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A brief history of Rolex

Rolex is one of the most famous names in watchmaking. The company’s iconic crown logo enjoys ubiquitous brand awareness. The Genevan maison can trace its routes back to 1905, when Hans Wilsdorf established a company in London, distributing timepieces.

Wilsdorf, clearly a visionary, saw the potential of the wristwatch at a time when pocket watches were de rigueur and subsequently created the Rolex brand.

Rolex produced the first waterproof watch. In a stroke of marketing genius, a young swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, wore a Rolex Oyster on her wrist whilst swimming the English channel. The ability of the watch to continue functioning faultlessly, despite exposure to the harsh sea, led to the birth of the Oyster case. This case has evolved over the years with the brand gently enhancing its form and improving its water resistance.

In 1931, Rolex also invented, and patented, the world’s first self-winding mechanism. This user-friendly attribute is common to most of the brand’s models, albeit there are some exceptions, such as some of the early Daytona models. The self-winding aspect is often referenced on the dial with the word “Perpetual”, short for perpetual movement and not to be confused with a perpetual calendar.

A key benefit of Rolex watches is their robustness. The cases of today’s steel models are constructed of a high-grade steel, 904L. Recent models include a blue Parachrom hairspring which is said to be unaffected by magnetic fields and 10 times more resistant to shocks. The research and development of Rolex timepieces is unrelenting and each new reference technically usurps its forebears.

Several illustrious Rolex models

Rolex has produced a myriad of different models over the years. The Datejust, Day-Date, Explorer, GMT-Master and Yachtmaster are all held in highest esteem. However, there are two watches which deserve further comment, the Cosmograph Daytona and the Submariner. Every watch brand dreams of producing an iconic watch, but few can truly say they have produced two models that are as legendary as these two sports watches.

While Rolex offers some watches in gold and even platinum, without question the most sought after models are its steel sports watches, especially if they are rare vintage examples.

Rolex Submariner – the diver’s watch

Launched in 1953, the Submariner had a maximum water resistance of 100 metres when it was introduced. The specification of this model included a rotational bezel. Interestingly, these early models lacked a date display and the legendary “Mercedes” hour hand.

Many variants of the Submariner have been produced.

In 1956, a Submariner with a shielded movement was created which was capable of withstanding magnetic fields up to 1,000 gauss. This watch featured a central sweep seconds hand, stylishly depicting a bolt of lightening and bore the name Milgauss. In recent years, the brand has also released a further range of models bearing the Milgauss nomen which are distinctly different to the Submariner models.

The Sea-Dweller is a sibling of the Submariner, released in 1967, and offering superior water resistance, when compared with the Submariner. The Sea-Dweller models eschew the Rolex cyclops, a magnifying lens positioned above the date and found on the brand’s current Submariner Date models.

Among the Rolex watch collecting community, the terms “Single Red” and “Double Red are often mentioned. These terms relate to red text appearing on the dial instead of the usual white text. For example, a “single red” is a watch which specifies the name of the model “Sea-Dweller” in red text.

A “double red” may state, “Sea-Dweller” in red text on one line, with “Submariner 2000”, again in red text, on the line below. These models are scarce and needless to say auction values reflect this.

COMEX, a French diving company, formed a relationship with Rolex and various Submariner models were produced bearing the COMEX name. These rare diver’s watches are also much sought after and have become the darlings of the auction scene, fetching high prices.

Today’s Submariner models include bi-metallic versions, yellow and white gold options and even a model sporting an eye-catching green dial with matching bezel. However, the steel Submariner Date with black dial remains the traditional choice and still proves a very practical and versatile timepiece loved by legions of watch collectors around the globe.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona – the racer’s watch

In 1963, Rolex launched its legendary sports watch, the Cosmograph Daytona. The Swiss company had made chronographs beforehand, but in limited volumes. The styling of the Cosmograph Daytona represented a departure from the former, and more traditional, chronographs bearing the Rolex crown. The 1963 model included a metal bezel, marked with a tachymeter scale and a tri-compax layout featuring contrasting subdials.

Early models featured Valjoux movements, but these would later be superseded by the Zenith El-Primero movement, modified to run at 28,800 vph (4Hz). Ultimately, Rolex would elected to use its own in-house movement, the latest of which is the Calibre 4130.

The Paul Newman dials, named after the Hollywood acting legend, who also enjoyed success in the sphere of motorsport, are also worthy of discussion. These have become much sought after by the Rolex aficionados, with some prices fetching eye watering sums. Sadly, there are many fakes and, in some cases, the unscrupulous have been known to pair a forged dial with an otherwise genuine Daytona.

The push pieces of the original 1963 model were updated in the early 1970s with screw-down chronograph items, a detail which is retained on current models.

In 2013, Rolex celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cosmograph Daytona with the release of the most luxurious version ever produced. Presented in a platinum case, featuring an ice blue dial, a shade reserved solely for Rolex’s platinum models, and incorporating chestnut brown counters and bezel, it represents the epitome of luxury.

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