Rolex – A History Of Innovation


Throughout its history, the innovative approach of Rolex has brought us dust resistant, water resistant and even magnetic force resistant watches. The patents created by the company in their early days remain the cornerstones of watches made today, not only by Rolex, but all high-end watch making companies.

Perhaps the first ‘world changing’ innovation from Rolex came in 1926, with the patenting of the screw-down crown. This lead to the creation of the Oyster case, so named because it made the case completely waterproof. To celebrate this achievement in watchmaking a Rolex Oyster was worn by Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel, in October 1927 as she made an attempt to improve her swim time. Although Gleitze failed to complete her swim that day, the Rolex she was wearing round her neck was telling the correct time and was fully dry inside when she was pulled from the water 7 Miles from France.

1931 saw Rolex patent an automatic rotary winding mechanism, meaning that the watch need not be hand wound, creating the first Oyster Perpetual. As the 30’s wore on Rolex went through a series of ‘field tests’ to help them develop more innovative designs. These tests included the first ever flight over Everest in 1933, with the pilots commending the accuracy of the watch, and land speed record setting runs on the wrist of Sir Malcolm Campbell.

3 more significant innovations were introduced by Rolex in the 40’s and 50’s. In 1945 Rolex released the iconic Oyster Perpetual Datejust. The Datejust was the first waterproof automatic chronometer to feature a date visible through a window in the dial. The Datejust became an instant success and is still the linchpin of the Rolex Oyster collection to this day.

By the mid 1950’s Rolex had developed two new watches, with the intention of enabling further scientific research in areas where watches had been unable to previously go. In September 1953 a specially adapted Rolex watch, known as a Deep Sea, found itself still working after a plunge to over 10,000 feet on Auguste Piccard’s ‘Trieste’. Seven years later, a new version of the watch emerged in tact from a depth of 35,000 feet as the ‘Trieste’ explored the Mariana ocean trench.

As the decade drew on Rolex turned their attention to the effect of magnetic fields upon watch movements. In 1956 Rolex introduced The Milgauss, a watch that was highly resistant to magnetic force. The name ‘Milgauss’ comes from the French word ‘Mille’, meaning one thousand, and Gauss which is a measurement of magnetic force. Although, as the name suggests, the Milgauss in guaranteed to resist a force of 1000 Gauss, the watch was tested and found to work perfectly well at a level of magnetic field five times higher. The Milgauss was confirmed to work past its guaranteed maximum limit whilst in use at The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

But could their non-profit business model be their greatest achievement? When his wife died in 1944 Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex, established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. To this foundation he donated all his shares in the company with the proviso that part of the company’s income would go to various charitable causes. The trust has owned and run the company since Wilsdorf’s death in 1966 and the principles set down by him are still adhered to, to this day.

Rolex remains a private company, meaning its financial records are not made public, so it is difficult to know exactly how much of the income actually finds its way to Charitable causes. Hans Wilsdorf was an orphan and it is thought that some of the funds available to the trust go to various children’s charities around the world. On top of the charitable side the trust also oversees the day to day running of the company and a good portion of the profit is re-invested into the company allowing it to continue to innovate long after the death of its founder.