Monday, December 01, 2008

The History Of The Rolex Oyster...


This is a very important story. The mechanical wristwatch changed everything and in many ways it was the first computer that anybody could own.

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual was the first of a long line of timeless watches from the great Hans Wilsdorf and continues to be one of the most popular models to date. However, no one would have imagined how iconic the Rolex Oyster would become when it was realized over a century ago.

I would like to thank Rolex historian and author, John Brozek. John Brozek is the author of the book, The Rolex Report. John helped me considerably with putting together this story and I could not have done it without him. I must admit that I find John Brozek's passion for Rolex and its profound history to be intoxicating and refreshing. Thank you John!!!

Last, but not least, I would like to thank Rolex historian and author, James Dowling. James Dowling's book, The Best Of Time has been a superb source of knowledge and I have probably learned more about Rolex history from James Dowling than any other person. As time goes by, and as I learn more about the absolutely fascinating history of Rolex, I continue to appreciate James Dowlings significant contribution that much more. James, thank you very, very much!!!

The Oyster & The Mermaid
The History Of The Rolex Oyster

The story of the Rolex Oyster is really the story of the foundation of Rolex. Rolex was founded by Hans Wilsdorf 100 years ago in London England. Rolex History can accurately be divided into two distinct timeframes. 

The first timeframe is the Hans Wilsdorf era which began in 1905 and went until Hans Wilsdorf passed away in 1960. The second timeframe has been the Hieniger era which began in 1963 when Andre Heiniger became the director of Rolex. Years later, Andre's son, Patrick Heiniger took over as the director or C.E.O. in 1992 and ran it until last week.

This story, about the history of the Rolex Oyster only deals with the first quarter of Rolex history, and the star of this show is the young Hans Wilsdorf as pictured below.

Founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf

In order to tell this story properly, we must begin at the beginning–The beginning of Time. The time before time. In order to truly understand Rolex history, we must first examine the social construct of time. We must seek to understand its true meaning and we can only do so by starting at the beginning.

What is time? Why is it significant, or is it? Are we slaves to time? What first caused man to attempt to measure time? In my personal opinion it all boils down to synchronicity. Let me be specific. When people or an entity are in sync they achieve synergy. Synergy has in many ways marked the upward and downward surges of mankind.

Mankind's first successful attempt at tracking time, many thousands of years ago, did not use a watch, but a lunar calendar to track the seasons. The Egyptians created the sun-dial for tracking the hours of the day when the sun was visible. 

The ancient Sumarian's & Babylonian's were the first to study and contemplate the existence of measurable time by observing the workings of the heavens' and it was their revelations that were passed along to the ancient Greek's that bore the understanding of time.

Prior to that, the Greeks based all their truth on myth, superstition and legend, but with the new age of science came a newfound desire to separate the fact from the fiction–Science and reason were born.

Mathematics, which is the science of logic was also born, and many long held assumptions about how the universe worked were called into question. 

Aristostenes was a Greek philosopher who conducted one of the first scientific experiments to determine if the earth was truly round or flat, and from this experiment came a profound understanding of how time actually worked.

In Europe the great cathedral's were the first to have clocks that would allow passers-by to tell the time. Then the development of the pocket-watch changed everything with its introduction several hundred years ago. For the first time, two men could accurately synchronize their actions with a device they carried in their vest. The pocket-watch changed everything.

When Hans Wilsdorf started his first watch company in London in 1905 with his brother-in-law it was named Wilsdorf and Davis. At the time, pocket-watches were everywhere and wrist-watches were only worn by ladies. The first wrist watches were simply pocket watches with wire lugs soldered onto the pocket-watch case.

All pocket watches had the same basic snap-back case construction for hundreds of years and this created a challenge in humid, tropical environments. The challenge was that the dust and moisture and perspiration could penetrate the watch case and corrode the watch from the inside.

The following four images are from James Dowling & Jeff Hess' book The Best Of Time and they help illustrate the evolution of the watch to make it waterproof.

The Snap-Back Case

This first image is a snap-back Rebberg Rolex watch from 1914. Essentially it is a pocketwatch on a leather strap. 

If you look closely at the image above, you notice the watch has a hinge on the left side of the case. If you flip the watch around onto its face (as seen below) you notice that if you open the rear door it exposes the movement. (Note: the snap-back door on the photo below is not in sharp focus, but it is on the left edge of the photo sitting upright perpendicular to the case). The challenge is there is no seal or gasket to stop dust, perspiration, water or humidity from entering the case.

The Hermetically-Sealed Case

The next Rolex pictured below is called a Hermetic watch and it was made in 1924. This new style of watch completely protected the entire movement and notice that when it is sealed the watch winding crown is hidden inside the watch. 

Think of a Hermetically sealed watch as being like a jar lid screwed on a jar. Once the lid is screwed into place, it forms an impervious barrier. No liquid can get in our out of the jar when the lid is securely screwed into place.

This was revolutionary at the time because it consited of two pieces. Basically you would spin the threaded cap off the front of the watch (think jar lid). The challenge was that in order to change the time or wind the watch you had to twist off the top every time and then twist it back on afterward. Even though it worked, this design was short lived because it was a bit like having the on-off switch for the windshield wipers in the glove compartment of your car.

Notice also the face of the cap has a machined or fluted edge to make it easy to grip. Another challenge was that over time the fluted bezel would wear down so if you used it for a long time, eventually you would no longer be able to grip the face to twist it off. 

This machined edge or fluted bezel is the genesis for the fluted bezels on modern Rolex watches including the Day-Date and Datejust.

Note the wire lugs are soldered to the case, so the only way to replace the leather strap was to cut off the old one and sew on the new one.

The Rolex Oyster Case

This is where the Rolex Oyster comes into play. Understand that in 1926 the invention of a waterproof watch was a HUGE innovation. Rolex basically developed a new watch case that Hans Wilsdorf dubbed The Oyster.  The oyster consisted of a screw-in front and back as seen on Mercedes Glietze' Rolex below.

The original Rolex Oyster was revolutionary because it not only had a screw-off front and back, but it also had a winding crown that also screwed down like a hatch on a submarine, thus making it impervious to dust, water and perspiration.

The Mermaid

Hans Wilsdorf was not a watchmaker nor was he Swiss. He was born in Bavaria, which is part of Germany today. Hans really was, more than anything, a superb brand architect. Rolex had created an amazing new innovation, but it needed a way to communicate this innovation to the watch buying public.

On October 7, 1927 a British woman named Mercedes Gleitze who had been working as a bilingual secretary in Westminster became the first Englishwoman to swim the English channel from France to England as well as the twelfth swimmer to achieve the feat. Mercedes was the third woman to cross the channel after two American women had successfully swam the channel before Mercedes, but the fact that a Englishwoman swam the channel was a very big deal. 

Mercedes had trained to be a long distance swimmer in the River Thames. In 1923 she set the British women's record for Thames swimming in 10 hours and 45 minutes.

Swimming the English Channel was not an easy feat for Mercedes. Mercedes tried unsuccessfully seven times prior and finally on her eighth attempt she finally made it across in 15 hours and 15 minutes. 

Mercedes Glietze, First English Woman To Swim The English Channel

At 2:55 a.m. on October 7, 1927, Mercedes Glietze left Gris Nez, France and swam out into the English channel which was shrouded in thick fog. Mercedes experienced many challenges on her swim including almost being run over by ships, not to mention the cold water that never rose above 60 degrees.

At 6:10 p.m. Mercedes arrived on the English coast between South Foreland and St. Magret's Bay. As she came out of the water she murmured the words, "Thank God, I am conscious!" and then she collapsed into the arms of her trainer, Mr. G. H. Allan.

Mercedes remained unconscious for two hours. After she regained consciousness, Mercedes was interviewed by the London Times and she mentioned that for two hours she had been enduring terrific pain in her limbs from the severely cold water.
High Drama

Four short days after Mercedes Glietze became the first Englishwoman to successfully swim the English channel, a strange thing occurred. Another British woman named Dr. Dorothy Cochran Logan who went by the name of Miss Mona McLennan (for swimming purposes) claimed to have swam the channel in a record breaking time of 13 hours and 10 minutes.

Apparently, the British people were skeptical about Dr. Dorothy Cochran's new record and it turned out that she admitted she lied and did not swim the entire channel. Then people turned to Mercedes Gleitze and accused her of doing the same thing. 

Mercedes was very upset by the false allegations and announced she would prove that she had crossed the channel by doing it again only 14 days later. This of course, caused a big media stir and Mercedes was in the limelight.

Hans Wilsdorf got wind of this interesting news and met with Mercedes and offered her a Rolex Oyster watch to wear on her Vindication Swim. That watch is pictured three photographs up the page.

The Vindication Swim

According to an article from the London Times dated October 21, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze wore her Rolex Oyster around her neck on a band. In the Photo below we see Mercedes entering the chilly water. As you can also see there were a number of onlookers as Mercedes entered the water at 4:21 a.m. If you look closely you can see the watch dangling on a necklace from her neck.

Mercedes got off to a good start. As you can see from the photo below, she was in good spirit and smiling. 

The water was ice cold and on average 6 degrees colder than on her last swim just two weeks prior. Mercedes swan breaststroke and sidestroke only.

At 1 p.m. Mercedes was very cold and exhausted. She was so exhausted, she was having a hard time staying alert.  As her trainer was trying to encourage her, Mercedes responded by saying, "Why don't you let me sleep?"

At 2 p.m. her trainer tried to rouse her sharply and she responded by saying "Let me sleep, please!" Her trainer asked if she wanted to give up and she said no. Mercedes started falling asleep while she was swimming. She would wake up every few seconds and then seem to fall back asleep. She was now about 7 miles from the English coast, but she was making very little progress.

At 2:25 p.m., a ladder was placed at the stern of the small boat that was following  her. When she saw the ladder, she deliberately swam away from it. At 2:45 she was completely out of energy and allowed herself to be hoisted into the boat by her trainer.

According to the London Times "She had swum with remarkable endurance under very difficult conditions. The temperature of the water varied from 53 to 58 degrees, as compared to 60 degrees on October 7, when she made her successful swim."

Mercedes Gleitze may not have swam all the way across the English channel the second time and she may have been forgotten in history, but Hans Wilsdorf had better plans for her. Essentially, Hans Wilsdorf helped turn Mercedes into a sports celebrity that is well know to this day in the Rolex world. Mercedes Gleitze is picture below in the Rolex ad in the bottom left hand corner.

Rolex leveraged Mercedes celebrity for all that is was worth as can be seen in this French Rolex ad from 1930. I think the marketing message this ad gave modern women was that if you wore a Rolex Oyster, you could achieve anything.

Rolex began giving their authorized dealers fish tanks to put in their windows to show-off the waterproofness of their watches.

Rolex published the innovative ad below that shows a woman with her watch in a fishtank to illustrate the waterproofness of their watches. Just a few years earlier, this would have been unheard of.

Mercedes Gleitze is pictured below, and she went on to get married and have a family

The Mother of Rolex Endorsement

Mercedes Gleitze was was probably the first celebrity female athlete in the U.K., or certainly one of them. It is also profound to realize she was probably the first celebrity in history to endorse the Rolex brand.

If you stop and think about it for a moment, it is kind interesting that the first celebrity to endorse Rolex was a woman and not a man. Mercedes Gleitze belongs to the ages as does Hans Wilsdorf, but I imagine their story will continue to inspire people for generations to come. 

For some reason, I find the photo below of Mercedes Gleitze and all the other people  at the train station to be mesmerizing. It almost seems like the people in the photo are watching you watch them from way back in history–neat.

Rolex being the first to bring waterproof watches to the market was a huge technological achievement for Hans Wilsdorf and Rolex. 

The next major step would be to perfect the perpetual movement, meaning a watch that relied on an internal rotor that would wind the watch by deriving energy from wrist movement, thus keeping the watch perpetually wound. This was achieved by Rolex in 1935.

Hans Wilsdorf was a brilliant brand architect and had a tremendous cunning for strategic design and marketing. He passed away in 1960 and the torch was passed to the Heiniger's.

Watch Blog Comment...

Cary Grant Was The Real James Bond

James Buffman sent in this great email located below my comment and I want to share it with you:

Thanks for sending in your email James!!! I must admit I was very hesitant to add the Cary Grant Was The Real James Bond section and I kept going back and forth on whether to add it and then whether or not to break up the story into two sections. In retrospect, I am very happy I added it because I think it really puts things into a great historical perspective. Also, in my opinion, Cary Grant is probably the greatest actor that ever lived.

As far as the James Bond article is concerned, I am probably only about halfway done with it. I have much more fascinating insight coming up, so stay tuned!!!

By the way James, I find your story to be very moving and cool. Getting compliments like this is really the reason I publish Jake's Rolex Watch Blog. Thanks for sharing!!!

Happy holidays to you,  your son and the rest of your family,


Hi Jake,

Sorry about using the familiar term but I spend so much time on your blog I feel I know you.


Anyway; A quick comment, my 8 year old son has taken an interest in James Bond, over the last month he has watched all of the movies in order up to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".


I was browsing your site on Friday when he leans in, points to Cary Grant, and asks me why James Bond is on my watch site, an interesting and insightful comment given your caption about the Cary Grant/James Bond connection.


Keep up the great work and best regards of the season.


Rolex Macro Shot of the Day: A Father's Rolex...

A Father's Vibrant Rolex

Charles Cabral Jr., sent in this email with the photo of his father's Rolex:

Dear Jake,

Thank you for your blog, I read it on a daily basis.  

I wanted to share a picture I recently took of the inside of my fathers watch (which I had never seen before).  It is a 1973 Rolex Date.  He wore it on a daily basis for all its life until he passed it on to me some time ago.  The funny thing is, its more accurate than my new Sea Dweller!  

Thanks again,


P.S. By the way, Charles was the first to sign up for a monthly subscription donation and he also made a kind separate one-time donation to Jake's Rolex Watch Blog.

Thank you very much Charles and thanks for sending in the great macro shot of your father's Rolex Date movement. It is a fascinating shot!!!