I’m posting my “Remember When” a day early this week, in deference to Independence Day tomorrow. Just pretend it’s Wednesday. 😉
These days, when someone asks you what time it is, you might just pull out your cell phone. But until recently, that certainly wasn’t the norm, right? You would have looked at your wrist–and many of us today still do. (I say “us,” but the sad truth is that I rarely wear a watch–it hits against my laptop keyboard and is uncomfortable, and since I’m home most of the time, I can just look at a clock, so…)
But wristwatches–arguably the norm for timekeeping for the last century–were once the new kid on the block. And we owe their popularity primarily to one man.
Born in Germany in 1881, Hans and his brother and sister were orphaned when he was 12. His uncles decided that in order to see to the childrens’ futures, they would liquidate the prosperous family business and equip the children with the means to be self-reliant. They were sent to boarding school, where Hans showed great promise in languages and mathematics. His fluency in multiple tongues led him to an apprenticeship at a pearl exporter with a worldwide sales organization–something that taught him much about business.
From there he was hired in the year 1900 by a French watchmaking firm. Again, it was his linguistics skills that got him the job, but he quickly came to love and appreciate the world of watches.
In 1903, Hans moved to London to work for another watchmaking firm. He ended up marrying an English woman, applying for and receiving English citizenship, and eventually began his own watch company with his wife’s brother–Wilsdorf & Davis.
But Hans wasn’t satisfied to just make traditional pocket watches in the traditional way. Hans had a vision of a “wristlet.” A watch worn on the wrist. And he had a dream of being a watchmaker so respected that it would be his name that sold a watch, not the trader who sold it (as had always been the case).
So Hans set out on a journey. First, he utilized the Swiss watch movements he’d learned so much about in his previous jobs to acquire the best, most accurate workings possible. Then he soldered a strap onto a small pocket watch and strapped it around his wrist. But there were issues that needed to be overcome–the arm moves a whole lot more than a person’s body, with more violent motions. This was terrible for watches. Such jostling usually damaged the works and make them, well, not work. Plus, there was the matter of dirt and other particles getting into a watch case. In a pocket, the watch was protected from such undesirables. But on the wrist? They’d get grimy, fast. And that would gum up the works. So that, again, they wouldn’t work.
Through a series of different prototypes, Hans Wilsdorf worked out these issues. He created a case with a gasket to seal it from dirt, and utilized works so precise and robust that not only did the jostling not destroy them, but the watch still remained accurate.
In fact, his wristlet was honored with the Certificate of Chronometric Precision–an award that had until then only ever been issued to marine clocks.
During this time, Hans was trying to come up with a name for his company that wasn’t just his name. He wanted something that would be pronounced the same in German, French, and English. Something that was easy to say, concise, and had that certain something when one heard it. It took him quite a long time to hit upon the name he felt embodied all those things.
In the 1910s, he began to do the unthinkable. He put Rolex on the face of a few watches. Now, this was unheard of. The face of a watch usually had the trader’s name, because that was who people trusted. The manufacturer’s name only went on the back of the case. Hans knew he was treading on dangerous ground…but at that point, most of his wristlets were being shipped out of England, to Europe. So what were they really going to do if his company name appeared on, say, 1 of every 6 watches? Nothing. So that’s how it began. First on one, then on two, then on half, and eventually all of his watches bore the name Rolex on the face. And the traders accepted them because they were the best watches to be found.
Today, of course, we know the name Rolex. But it was still quite a journey from those early days to the company that is now a byword for luxury. Come back next Wednesday for the rest of the story, and to discover how this fun history worked its way into An Hour Unspent!
This is so interesting! Do you know how he chose the name "Rolex"? Does it mean something special?
Great question, Olivia! According to Wilsdorf's journals, it doesn't mean anything, he just chose it because of the sound, and the fact that it would be pronounced the same in England, French, and German.