Five Things You Didn’t Know About Rolex

From wartime plans to pizza promos.

December 5, 2023  |  Rachael Taylor

1. Rolex started out as a British company

Rolex is synonymous with Swiss watchmaking, but founder Hans Wilsdorf started the company at 83 Hatton Garden in London. Originally named Wilsdorf & Davis, it specialized in placing Swiss movements in English-made cases. In 1915, during World War I, the British government introduced a 33.3% customs duty as part of the war effort. Since this would have badly impacted Rolex, the company moved to Bienne, Switzerland.

2. World War II prisoners wore Rolexes

During World War II, more than 3,000 soldiers took Rolex up on its offer of ordering a watch and deferring payment until after the war. The company took requests in writing via the International Red Cross, and many of these came from within Nazi prisoner-of-war camps.

When peace arrived, however, Rolex opted not to collect. Despite this, it’s said that every soldier who made it out paid, and the families of fallen soldiers often attempted to settle the bill on their behalf.

3. Rolex did not invent the automatic wristwatch

A common belief is that Rolex invented the automatic wristwatch when it launched the Oyster Perpetual in 1931. However, English watchmaker John Harwood beat Rolex to it: He invented a self-winding mechanism that won a Swiss patent in 1924, then sold the rights to timepiece brand Fortis, which released a self-winding wristwatch called the Harwood Automatic in 1926. Marketing zeal did lead Rolex to lay claim to the invention in 1955, but it ran an apology in The Sunday Express a year later.

4. You can learn to make Rolexes for free

There is a horology-skills gap in the US; in 2000, there were only 6,500 watchmakers there, down from 32,000 in 1973. To address this, Rolex funded the Lititz Watch Technicum school, which opened in 2001 in Lititz, Pennsylvania. It provides free training to a select few each year, and has so far produced more than 150 qualified watchmakers.

5. Rolex made watches for Domino’s Pizza

Rolex briefly allowed corporations to customize its dials. The most famous such watch is the highly collectible Domino’s Pizza Air-King, which sports the pizzeria’s logo. Rolex made it during the 1970s and ’80s as a gift for store managers who hit sales targets — a program that’s still in effect, though today’s managers get Oyster Perpetuals instead, with more subtle branding on the case and bracelet.

Rachael Taylor is the author of Rolex: The Story Behind the Style, released in October in the UK and coming out April 2024 in the US.

Main image: Watchmaker fitting the parachrom hairspring into movement. (Rolex)

This article is from the November-December 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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