There are a few words in this world, the mere mention of which, conjure up adventure, excitement and class - all superlatives. Say Everest and everyone knows it’s the tallest mountain in the world; Mariana Trench (or Challenger Deep, a hole in the Trench) and everyone knows it’s the deepest spot man has penetrated on earth; Formula One, and you’re talking about the most sophisticated race cars in existence. For seafarers, say Fastnet or Sydney-Hobart, and you’re speaking of the ultimate levels of sailboat racing. Mention Dior, DeBeers, Rolls, Lear and the words conjure the best and classiest in style, diamonds, cars and private jets.
And there’s one other word - imitated, as anything claiming to be the best often is - that ties all of these things together. And it, too, is but one word that signifies the best. Rolex.
Rolex was the brainchild of Hans Wilsdorf who, in 1905, founded a company in London when he was 24 that specialized in selling timepieces. Wilsdorf, like most visionaries, had an idea - why not an accurate watch worn on the wrist? There were wristwatches around at the time, but they were more a novelty and were not necessarily precise. Wilsdorf went to a Swiss company to manufacture the precise movement he envisioned for his watches and a marque was slowing born.
How does the word ‘Rolex’ figure into this tale? Wilsdorf wanted his watches to bear a name that was short, easy to say and remember in any language, and which looked good on the watch.
Wilsdorf explained it thusly: “I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.”
And thus, in 1908, a legend was born … or so the story goes.
Concentrating on the watch’s movements earned Rolex several prestigious precision awards for keeping time in 1910 and 1914, the latter a British award that, until that time, was only awarded to marine chronometers used for determining longitude. Wilsdorf moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1919 and some six-or-so years later developed the first hermetically sealed waterproof and dustproof wristwatch, which he named the Oyster. If this is all starting to sound familiar….
Not just an impressively far-sighted timepiece entrepreneur, Wilsdorf was no slouch when it came to getting the Rolex name out in the public eye. He is credited with the first use of athletes to endorse products, which everyone from Johnny Weissmuller to Michael Phelps should be extremely happy about.
Wilsdorf, wanting to prove his claim that the watches were waterproof beyond a doubt - had a young lady named Mercedes Gleitze (I smell another tie in) wear a Rolex Oyster on her 1927 10-hour jaunt across the English Channel (Gleitze was the first Brit to swim the channel and the first person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar). The watch, needless to say, kept on tickin’.
The crew on the first expedition to fly over Everest in 1933 wore Rolex Oysters (and yes, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay were wearing Rolex Oyster Perpetuals when they topped out on the big mountain in 1953).
Sir Malcolm Campbell, piloting the Bluebird in 1935, the fastest car in the world at just over 300 mph, was wearing his Rolex. Campbell went on to become the only man to ever hold both the land and water top speed records in the same year and always wore his Rolex; we assume that includes when he augered in his boat at 328 mph in 1967.
Other firsts came along. The first self-winding mechanism in 1935; the Datejust, the first self-winding watch with a date in 1945; and then the Submariner in 1953, the first watch waterproof to 100 meters/330 feet. And the Submariner had a rotatable bezel so divers could figure out their bottom times - this at a time when diving was in its infancy - hell, it was barely out of the womb!
Throughout the 50s, Rolex kept developing more sophisticated timepieces aimed at more sophisticated lifestyles. The watches were certified to resist magnetic fields up to 1000 gauss (I have no idea what that means, but apparently it’s pretty impressive).
In 1960, a Rolex watch accompanied Jacques Piccard, US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and their submersible Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench on the outside of the submersible. Yes, a Rolex Deep Sea Special experimental dive watch made it to and back from 37,800 feet — give or take a few feet. Obviously if you’re swimming in your lap pool, you gotta’ have a watch that can do that, right? This feat was further backed up when a Rolex accompanied Titanic re-discoverer James Cameron to the bottom of the Trench in 2012, thus becoming the only ‘passenger’ to make that trip twice.
Then came the Cosmograph Daytona (with a bezel that could calculate average speeds for the racing crowd); the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller (waterproof to 610 meters!) with its helium escape valve (for long decompressions) was released in 1967; the Oyster Perpetual Explorer II came out in ’71; the Sea Dweller 4000 (waterproof to 4000 meters) in ’78; and the woman’s Pearlmaster, and the new Yacht-Master in ’92.
Throughout the 2000s, Rolex has been developing and patenting new technology: ceramic bezels, alloy hairsprings that are unaffected by magnetic fields and highly shock resistant, a new case seal that could withstand 6000-psi water pressure: new self-winding mechanisms and more, ensuring its position at the very pinnacle of the timepiece world.
The Rolex Submariner
Introduced in 1953, the Submariner was the first watch to be water resistant down to 100 metres (330 feet). It was designed specifically for underwater exploration and diving, with a strong stainless steel bracelet and an extra-robust, waterproof Oyster case.
Subsequent advances eventually increased the Submariner’s waterproofness to 300 meters (1,000 feet) – the depth to which today’s Submariner can safely be submerged. In 2008, the re-styled Submariner was enhanced with a new rotatable bezel equipped with a nearly scratchproof Cerachrom insert featuring graduations in gold or platinum. The exclusive bezel insert and monobloc bezel have excellent anti-corrosion properties and keep their vibrant colors over time. They are virtually scratchproof, and are unaffected by exposure to sunlight as well as to chlorinated or sea water. It takes 40 hours to produce each bezel.
The Triplock winding crown is a patented triple waterproof system. Developed by Rolex, it resists water pressure to depths of 300 meters (1,000 feet) on the Submariner models and some other Professional models, and 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) on the Rolex Deepsea. Introduced in 1970, the Triplock system consists of 10 different elements crafted from the most reliable materials. The winding crown screws down against the Oyster case as tightly and hermetically as a submarine’s hatch.
The Oyster bracelet is a perfect alchemy of form and function, aesthetics and technology, designed to be both robust and comfortable. It is equipped with an Oysterlock clasp, which prevents accidental opening, and an ingenious Glidelock, allowing fine adjustments of the bracelet without using any tools and allowing it to be worn comfortably over a diving suit.
The Submariner and Submariner Date models are equipped with self-winding mechanical movements entirely developed and manufactured by Rolex. They are certified Swiss chronometers, a designation reserved for high-precision watches that have successfully passed the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) tests.
They are fitted with a Parachrom hairspring, offering greater resistance to shocks and to temperature variations. Their architecture, in common with all Oyster watch movements, makes them singularly reliable. MSRP is between $7500 and $8500 depending on model. Tell the kids you want it for Christmas!
The Rolex Yacht Master II
The Yacht-Master II is designed to meet the needs of professional sailors, and features the world’s first programmable countdown with a mechanical memory. It provides precise synchronization with the crucial starting sequence of a yacht race. Its bold and distinguished design is firmly in line with the spirit of the Oyster Professional watches, and the chronograph’s crystal clear display epitomizes Rolex’s constant attention to detail.
Its red-contoured countdown arrow and the second hand are readable at a glance against the dedicated 10-minute countdown graduation on the dial and the graduations on the bezel. Typically, a bezel operates independently from the internal mechanism; however, the Ring Command bezel in the Yacht-Master II operates in conjunction with it. As a mechanical component linked to the movement, the bezel literally acts as the key to the programmable countdown, allowing it to be set and synchronized to the sequence of race start times. Complex in design, but simple in use, it is functionally beautiful.
It features a countdown that can be programmed from 1 to 10 minutes and allows skippers to precisely time and follow each race’s official starting procedure. This flexibility is one the major assets of the Yacht- Master II; its development was a considerable technological challenge. The programming can be mechanically memorized. Furthermore, once the watch’s countdown is launched, it can be synchronized on the fly to match changes in the official race countdown.
The Triplock winding crown is the same patented triple waterproofness system of the Submariner. The Yacht-Master II’s self-winding mechanical regatta chronograph movement was entirely developed and manufactured by Rolex, and was the result of over 35,000 hours of development. A number of the 360 components in the watch’s movement are so tiny or complex that they can only be made by new, cutting-edge technology. The movement, like all Rolex movements, is a certified Swiss chronometer. MSRP is anywhere from $14000 to $34000 depending on model. So sell your boat!