Let’s play a simple word association game: by saying “watches”, surely the first word that comes to your mind is “Rolex”.
The Rolex brand is so ingrained in the minds of much of the world that it is difficult to even believe that watches existed before the Austrian Hans Wilsdorf founded the company in 1900.
It is now the most powerful watchmaking company in the world, constantly occupying the top of the lists of the most respected companies in the world.
Rolex has not revealed its sales figures, but experts estimate that they sell approximately 1 million watches a year, probably more than any other luxury watch manufacturer.
But how is it that Rolex has become the undisputed master of watchmaking? According to Ben Clymer, founder and executive editor of the watch fan site, Hodinkee, Rolex has built its brand thanks to an incredible innovation, a name that represents rock-solid quality, which has been supported by several of the most famous characters of the twentieth century.
Innovation after innovation
The fame of Rolex is not an accident. “Innovation in the area of watchmaking is what Rolex has in the place they have today,” says Clymer.
To cement this success, Rolex invented: the first waterproof watch; the first automatic winding watch; the first watch with date; and (possibly) one of the first driving chronometers.
Before clocks became the luxury item they are today, they were tools. These innovations have made these watches more usable.
The automatic loading mechanism allows the user to avoid having to wind the watch every night; being against water allows a diver to use a watch and measure the time of his dives, and a driving timer allows drivers of race cars to go around with precision.
These innovations also make it easier to use a watch every day. “You would not be able to wash your hands with a watch [if it were not against water],” Clymer emphasizes.
A reputation for quality
In addition to these innovations in watchmaking in the first half of the 1900s, Rolex has developed a reputation for reliability, based on its quality.
In order for all these innovations to work, and for watches to operate as the tools they are intended to be, watches had to be the best. It is important to remember that these were not luxury items, like today.
“If you were a Navy diver and you wanted something that would last forever and serve as a tool, survive 100 meters under the sea [you would buy a Rolex],” says Clymer, adding, “because it works”
Innovation and quality are good, but it does not do any good unless potential customers are aware of it.
In 1927, Wilsdorf approached Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English Channel (and the first person to swim through the Strait of Gibraltar), and asked her to use the new Rolex Oyster watch, waterproof.
The swimmer agreed and carried it around her neck during an attempt to swim the canal.
“This woman, who was then photographed for the first page of the newspaper every day, wore a Rolex around her neck,” Clymer points out.
Although he did not complete the journey in that attempt, Gleitze’s celebrity status catapulted the name of Rolex into the public consciousness, and the brand was able to speak due to the fact that the clock set the pace, even after having been submerged in cold water for hours. This great increase in brand awareness and public opinion made Rolex grow.
This content is sponsored by Mark Valley.