Everything about Rolex carries the stamp of one exceptional human being.
An entrepreneur and a visionary, in 1926 Hans Wilsdorf launched the world’s first waterproof wristwatch. This pioneering achievement paved the way for an endless series of inventions and innovations that have profoundly shaped the history of watchmaking.
From the pocket to the wristwatch
Born in Bavaria in 1881, he grew up in an era when watches were designed to be carried in a pocket. Although some watchmakers were experimenting with wristwatches, they were mostly regarded as women’s jewellery: no one believed it possible to make a wristwatch robust and reliable enough for everyday use.
Yet, a more active, outdoor future was beckoning, for both men and women, and Hans Wilsdorf saw it. Aged just 24, already fascinated by watch movements and their accuracy, he understood precisely where he could make a difference. Ignoring the incredulity of his peers, he decided to take a risk and began his campaign to deliver a truly modern timepiece, fit for the 20th century.
Compact calibres, broad horizons
In 1905, he started to work with a small Swiss watch manufacturer in Bienne that was producing some unusually compact watch movements. He had these fitted into cases and that same year was able to set up his own watchmaking company. And so, he embarked on his life’s work.
Bienne would soon become the beating heart of the brand. The small Swiss manufacturer was later integrated into Rolex, becoming the nerve centre, dedicated to producing superlative movements.
The quest for chronometric precision
In 1910, he received the first certificate for chronometric precision to be given for a wristwatch by the Official Watch Rating Centre at Bienne in Switzerland.
Then came international recognition. This early model boasted such outstanding timekeeping that, in 1914, the Observatory at Kew in London awarded it a Class A precision certificate. Until then, that distinction had been reserved essentially for marine chronometers, the most accurate timepieces of the era. Already, in delivering such precision within the small casing of a wristwatch, Hans Wilsdorf had made a phenomenal contribution. He was not yet even 30.
A passion for bienfacture
The company’s reputation grew, and in 1919 its founder set up permanent operations in Geneva. There, with his characteristic ability to inspire others, he persuaded the best craftsmen and engineers in Swiss watchmaking to work alongside him. In 1931, the five-pointed crown was introduced.
To this day, the name Rolex sits below this emblem, perfectly representing Hans Wilsdorf's exhortation to those whom he employed to “produce nothing but beautiful work”.
Hans Wilsdorf was a brilliant leader, and it was his joyful desire to give his technicians the belief that they can exceed possibilities. “Rolex must continuously strive to think and act differently from the rest. Therein lies my greatest strength,” he declared.
Proof by trial
The arrival in 1926 of the iconic Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch, was momentous.
With this watch, Hans Wilsdorf confirmed his prediction that advances in science and technology would pave the way for a new generation of adventurers. In 1927, a young swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, achieved celebrity status when she became the first British woman to swim the English Channel – wearing a Rolex Oyster. This outstanding athlete became Hans Wilsdorf’s first brand Testimonee, forging a path followed by hundreds of distinguished sportswomen and men, explorers and artists. In their achievements, they became star witnesses to the virtues of the Rolex brand.
Crafting and communicating
In 1931, Rolex launched the Oyster Perpetual. The company’s first automatic waterproof wristwatch, it was self-winding, depending only on the movements of the wrist for energy thanks to its Perpetual rotor.
Hans Wilsdorf insisted that each new watch should go out into the world as an ambassador of quality. For him, marketing was not only a sales device, but a means of communicating his brand’s integrity. He later said, “What has been achieved in the past serves to strengthen my faith in the future and my conviction that the fame of Rolex will prove worthy of the position it has won in the world.” His wish was to forge an identity to match the quality of the work – and, conversely, to deliver work that would forever honour the brand.
The company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1945 with the launch of the Rolex Datejust. With its added date feature, set in a window on the dial, it became the epitome of prestige worldwide.
Eleven years later, in 1956, the brand was once again at the forefront of innovation with the Day-Date, the first self-winding and waterproof chronometer wristwatch to display the date and the day of the week spelt out in full in two separate windows.
The gift of time
His greatest legacy was the “beautiful work” upon which the success of the company depends and the ethos he instilled to push back the limits of the possible, which underpins every aspect of the brand’s interests from its watchmaking to its support for Testimonees and partners who reach for the pinnacle of achievement.
In bequeathing his philosophy to Rolex, he left a profound sense of continuity, a rare focus on the long term in a world distracted by immediacy. A philosophy that imbues every Rolex timepiece – built to last.
He died in 1960, but his spirit lives on in the values he instilled in the company. They belong eternally to Hans Wilsdorf. They are Perpetual.
Over the years, watchmaking thus represented far more than a business: in striving for perfection, he wanted to open new possibilities and to share them. He became driven by a desire to make a better world.
Today, Hans Wilsdorf’s legacy goes on and on – perpetually – just like his self-winding watches, as he made sure that the proceeds from Rolex would be used as a continuing investment in future generations.