Rolex SA (/ˈroʊlɛks/) is a Swiss luxury watch manufacturer based in Geneva, Switzerland. Originally founded as Wilsdorf and Davis by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis in London, England in 1905, the company registered Rolex as the brand name of its watches in 1908 and became Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. in 1915. After World War I, the company moved its base of operations to Geneva, Switzerland in order to avoid heavy taxation from a recovering post-war Britain, and in 1920 Hans Wilsdorf registered Montres Rolex SA in Geneva as the new company name which eventually became Rolex SA in later years. Since 1960, the company has been owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a private family trust.
Rolex SA and its subsidiary Montres Tudor SA design, manufacture, distribute and service wristwatches sold under the Rolex and Tudor brands. In 2018, Forbes ranked Rolex as the world's 71st most valuable brand. As of June 2019, among the world's top ten most expensive watches ever sold at auctions, three are Rolex watches. In particular, Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona currently holds the title of the most expensive wristwatch and the second most expensive watch ever sold at auction, fetching 17.75 million US dollars in New York on October 26, 2017
Alfred Davis and his brother-in-law Hans Wilsdorf founded Wilsdorf and Davis, the company that would eventually become Rolex S.A., in London, England in 1905. Wilsdorf and Davis' main commercial activity at the time involved importing Hermann Aegler's Swiss movements to England and placing them in watch cases made by Dennison and others. These early wristwatches were sold to many jewellers, who then put their own names on the dial. The earliest watches from Wilsdorf and Davis were usually hallmarked "W&D" inside the caseback.
In 1908, Wilsdorf registered the trademark "Rolex", which became the brand name of watches from Wilsdorf and Davis, and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Wilsdorf wanted his watch brand's name to be easily pronounceable in any language. He also thought that the name "Rolex" was onomatopoeic, sounding like a watch being wound. It is easily pronounceable in many languages and, as all its upper-case letters have the same size and can be written symmetrically. It was also short enough to fit on the face of a watch.
In 1914, Kew Observatory awarded a Rolex watch a Class A precision certificate, a distinction normally granted exclusively to marine chronometers. In November 1915, the company changed its name to Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. After World War I, Hans Wilsdorf left England in 1919 due to heavy post-war taxes levied on luxury imports, as well as to the high cost driven by exporting duties on the silver and gold used for the watch cases. As a result, Wilsdorf moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland, where the company's name was officially changed to Montres Rolex S.A. in 1920, and eventually to Rolex S.A in later years.
With administrative worries tended to, Wilsdorf turned the company's attention to a technical concern : the infiltration of dust and moisture under the dial and crown, which in turn damaged the movement. To address this problem, in 1926 Rolex developed and produced the first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch, giving it the name "Oyster". The watch features a hermetically sealed case which provided optimal protection for the movement.
Consumers at the time remained sceptical, however, of a fully waterproof watch. As a demonstration, Rolex submerged Oyster models in aquariums, which it displayed in the windows of its main points of sale. Then, in 1927, a young British swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel with an Oyster on her wrist, becoming the first Rolex ambassador. To celebrate the feat, Rolex published a full-page advertisement on the front page of the Daily Mail proclaiming the watch's success during the over-ten-hour swim.
In 1931, Rolex invented and patented the world's first self-winding mechanism with a Perpetual rotor, a semi-circular plate that relies on gravity to move freely. Its system would become the basis of all future automatic watches throughout the indusry. In turn, the Oyster watch became known as the Oyster Perpetual.
Upon the death of his wife in 1944, Wilsdorf established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a private trust, in which he left all of his Rolex shares, making sure that some of the company's income would go to charity. Wilsdorf died in 1960, and since then the trust has owned and run Rolex SA.
In December 2008, following the abrupt departure of Chief Executive Patrick Heiniger for "personal reasons", Rolex SA denied that it had lost 1 billion Swiss francs (approx £574 million, $900 million) invested with Bernard Madoff, the American asset manager who pleaded guilty to an approximately £30 billion worldwide Ponzi scheme fraud. The company announced Heiniger's death on March 5, 2013.
Rolex SA is owned by the private Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, which is registered as a charity and does not pay corporate income taxes. In 2011, a spokesman for Rolex declined to provide evidence regarding the amount of charitable donations made by the Wilsdorf Foundation. In Geneva where the company is based, it is said to have gifted, among many things, two housing buildings to social institutions of Geneva.
According to the 2017 Brand Z report, the brand value is estimated $8.053 billion. Rolex watches continue to have a reputation as status symbols. It produces more than 800,000 timepieces each year.
Rolex mostly produced mechanical watches, but it has also participated in the development of the original quartz watch movements. Although Rolex has made very few quartz models for its Oyster line, the company's engineers were instrumental in design and implementation of the technology during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, Rolex collaborated with a consortium of 16 Swiss watch manufacturers to develop the Beta 21 quartz movement used in their Rolex Quartz Date 5100 alongside other manufactures including the Omega Electroquartz watches. Within about five years of research, design, and development, Rolex created the "clean-slate" 5035/5055 movement that would eventually power the Rolex Oysterquartz.
Material-wise, Rolex first used its "Cerachrom" ceramic bezel on the GMT-Master II in 2005, and has since then implemented ceramic bezel inserts across the range of professional sports watches. They are available on the Submariner, Sea Dweller, Deepsea, GMT Master II and Daytona models. In contrast to the aluminum bezel which it replaced, the ceramic bezel color does not wear out from explosure to UV-light and is very scratch resistant.