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Rolex history "1905-1908 Hans Wilsdorf founds a new luxury watch brand in London"


1914 A Rolex wristwatch becomes the first in the world to be awarded a Precision Certificate, Class A, from Kew Observatory. Until this time, only marine chronometers, the most accurate timekeeping devices on land or sea, have been given this accolade. 1919 Rolex relocates from London to Geneva, now the centre of luxury watchmaking in the world. 1926 The iconic Oyster case is born. Rolex develops the case to be the world’s first water- and dust-proof wristwatch casing. It is hermetically sealed, and protects the calibre inside in a way that will never be bettered.

1927 A Rolex Oyster is subjected to a gruelling 10-hour cross-Channel swim, on the wrist of swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. The watch is perfectly operational after its swim. After the swim, the brand publishes an advertorial in the Daily Mail. It is the first time a luxury watch has been endorsed by a public figure in this way, and signifies the birth of ‘real world’ testing for performance watches. Rolex will continue to use the ‘real-world professional ambassador’ motif with great success, sending its watches into space, to the top of the highest mountains, and to the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches.

1931 Rolex unveils the Perpetual movement, which will become the heart of every Oyster Perpetual. This automatic calibre is destined to be one of the most ubiquitous pieces of watchmaking art in the world. 1933 An expedition wearing Rolex Oyster watches becomes the first to fly over Mt Everest. 1935 Rolex begins to expand its testing—pioneering the use of sportspeople, aviators, adventurers and motorists to subject luxury watches to the rigours of real-world use. In these early years of high-profile testing, one name stands out: in 1935, Sir Malcolm Campbell sets the world land speed record in the Bluebird, achieving more than 300mph while wearing a Rolex Oyster. During the 1930s, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf becomes aware that British Royal Air Force servicemen are electing to wear Oysters instead of their standard-issue watches. Wilsdorf determines to create a line of Rolexes specifically for pilots: the Air models.

The Air models will have a part to play in WWII. WWII Rolex distinguishes itself as a provider of reliable watches to the British Armed Forces. The luxury watch brand even runs a programme of watch supply to British PoWs, sending Rolexes to incarcerated Brits free of charge, as replacements for models taken from them at the time of capture. The supply and manufacturing costs of these watches are placed on hold until after the war has finished. These ‘PoW’ Rolexes will fetch huge prices at auction in later years. Rolex’s Air family of luxury watches sees combat in the cockpits of RAF fighter planes, bombers, and reconnaissance planes. Considered large for the fashions of the time, these 32-33 mm watches are designed for legibility and reliability. Their names: Air-Lion, Air-Giant, Air-Tiger, and Air King. After the war, Rolex will continue to produce a single Air model: the Rolex Air-King.

1945 Rolex premieres its Datejust model. The Datejust is the first self-winding wristwatch in the world to show the date, in a small window. It will become a ubiquitous symbol of success, as the brand’s evolution from quality watch manufacturer to high-end status piece manufacturer becomes complete in the 1980s. The first official Rolex Air-King leaves the manufacture.

1953 Rolex becomes one of the first luxury watch manufacturers to turn its attention to the tool watch. These models are designed specifically for use in gruelling and extreme environments, including high altitudes and deep submersion. In this year, Edmund Hillary reaches the summit of Everest with a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. The brand capitalises on Hillary’s achievement with the release of its first commemorative piece: the Rolex Explorer. The Rolex Submariner is launched in 1953 to immediate success. The model will go on to become one of the brand’s most iconic, gracing the wrists of famous wearers real and imagined. Perhaps the most famous of them all: James Bond, seen wearing a Submariner (ref 6538) in 1962’s Dr No.

1955 The Rolex GMT Master is launched to accommodate the needs of intercontinental pilots. Using a bi-coloured bezel to distinguish daytime and night-time hours, the GMT allows airline pilots to keep track of time in a newly interconnected world. Its iconic bezel will later become the seat of one of Rolex’s greatest achievements: the twin-coloured ceramic bezel of the modern GMT Master, which seamlessly blends the night and day colours in a proprietary Cerachrom finish. 1956 The Oyster Perpetual Day-Date is premiered. The iconic President bracelet is created specifically for this watch, but will go on to be seen on many future Rolex models. In the same year, Rolex turns its attention to the scientific community with the release of the Milgauss. This model, which will quickly become legendary, is created to withstand a huge magnetic field—up to 1,000 gauss. Its Faraday-cage-shielded movement is tested at CERN, which confirms the high level of resistance.

1957 Rolex releases a ladies’ Datejust. 1960 Rolex returns to the art of extreme luxury watch testing, sending a concept model—the futuristic Deep Sea Special—into the Mariana Trench. The watch is strapped to the outside of Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard’s Trieste bathyscaphe, and emerges unscathed and still working. 1962 A Rolex Submariner (ref 6538) becomes the first ever Bond watch. Sean Connery is seen wearing it in Dr No. 1963 Rolex releases the Cosmograph Daytona, which is designed for endurance motor racing. The bezel is developed to allow co-drivers to calculate average speed as the race progresses. In the same year, the brand forges a relationship with COMEX, a French deep sea diving company. The company’s divers wear Rolex Sea Dwellers, watches designed specifically to meet the needs of people working at extreme depths.

1967 The Oyster Perpetual Sea Dweller is launched to the public. Another Rolex destined for legendary status, the Sea Dweller is able to withstand pressure down to 610 metres. The watch also incorporates a helium escape valve, which allows the model to release gas during decompression stages without damage to the movement. The feature, which will become much-misused and misunderstood by Rolex’s competitors, is a no-nonsense solution to the problem of ‘helium soaking’—a phenomenon experienced by the tool watches of professional divers working long hours at extreme depths. 

1970 Steve McQueen, a confirmed Rolex fan and one of the coolest people ever to strap on a luxury watch, wears his Rolex Submariner during 1970’s 12 Hours of Sebring race. 1971 Rolex continues production of heavy-duty tool watches with the release of the Rolex Explorer II. This tough watch, which features a date window and a highly visible 24 hour hand, is designed to aid polar explorers living in permanent night or day. 1985 Adopted as the prestige watch of the 80s by successful Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic, Rolexes begin to incorporate a new material: 904L steel. This exceptionally hard-to-work-with material will become one of the hallmarks of the modern Rolex luxury watch. It is during the 80s that the evolution of Rolexes to global status symbol is completed.

2005 Rolex reveals two significant innovations in the craft of luxury watchmaking: the Cerachrom bezel and the Blue Parachrom hairspring. Cerachrom is a material designed to give an aesthetically beautiful finish to professional Oyster watches—a super-hard, coloured ceramic that is almost impossible to scratch. Blue Parachrom is an exceptionally shock-resistant ‘paramagnetic’ alloy—a material with an internal, induced magnetic field. The Parachrom hairspring is the result of 5 years of research and development. 2007 Rolex unveils the Yacht-Master II, the world’s first luxury watch to feature a mechanically programmable countdown memory. The design allows yacht captains to adjust their Regatta start as conditions demand. The Air-King becomes a COSC-certified chronometer.

2008 Rolex releases the Deepsea, an extreme dive watch capable of withstanding pressure equivalent to three tons. Daniel Craig, by now known to the public as Mr James Bond, is interviewed in the run-up to the release of Quantum of Solace. He reveals his personal favourite watch to be Rolex Submariner 6538—the original Bond watch, as worn by Sean Connery. Craig is known to be a fan of Rolex, owning at least six models.

2012 The Rolex Sky-Dweller is released: a dual time zone luxury watch featuring an annual calendar, which only requires one adjustment each year. This (for Rolex) novel complication receives possibly its most-sophisticated-ever treatment: the month indicators are cutaway baguettes next to the hour markers, which fill black in turn as the months of the year progress. Tiger Woods is spotted wearing a Sky-Dweller prior to its release. 

2013 Rolex becomes the official timekeeper for Formula 1. The brand also launches an anniversary edition of the legendary Rolex Milgauss, with a tinted green sapphire crystal (denoted by ‘GV’ at the end of the reference number, for ‘Glass Verte’). Designed for scientists and loved by watch nerds with a passion for unusual but subtle designs, the new Milgauss, with its electricity-bolt seconds hand, is proudly the ‘odd one out’ in the Rolex lineup. 2014 The Rolex Air-King is dropped from the Rolex lineup. But this will not be the end of the Air-King story…

2016 Rolex updates the legendary Cosmograph Daytona (steel model). It is the first update the steel Daytona has received in 16 years. The new reference, Rolex Daytona 116500 LN, receives a black Cerachrom bezel—an update on the stainless steel bezel of the previous model. It’s made available in two dial colours: white, with black snailed subdials, and black, with silvered snailed subdials. Other updates for 2016 include new Air-King, Explorer, Yacht Master, and Datejust models as well as the introduction of the Rolex Cellini Time 50505 models at Baselworld 2016. The new Air-King, in particular, is a model to reckon with. Unashamedly retro, and with a dial that mixes hour and minute markers, the 2016 Air-King wins hearts and influences watch people all over the world. It is anti-magnetic and has a 40 mm case in perfect proportion with its increased depth. And it adds another model to Rolex’s specialist luxury watch family of ‘professional’ timepieces, which includes the Milgauss, the Submariner, and the new Explorer.

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