. The Rolex name and coronet crown represent power and prestige at events from F1 Racing to the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and Yacht racing. They have been found on the wrists of some of the worlds most influential people from Brad Pitt to Barack Obama to Martin Luther King Jr. Let's explore the early days of Rolex from their entrepreneurial pioneer founders, origin of the name, game-changing innovations, and revolutionary marketing strategy.
The Early Days of Rolex
Starting in the United Kingdom in 1905, Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, founded a watch company called Wilsdorf and Davis. The two business partners imported watch movements from a Swiss company called Aegler. Founded by Jean Aegler in 1878 and later run by his sons, they specialized in mechanical movements that were small enough to fit into a wrist watch. This was rare at the time because large pocket watches dominated the market. Hans and Alfred put these movements inside of high quality watch cases and sold them to jewelers who often put their own branding on the watches accompanied only by “W&D” on the bottom of the case. Oddly, Rolex doesn’t mention anything about Alfred Davis or Wilsdorf and Davis on their website. Maybe from a marketing standpoint they thought it would be a more appealing, straight-forward story without mentioning this history but interesting that they kept it out nonetheless.
In 1908 Wilsford and Davis registered Rolex as a trademark. The name has no meaning other than the fact that they thought it was easy to remember and would look good on the face of a watch. Around the same time, they opened their first office in Bienne, Switzerland to be closer to Aegler who continued making the movements for Rolex. Although separate companies, Rolex and Aegler had the same goal; To build high quality and accurate wrist watches. In 1910 and 1914, Rolex received two major certificates solidifying themselves as one of the best watchmakers; The Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision and The Class A Precision. It was the first time either of these were given to a wrist watch.
Soon after, British taxes increased on imported gold and silver, pushing Wilsdorf to move Rolex to Geneva, Switzerland in 1919. At the same time, Wilsdorf bought out Alfred Davis and became the sole owner of Rolex.
Game Changing Innovations
Rolex was already on its way to becoming a great brand but two game changing innovations accelerated them to the top. On July 29, 1926 after 21-years of watch making, they patented the water and dust proof watch case, The Oyster. This made wrist watches practical for everyday use without fear of it breaking. It’s important to remember the term waterproof wasn’t tossed around in 1926 like it is today. There wasn’t a lot of confidence in the ability to make a watch waterproof but Wilsdorf put it all on the line by putting a Rolex Oyster on Mercedes Gleitze, a famous swimmer, as she attempted to swim the English channel. By the end of her journey, the watch was functioning perfectly and the skepticism around its ability diminished.
A second breakthrough came 5 years later in 1931 with the creation of the self-winding wrist watch. Prior to that, each watch had to be manually wound to keep the gears turning and time accurate. The perpetual or “never ending” movement that allows the watch to continue running from the energy created while being worn. The actual mechanics are extremely complex and are seen as a true work of art that’s now a part of every modern day automatic watch.
With the cheapest Rolex starting around $8,000, the most expensive being sold for over eight figures, and over 1,000,000 units produced each year, Rolex shouldn't be an easy sell. However, Rolex has made it so through a relentless and revolutionary marketing strategy.
Rolex was positioned alongside the most daring individuals in sports, art, and adventure. The first time was during Mercedes Gleitze swim across the English channel while wearing the waterproof, Rolex Oyster. After that event, Rolex bought the front page ad of Daily Mail to advertise the success of its performance. This might sound normal today but was actually the first time any company successfully used a celebrity endorsement. It opened up an entire new sector of marketing and they didn’t stop there. In 1935, one of the world's fastest drivers, Sir Malcolm Campbell, set the land speed record at over 300 miles per hour while wearing a Rolex. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest wearing a prototype for what would later become the Rolex Explorer; And the list goes on. Each resulted in celebrities endorsing the Rolex brand to their fans and subconsciously made people associate Rolex with high status.
Over the last century, watches have transitioned from being useful instruments to fashion accessories and statements of wealth. People now collect millions of dollars worth of them. That made for a big marketing transition from Rolex and they did it in fashion. After proving that their watches were able to endure intense conditions they moved away from speaking about features and mechanical achievements. Seeing the success that they were having with sponsoring individuals, Rolex stepped it up a notch and started sponsoring major art and sporting events around the world. Today, Rolex is linked to more than 100 major international events including Formula 1, Wimbledon, and The Oscars. They have close ties to 80 prestigious art institutions, and have over 140 testimonies from a variety of industry titans including tennis legend Roger Federer, marine biologist Sylvia Earle and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. The ability of Rolex to sell a dream and a lifestyle as opposed to a product remains among the best.
Rolex has also converted this strategy to social media. They joined later than some brands, only uploading their first YouTube video in 2012. They’re now on 8 platforms and is the most apparent place to see their shift in advertising. Their copywriting changed from things like “World’s first waterproof wrist-watch” and “A Landmark in the history of time measurement” to “A crown for every achievement”. Once again connecting Rolex to monumental events in the world and in their customer's lives.
A trickier marketing strategy seen from Rolex is not meeting customer demand. They maintain a limited number of authorized dealers and make it relatively easy to get an entry-level watch. However, they limit the production of their high-end watches which has created an artificial exclusivity factor. The result is customers on waitlists to get certain models which can take years.
Hans Wilsdorf Foundation
Wilsdorf’s wife died in 1945 which led him to create the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. He had no heirs and all shares of the company were moved into the foundation. The trust describes how the company should run after Wilsdorf’s death and ensured Rolex would never merge with another company, be sold, or publicly traded. This is the reason that Rolex is able to run the way they do today. With no shareholders to appease they can take large risks for greater rewards.
After building Rolex into an incredible brand, Hans Wilsdorf passed away on July 6, 1960.