Clocking Culture & Endurance: Why Rolex Is More Than Just A Watchmaker

Thursday, 17 June, 2021

In the rich and prestigious world of horology, Rolex has embedded itself firmly within the highest echelons of this industry. The very name conjures images of sumptuous luxury and unwavering reliability. Yet Rolex is more than just a manufacturer of high-end timepieces.  It may come as a surprise to many that they have actively participated in some of the most important endeavours of the 20th century. From the deepest fathoms of the Mariana Trench to the greatest heights of Mount Everest, Rolex watches have adorned the wrists of explorers and pioneers seeking out the very extremes our world has to offer. As well as supporting the efforts of trailblazers, Rolex is a company that takes great pride in its cultural outputs. They have partnerships with opera houses across the world, are endorsed by some of the most celebrated musicians, and have ensured the nurturing of future talent through their mentorship schemes.

         What began 116 years ago as one mans strive for perfection has ballooned into a global enterprise that carries a brand name synonymous with the pinnacle of craftsmanship and beauty. Rolex is a watchmaker, yes, but they have also played their part in the world outside of horology.

Few could have imagined the success Rolex would achieve in the days of its infancy. The mind behind it all belonged to Hans Wilsdorf. Born March 22nd 1881 in Kulmbach, Germany, he was orphaned by the age of 12. Despite his early tragedies he applied himself rigorously to his studies and by the age of 19 he had secured employment at Cuno Korten. When most are unsure of their calling in life, Wilsdorf had found his. His duties required the winding of hundreds of pocket watches every day, as well as making sure that all watches were keeping accurate time. It was laborious and hard work, but it gave the young man an intrinsic knowledge of the mechanisms that made timepieces tick, pun intended.

        Once he felt that his knowledge was sufficient he made a life changing decision. Moving to London in 1905, at the tender age of 24,  he established Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis. The idea behind the venture was to provide reliable watches at affordable prices. Such was his obsession with precision that he imported mechanisms from Switzerland, an initially costly endeavour that nonetheless proved crucial to the company’s future success. The name Rolex came three years later. The word has no etymology and was conceived by Wilsdorf to be pronounceable in a variety of languages. It is best to leave it to the man himself as to the genesis of the company’s name:

“I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. It was one morning when I was sitting on the upper level of a double-decker powered at that time by horses, driving along Cheapside in London, that a good genie whispered in my ear: “Rolex.”

Success was not instantaneous. In Edwardian England most men still wore large pocket watches and derisively called those worn on the wrist as “wristies.” In an age when it was considered of paramount importance to be considered masculine, society often viewed the wristwatch as effeminate. Nonetheless Wilsdorf staked his future, and his fortune, on them and sought to make wristwatches that were both manly and fashionable.

        He was acutely aware that publicity was the key with which to crack open the safe of success.  In 1914, in an early display of his considerable talent for generating publicity, Wilsdorf had the British government certify a Rolex as the first wristwatch to pass a test for durability and accuracy that was customarily given only to marine chronometers. It was a watershed moment in the company’s history. Not only were they helping to change societal norms of what a watch could be, their technology and craftsmanship was now acknowledged as being comparable to scientific instruments.

        Wilsdorf’s obsession with perfection and intricacy had assured a place for Rolex in the annals of history, but this was not enough. He wanted his creations to be recognised further for the reliability, as well as aesthetic appeal, he felt they deserved. As such his notice was attracted to the controversy surrounding a young woman called Mercedes Gleitz. She had become the first British woman to swim the channel, yet her claim was disputed. Female athletes have always been subjected to more scrutiny than their male counter parts and so in 1927 Gleitz was forced to perform a “vindication swim.” This was to be undertaken in conditions much colder than any swimmer should be subjected to, but Gleitz was on a mission to not only exonerate herself, but prove women could undertake tasks that most men would deem impossible. Hearing of her situation Wilsdorf offered to give her a Rolex Oyster prototype on the condition that she wore it on her next attempt. Gleitz did not complete the crossing on this heavily publicised occasion, but the fact that she had endured 10 hours within the freezing cold waters convinced all that her record of being the first British woman to cross the Channel should stand. A reporter noted that not only did the watch she was wearing still tick, but that it was also keeping good time.

        Rolex watches would go on to feature in many more trials and tests of human endurance. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, becoming the first human to travel at supersonic speeds, in 1947 he did it while wearing a Rolex watch. One of the most iconic feats of exploration of the 20th century was the first recorded ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The perilous climb involved numerous challenges, including the problem of keeping a reliable account of the time. The leader of the expedition, Sir John Hunt, later stated that the “Rolex Oyster watches performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high-climbing equipment.” High praise indeed and a testament to the desire of Wilsdorf to place his company at the heart of exploration.

        Perhaps the most remarkable feat attained by Rolex came in January 1960 when oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh made the first manned descent into the Challenger Deep. This is the lowest point of the Mariana Trench and thus the deepest known point of planet Earth. The vessel Trieste had been specially designed to withstand the enormous pressure the crew would encounter on their dive, and attached to the hull was a specially made Rolex watch with a thick “bubble” crystal. The journey took 4 hours and 47 minutes to descend the 10,994 metres (36.070 feet) into the cavernous abyss. After passing 9,000 metres (30,000 feet), one of the outer Plexiglas windowpanes cracked, shaking the entire vessel. If there was even the slightest breach in the craft then the intrepid duo would have been turned to jam in a nanosecond. However, after coming so far, retreat was not an option and they pressed further into the unknown. After spending 15 minutes at the bottom of the trench they made the climb back to the surface. The Trieste nearly crumbled under the pressure, but the Rolex attached to the hull was found to be still functioning.

        Hans Wilsdorf passed away six months later on July 6th 1960. He lived to see the company he founded actively take part in some of the most important tests of endurance and exploration in human history. Rolex has continued to sponsor and have their watches participate in further endeavours, but it is wonderful to know that Wilsdorf lived to see the milestone achievements that have embedded his company’s name in the history books.

Rolex has thus proved that a watchmaker can influence and partake in fields outside horology, but their commitment to cultural endeavours shows they are willing to involve themselves in activities where watches have no part. Instead they use their name and influence to facilitate current artistic programmes and have set up schemes to foster, and nurture, the talents of future generations.

        Of course Rolex is known for the famous faces that wear and endorse their watches. Known as “Testimonees” by the brand, they include Roger Federer, Sir Bryn Terfel, Sonya Yoncheva and Cecilia Bartoli, to name but a few. But what many may be unaware of is the sponsorship and mentoring programmes they have undertaken to ensure the flourishing of the arts. They have partnered with, among others, the Royal Opera House, the New York Metropolitan, and the Salzburg Festival to put on operas and other such concerts and thus keep the magic of live performances, well, alive. For those unable to travel to, or afford, these spectacles, they have partnered with the website medici.tv. It is the first and largest online collection of classical music, operas and ballets in the world. Offering live broadcasts from the most prestigious venues, it contains a catalogue of over 2,500 films available on demand by subscription, consisting of concerts, operas, ballets and documentaries, as well as 150 live concerts each year. A site created in 2008, Rolex has partnered medici.tv since 2010.

        As the globe is gripped in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the arts have taken a substantial hit. It is therefore heart-warming to see a company continuing to put music out there, even if the spectators must do so through a screen. Their Perpetual Talent initiative has taken this drive to the next step. In August 2020 they launched this initiative to support musicians and singers during this uncertain time. This project aligns with the brand’s desire to have the art form endure as an integral part of everyday life. They have also worked in partnership with the likes of Spike Lee, David Hockney, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and others to mentor the next wave of talent. Founded in 2002, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative aims to ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to the next generation. It seeks out gifted young artists from around the world and brings them together with artistic masters for a period of creative collaboration.

Rolex has pushed through the preconceived boundaries of what a watchmaker, indeed any sort of artisan, can be as a company. Their products are well known to the global populace, but what may not be so apparent is the influence they have had on events outside the world of horology. Within the lifetime of its founder, Rolex has gone from a young company within a trade deemed unfashionable, to one of the goliaths of their industry. Wilsdorf saw his dream of wristwatches that were both stylish and practical go from the snow peaked heights of Everest to the murky abyss of the Mariana Trench. His designs became synonymous with the human spirit of exploration that saw us as a species take on the harshest domains of mother nature. His commitment to perfection is still proudly undertaken by his company to this day, but so is his drive to enter areas outside the field of horology. The Rolex initiatives that both sponsor and nurture the cultural world are indicative of this. The article you have taken the time to read has probably come across in places as rather hagiographic. However, after thorough research upon this matter, whether you like Rolex’s products or not, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that Rolex has partaken in some truly momentous events, and thus warrants a certain degree of respect.

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