Last week I started telling you about Hans Wilsdorf and the founding of Rolex. It was getting a bit long, so I figured I’d better break it up into two posts. 😉 As a quick reminder, I’d told you a bit about Hans’s early days and his determination to create a great wrist watch (called “wristlets” at the time) and then make his company name, Rolex, be the one people came to associate with the quality watches he produced.
But if you were paying attention to the years I mentioned, you’ll have known that things were about to change for Hans. The Great War was coming. And though he’d become an English citizen when he married his wife, Florence, no one really cared about that.
He was German. He spoke with an accent. He had a clearly German last name.
Life became not so easy for the Wilsdorfs in London. He and Florence were both harassed whenever they went out in public. And to make matters worse, a new customs duty was put into place–33.5%. And for a business that was almost exclusively exported, this could easily spell The End.
The Wilsdorfs didn’t have much choice. They packed up and moved to Bienne, Switzerland, for the duration of the war. Rolex already had a branch there, so they moved all operations out of England and continued to produce the watches quickly gaining a reputation for excellence.
But though the war forced them from their home, it also helped create a market for the wristlet. Timing was crucial in military operations, and having a reliable timepiece was essential. The few soldiers who went to war with wristlets soon proved how practical they were. Pocket watches were generally worn in a jacket pocket, which was then under an overcoat in the winter months. To check the time, soldiers would have to take off their gloves, open their overcoat, and dig it out of their undercoat. Compare that to just raising your wrist, and you can see why the men who had wristlets found them so much better an option. After the war ended, the popularity of the wrist watch surged.
And at the front of the wave was Rolex.
But Wilsdorf wasn’t about riding a wave. He was about innovation–and marketing savvy. His next goal was to create a waterproof watch, which he achieved in 1926. The Oyster. But water had long been known as the enemy of a watch, so he had his work cut out for him, convincing the public that his Oyster really could keep running, even when wet. One boon came when a swimmer swam the English Channel, wearing one. They were already getting publicity for their feat, and Rolex got a bit too.
But that wasn’t quite enough. So Wilsdorf came up with an ongoing publicity stunt. Shops that sold Rolexes were outfitted with aquariums, in which hung an Oyster, keeping perfect time despite being continually submerged.
It worked. By the time World War II rolled around, Rolex was well known around the world as being the best watch to be had. The most reliable. A byword for quality and luxury.
Now, though he was German by birth, Hans was firmly on the Allied side of both World Wars. And when he heard that Allied soldiers in the Second World War were stripped of their Rolexes when they were taken prisoner, he publicly swore that Rolex would replace any Allied soldier’s watch that was stolen. And he kept his word. This story exemplifies just one of the many ways that Hans made Rolex a company with heart, not just monetary success.
So how does all this work its way into my book? Well, all of it obviously doesn’t. But I’d looked up the history of Rolex out of curiosity when I realized I would have a clockmaker for a central character in An Hour Unspent, figuring the company was forming around the same time as my story. When I realized how well it actually lined up with my timeline, I decided to give Hans Wilsdorf a cameo appearance. He actually ended up presenting a plot point that was rather crucial…but of course, I’m not going to tell you what that was. 😉 Just that I had oh so much fun writing it!
And I also just want to say that the more I learned about Wilsdorf and the company he built, the more I admired him and Rolex. They aren’t just glitzy watches for the rich, status symbols. They’re undeniable quality built on innovation and popularity gained through determination and marketing brilliance. You just have to admire that.