In November 2014, Rolex ranked number 72 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, making it the only out-and-out watch brand in the top 100. Three months later, it was named UK’s second top consumer brand in the annual Consumer Superbrands survey, that’s two ranks above Microsoft and eight above Apple. In honour of this remarkable achievement, we’re running an article series looking at how a mechanical watch brand became a global superpower.
From the get-go, Rolex carved out a solid reputation with a string of watchmaking breakthroughs. Its prodigious timeline of innovations maps a number of turning points in horology, such as making the first wristwatch to earn chronometer certification, in 1908; or the first waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster, in 1926; and the first wristwatch with an automatically-changing date on the dial, the Datejust, in 1945. But phenomenal record aside, it was founder Hans Wilsdorf’s understanding of product placement, as needle-sharp as the tips of his handlebar moustache, which fixed Rolex amongst the branding gods.
Wilsdorf had a keen eye for genuine courage and leadership, acutely pinpointing the 24-carat icons, and making sure to stamp his insignia on their wrists. From Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Datejust to Martin Luther King’s Day Date, from Marlon Brando’s GMT Master to Paul Newman’s Daytona, from Fidel Castro’s GMT Master to Che Guevara’s Submariner, Wilsdorf associated his company with the most influential characters of the 20th century. These audacious types were generation-shapers whose values and, more importantly for Rolex, styles, caught on like wildfire. With these figures leading the charge, Rolex became an emblem of triumph and the essence of cool.
In the 1969 film “Winning” Hollywood idol Paul Newman wears a Daytona, that year’s model is now a Rolex collector’s jewel in the crown; in 2013, at auction at Christie's in Geneva, one sold for a staggering $1.1 million US dollars.
Beyond the Hollywood heroes and international big guns, Wilsdorf sought out sporting daredevils and military personnel. As Rolex watches, primarily sports watches, were built to withstand the most severe conditions, they were ideal for adventure sports and a combat environment. He gifted an Oyster to Mercedes Gleitze in 1927 for her swim across the English Channel, and gave Explorers to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for their 1953 summit attempt of Mount Everest. During WWII, when Wilsdorf heard that the Rolexes of captured soldiers—particularly popular amongst the officer class and Air Force pilots—were being confiscated by POW camp guards, he came up with the idea of replacing them, and even offered Rolexes to any officer in a POW camp, insisting they didn’t need to pay until the war was over.
When Hans Wilsdorf passed away in 1960 he had successfully cemented Rolex as a global superbrand, and had etched his vision of leadership firmly into the conscience of his empire. The allegory of Rolex as a symbol of prosperity was now so complete that the watches were a sure-fire investment. The stage was set. The succeeding generations of Rolex command couldn’t have asked for a better footing.
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