The modern wristwatch got its start just over a hundred years ago when a visionary clock seller in London first conceived of a timepiece worn on the wrist. Hans Wilsdorf founded his company in London in 1905, puzzling at length for a proper name for his fledgling business. At last, he chose "Rolex" claiming that a genie whispered the name into his ear while riding a London horse-drawn bus. Wilsdorf commissioned Swiss craftsmen to create precision timepieces, like pocket watches, but worn on the wrist. According to the company site,
"In 1910, a Rolex watch was the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, granted by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne."
The wristwatch was originally thought to be a fashionable fad. Gentlemen still considered the pocket watch to be the proper portable chronometer. But in an odd twist of historical fate, the wristwatch gained acceptance as a serious timepiece during WWI when pilots especially, needed to be able to assess the time without fumbling in their pocket for a watch.
The company continued to innovate new technologies for the personal timepiece and between 1926 and 1945, precision quality standards were maintained while improvements continued. In 1926, the term "Oyster" was coined to describe the way that the watch was sealed completely watertight. This claim was tested and confirmed in 1927 when an English swimmer spent 10 hours crossing the English Channel wearing one. In 1931, the brand introduced Perpetual Movement, the self-winding mechanism that is at the heart of every modern mechanical watch. Then, in 1945, the "Datejust" feature was added to the face, both displaying and automatically changing the date.
As the century progressed, they began to be found in many places where precision and sturdy construction was critical. Explorers and scientists working in new frontiers and on the edge of the known world--including exposure to altitude, depth, speed and magnetic fields--wore the watch.
Our current perception of a Rolex wearer may be that of a slightly ostentatious show-off. Some models are indisputably stunning featuring diamond inlays in the bezel and bracelet, sapphire crystals, and dripping with platinum and gold. But beyond the showboat, these timepieces can be understated and still incredibly beautiful, valuable and ultra high quality. Celebrities including, Harrison Ford (a steel Datejust), Brad Pitt (an Explorer), and Charlize Theron (a Sea Dweller) love and wear the brand. But other wearers are generally not considered glitzy or showy; they just have incredibly good taste and the budget to afford the best. Among this group you will find, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pablo Picasso; Chuck Yager trusted this durable brand during his first ever faster-than-sound adventure and Jacques Cousteau took a Submariner to the bottom of the ocean.
It may even be one of the few watches that is not only a delight to own and wear, but may be a good investment. One reason is the relative price of these timepieces in the luxury marketplace. These watches start in the $4,000 to $9,000 range and are well known to keep, and even increase their value in some cases. Of all the luxury brands, new Rolex watches have the highest resale value. Unlike some very high-priced chronometers, these watches are much more likely to be worn and used by an owner who is using it for a certain job, not a dressy occasion. According to an interview with Adam Craniotes in Money,
"I hate to say it, but in this price range, vintage--and now vintage Tudor, 'the working man's Rolex'--are the best game in town if you're looking for an investment-grade piece that doesn't have to sit in the safe."
And, if you are a serious collector who intends to treat these watches like a financial investment, you may wish to look into the vintage market. Older, antique and pre-owned Rolex watches might produce a wonderful return in certain circumstances. BornRich reports that a 1942 Chronograph model sold at auction for $1.16 million, a record. But other rare timepieces fetch incredible prices too. Some of the most valuable are the actual watches that were given as gifts to racecar drivers in the 1940's.
Own and wear a Rolex and you will surely impress. Understand and love this venerable brand and you won't need to impress anybody, you have already arrived and are just waiting for everyone else to catch up.