The Birth of Rolex

“He could not just wear a watch. It had to be a Rolex.” This view, espoused by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale, is shared by many who have donned the classic timepiece. While many watch and jewelry brands have come and gone, Rolex has, over the past century, proven itself a classic for its elegance, reliability, and durability. The brand dates to 1905, when Hans Wilsdorf, just 24 years old at the time, began envisioning a clock that could be worn on the wrist and established a company in London that distributed timepieces. While this concept of a wristwatch did exist at the time, it lacked the precision that Wilsdorf sought. The desire for a wristwatch that was both accurate and aesthetically luxurious ultimately resulted in the birth of Rolex. “We want to be the first in the field and Rolex should be seen as the one and only—the best,” said Wilsdorf of the newly launched brand. And this aspiration quickly became a reality.

Rolex’s Split Seconds Chronograph model.

In 1914, Kew Observatory in Great Britain recognized a Rolex watch with a class A certificate for quality, an award that had in the past only been granted to marine chronometers. Since this distinction of excellence, the brand has achieved many breakthroughs, including the creation of the first waterproof wristwatch and the first diver’s watch.

Hans Wilsdorf supervising in the workshop, circa 1940.

Now the most collected watch label in the world, Rolex has come to symbolize power, maturity, and success. Specializing in luxury coffee-table tomes, Assouline recently published Rolex: The Impossible Collection, featuring the brand’s rarest and most sought-after pieces ever made, selected by Fabienne Reybaud, a jewelry and watch editor for France’s Le Figaro. An expert in the field, Reybaud worked with Assouline to identify 87 models of distinction, including the Cosmograph Daytona (Ref. 6239) featured on the book’s cover. The Daytona model is perhaps most recognizable for having been worn by the late Paul Newman, and is often referred to as the “Paul Newman Rolex.” A Daytona model worn by Newman recently made headlines in 2017, after Phillips Auction sold the piece to an anonymous buyer for a record-breaking $17.8 million—truly displaying the model’s incomparable value.

The cover of Assouline’s new Rolex: The Impossible Collection.

Assouline’s book also showcases Rolex’s first-ever model, the Oyster Perpetual Explorer, which was worn by Sir Edmund Hillary as he summited Mount Everest. Also featured is the coveted Submariner model worn by George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the James Bond series, among many other tokens that have made the brand what is it today.

Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master model.