Making history with Rolex

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The story of Rolex is intimately associated with human achievement. Hans Wilsdorf, the company’s founder, saw the mutual benefit of equipping people who were record breakers with an Oyster watch: the first of a long line of athletes and explorers was Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel.

In 1927, a young British secretary called Mercedes Gleitze took a place in the annals of watchmaking history with a sporting exploit that brought the first waterproof watch to the world’s attention. The 26 year-old swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster, spending more than 10 hours in the chilly waters between France and Great Britain. At the end of the swim, the waterproof wristwatch was declared to be in perfect working order.

She was the first Englishwoman to manage the arduous swim, still a rare feat at the time, and she earned huge popular acclaim. Rolex’s founder and director, Hans Wilsdorf, celebrated the landmark event with a full-page advertisement on the front of London’s Daily Mail proclaiming the success of the first waterproof wristwatch and chronicling “the debut of the Rolex Oyster and its triumphant march worldwide”. Mercedes Gleitze effectively became the first Rolex Testimonee, a symbol of achievement who also demonstrated the new watch’s qualities in action.

It was a turning point. Although the wristwatch is taken for granted nowadays, a century ago pocket watches were the norm. The practical timepiece championed by Rolex owes much of its success to the painstaking development of waterproofing.

Mercedes Gleitze, 1927.

The Origins of Waterproofness

When men began wearing watches on their wrists instead of in their pockets in the early 1900s, it swiftly became clear that the new timepieces would lead much harsher lives. Pocket watches were sheltered inside clothing and largely spared from exposure to rain and moisture as well as the bustle of dusty streets and knocks that came with active lifestyles. The more vulnerable and less accurate wristwatch was simply a smaller version of its larger alter ego, and commonly regarded as a fragile item of women’s fashion.

These drawbacks were not lost on Rolex’s founder, who noted that the wristwatches of the time were something of a laughing stock among men. Yet the young and commercially minded Hans Wilsdorf felt that they were just right for fast-moving 20th-century life and the emergence of sports as pastime. He staked the future of his fledgling business, founded in 1905 in London, on the wristwatch. In striving to improve it he pioneered the waterproof watch, and in making that new quality known he devised innovative marketing campaigns.

The young and commercially minded Hans Wilsdorf felt that they were just right for fast-moving 20th-century life and the emergence of sports as pastimes.

The Submarine, 1922. Rolex's first attempt at making a waterproof wristwatch featured a second outer case.

The “Submarine” Emerges

By 1910, the accuracy of a small Rolex wristwatch rivalled that of the pocket watch. However, Wilsdorf realized that its intricate mechanism could only be reliable if it were protected in a hermetically-sealed case that kept out damaging moisture and dust. “We must find the means to create a waterproof watch,” he wrote in 1914, the very year one of his timepieces received a “Class A” precision certificate from Kew Observatory, the most prestigious timekeeping distinction of the era. He also called dust “our greatest enemy” and laid down some of the inherent features of Rolex DNA.

Rolex brought out its first attempt at a waterproof and dustproof watch, the Submarine, in 1922. It turned out to be an impractical design, relying on a second outer case to protect the main watch body. The outer shell had to be opened every day in order to wind the watch, thereby also weakening the metal gasket that sealed the opening.

Hans Wilsdorf was nonetheless convinced that the overall concept would change the watchmaking industry.

Birth of the Rolex Oyster

Within a few years, by 1926, Rolex had unveiled the waterproof watch that established the Swiss firm’s reputation, the one worn by Mercedes Gleitze. It was dubbed Oyster because it was clamped shut like an oyster shell and could survive under water. Two major technical innovations made the single-case wristwatch watertight: a screw-down back and bezel, as well as a newly patented winding crown. The wearer could screw down the crown to seal the case. Rolex had invented the waterproof wristwatch, advertised as the “wonder watch”. Mercedes Gleitze provided the proof. When the Oyster was displayed inside a fish tank or bowl in jewellery shop windows to demonstrate its waterproof qualities, it impressed passers-by and set the stage for Rolex’s inextricable link with the underwater world.

Front cover of the Daily Mail, 1927.

The Sealed Watch Case

Rolex wristwatches became renowned for their reliability, helped along by Hans Wilsdorf’s commercial acumen. The Oyster watch “defied the elements” and could go anywhere, resisting dust, water, perspiration, heat, cold and even snow according to advertisements of the time. Rolex’s director sought to back those claims.

Just as his watchmakers zealously improved accuracy, Hans Wilsdorf ensured that the reliability and waterproofness of the Oyster were proven under ever more severe conditions. In the 1930s, Rolex engineers devised and patented machinery to test waterproofness during the manufacturing process. Explorers and pioneers increasingly put the wristwatches to real-life tests in hostile environments.

The Rolex wristwatch also took on the basic form and characteristics that are inherent to all Oyster models to this day. The revolutionary new self-winding Perpetual rotor mechanism harnessed the energy of every movement of the wrist to wind the watch. Since the wearer no longer needed to unscrew the winding crown every day, waterproofness was enhanced.

A Key to Exploration

The constant quest to improve technology paved the way for the Oyster Perpetual’s development over the ensuing years. The advent of scuba diving and deep-sea exploration shaped the iconic new Submariner model in the 1950s. Cooperation with Auguste Piccard, the inventor of the bathyscaphe, a manned submersible, and his son Jacques would put an experimental Oyster watch to its ultimate test during a historic dive in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960. Less than 40 years after the standard-setting Rolex wristwatch braved the surface waters of the English Channel, it would plunge to the deepest reaches of the ocean.

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