The company was founded in 1878 by Hans Wilsdorf. He began to specialise in the lever escapement in 1905, Rolex was registered in 1908. In 1910 Rolex was the first official Bulletin de Marche for the wrist chronometer and again in 1914, the first Bulletin de Classe for a wristwatch.
The Rolex Oyster, the first waterproof watch was patented in 1926, followed by the perpetual winding movement, the fore-runner of the modern self-wind watches.
Hans Wilsdorf strived to produce a waterproof watch, the Oyster was a product of persistence and precise development.
Originally cases were bought in, consisting of 3 parts, case body, back and bezel. The back and bezel were hinged to the body and would snap shut. The hinges however stopped the case from being waterproof due the gap. In 1914 W&D produced a watch with a threaded bezel and back, made by Dennison after 1916. Dennison, already reknown case makers were also milling the edges of the back and bezel, thus enabling the case to be opened without instruments. This was adopted by Rolex and is still a key feature of the Oyster.
In Switzerland Francis Baumgartner was making waterproof cases. In the early 1920s he patented the Borgel case. This had 2 parts where the movement was held in place by the bezel. The Borgel case was very popular, particularly with Longines and Omega. At this time Rolex were selling many watches to the markets if India and East Asia. The wristwatch had become more popular as a timekeeper as waistcoats were seldom worn, thus having no-where to wear a pocket watch. There was, however a need to combat the problem of the humidity.
The Hermetic case by Baumgartner was a solution. The movement and dial were in a simple 3 piece case and then enclosed in a second case consisting of 2 parts, a back and a bezel. This was patented by Wilsdorf in 1923. These new style of watches were displayed in aquariums in shop windows. However the case had to opened to wind the watch.
In 1924 Baumgartner produced a case with a winding stem which projected through the outer case. This was protected by a double gasket, effectively making the watch moisture proof.
In 1925 Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret (case makers) filed a patent for a waterproof winding stem and button. Wilsdorf negotiated the rights to the patent obviously seeing the importance of it.
There were 7 subsequent patents for the improvements made to the crown in the following 10 years.
The ‘Oyster’ name was registered in 1926, an inspiration of Wilsdorf when he struggled to open an oyster at dinner.
In 1929 the Rolex Prince was produced.
The Datejust was created in 1945, a waterproof, perpetual chronometer with a date aperture. In 1953 the Submariner was created. 1954 saw the creation of the Rolex GMT-Master, made for pilots originally. This was followed by the Day-Date which indicates the day of the week and the date. In 1971 the Rolex Oyster Sea Dweller was created, guarenteed waterproof to 610m. It was the first diving watch to have a helium valve.
Rolex has become the biggest chronometer producer in Switzerland. Rolex is probably the most well known watch brand worldwide.