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.
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
When the design for A Name Unknown, book 1 in the Shadows Over England Series, was shone to me and I saw the spine for the first time, I was so excited to see the series logo they’d come up with. Big Ben’s clock tower.
Big Ben says London. Which is what the designers were no doubt trying to invoke, as my family of thieves are firmly Londoners. But for me, it was more than that. Because in the third book of the series, An Hour Unspent
, that iconic clock actually plays a role in the story.
For starters, a bit of naming. Most of us think of “Big Ben” as the clock, but it’s technically not. Big Ben is actually the bell. The clock is the Great Westminster Clock, though over the years the name Big Ben has come to be associated with the entire structure. So now that we’ve got that straight… 😉
The clock tower was designed by Augustus Pugin and completed in 1859. Pugin was an architect, one who is most remembered for redesigning the interior of Westminster Palace and the tower in question, which has become one of the most iconic symbols of England. Though he also designed the face of the clock, the mechanics of the thing he wisely handed over to someone else.
But interestingly, the movement–the gears and weights that make a clock work, and in this case, work with amazing reliability–was actually designed by two amateurs to the field. Edmund Denison, a lawyer, and mathematician George Airy. The construction was the only part undertaken by an actual clockmaker, Edward Dent.
The Great Clock’s inner workings are so precise that a penny sitting on the pendulum is all it takes to make slight alterations to the time. That one little coin will make an adjustment of nearly half a second a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but it allows for small incremental adjustments to keep the clock accurate year after year. The pendulum still has a stack of old coins on it, and the clock is still hand-wound three times a week.
In my story, I gave the job of upkeep of the Great Clock to my heroine’s father, a clock maker. This part is purely fictional, of course, but it would have been considered a great honor to be tasked with such a responsibility, and in my story that’s the proof of Cecil Manning’s proficiency in his trade, even though he’s by no means made himself rich.
That honor goes to another historical figure that my fictional Manning claims as a friend, who revolutionized the timekeeping world. But you’ll have to come by next Wednesday to learn about that…