Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex And The Quest for Chronometric Precision

It’s not by chance that the name Rolex is closely associated with precision. Hans Wilsdorf intended it that way. Founding the Rolex company at the turn of the 20th century, he embarked on a quest to perfect the wristwatch. This was a tall order to say the least. At the time, the wristwatch (still very much in its infancy) was considered by many to be nothing more than a passing fancy. Wilsdorf was the first to demonstrate that a small watch could rival the best timekeepers for accuracy.

During an age when pocket watches ruled the day, the feat of miniaturisation was a tall order. The wristlet watch could not compete with the regularity and reliability of the larger movements. Few believed there was any future for the novel timepiece. The early and persistent efforts of Rolex would soon change that view.

Wilsdorf was a visionary and also a very savvy businessman. He recognised the practical advantages, accessible pricing and the increasing demand for variety that only a watch worn on the wrist could offer. He dedicated himself to eliminating the wristwatch’s weaker points. And made the quest for chronometric precision his primary objective. It is no overstatement to say that it was largely thanks to his efforts that the wristwatch gained credibility, becoming the standard timepiece of the 20th century and beyond.

Wilsdorf & Davis

In 1905, Hans Wilsdorf founded a London-based watch firm in partnership with his brother-in-law, Alfred James Davis. Aged just 24, Wilsdorf had already accumulated several years of experience. He had worked for a watch importer/ exporter in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. And then a watchmaking firm in London.

While in Switzerland, he had learnt of a manufacturer which had begun regular production of miniature ebauches. (Rough movements for a small lever escapement calibre.) It roused his interest in the wristlet watch. Intuitively he foresaw the coming of the wristwatch age. In starting his own company, Wilsdorf was intent on marketing the wristwatch worldwide.

The challenge

The consensus of the day, among the public and watchmakers alike, squarely favoured the robust and reliable pocket watch. Much like when mobile phones first appeared, the initial response was one of skepticism. Early wristlet watches were quite fragile and unreliable. Worst of all, they were extremely inaccurate - in excess of +/- several minutes per day (at best).

The small-scale of the mechanism required defied what was thought possible. Most watchmakers agreed that a wristlet that could accurately keep time was a utopian dream. The wristlet watch was seen as little more than a gimmicky trinket to serve as ladies’ jewellery.

Wilsdorf, however, recognised the newfangled object’s potential to replace the pocket watch. And for timepieces to no longer be reserved for the wealthy but become commonplace. To be taken seriously, he understood the wristlet watch needed to be proven as an accurate keeper of time.

Wilsdorf’s strategy

He went to the Swiss manufacturer of little calibres (called Aegler), located in Bienne and placed the largest order for wristlet watches ever made at the time. Despite the prevailing sentiments, the first line (of men’s and ladies’ silver cases on leather straps) sold well. This led to the range being broadened. It also enabled Wilsdorf to enter into business with the Swiss counterpart.

Several times a year, Wilsdorf would travel from London to Bienne. With each trip he brought new and personal ideas, demanding they be realised. He concentrated on the quality of the movements, and this soon morphed into an obsession with chronometric precision. Wilsdorf’s collaboration with the Aegler factory produced hundreds of models. They were launched in British Empire markets (as far away as Australia and New Zealand) and in the Far East.

In 1908, the trade name ‘Rolex’ was registered and began to appear on the dials. According to Wilsdorf, the made-up word was short but significant, pronounceable in many languages, and easy to remember. Meanwhile, he relentlessly continued his quest. He wanted the wristwatch to achieve an accuracy that could compete with the pocket watch.

In 1910, a Rolex became the first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision. Granted by the Official Watch Rating Centre, in Bienne. This early accomplishment gave Wilsdorf and his team of engineers a real boost. Four years later they finally realised their goal. (What would become the first of many major achievements by Rolex.)

Recognition

On 15 July, 1914, the Kew Observatory awarded a Rolex wristwatch a Class ‘A’ precision certificate. A distinction that until then had only been merited by (large) marine chronometers. The British observatory was one of the most prominent chronometer testing institutions. It was responsible for approving all Royal Navy clocks used to determine a ship’s position at sea.

Applicants were submitted to a 45-day long test. Five different positions, at three different temperatures (ice-cold, oven-hot, and ambient) were checked. The gold Rolex not only passed but scored additional marks for superior merit. It recorded an average rate of +1 second per day.

It was the moment Wilsdorf had been waiting for. A wristlet watch had met the most stringent testing criteria in the world. With the Kew Observatory certificate, the wristwatch gained legitimacy. The historical event was instrumental in changing the destiny of the modern watch. The proof of performance would contribute to a significant rise in popularity for the new technology.

Rolex = precision

From that day onwards, Rolex became synonymous with precision. In 1919, Wilsdorf moved all operations to Switzerland. The following year he founded Montres Rolex S.A. in Geneva. The company’s offices based in Bienne served as the central checking point for all Rolex wristwatches destined for export. At the Geneva headquarters, movements were submitted to a second round of careful checks. Chronometer certification became the brand’s signature.

Wilsdorf would go on to make several more significant contributions to watchmaking. But he had ‘broken the camel's back’ as far as taking the wristwatch mainstream. His pioneering quest placed Rolex far out ahead of other watchmakers who began to manufacture wristwatches. (By 1947, Rolex was responsible for over 80 percent of the certified chronometers produced by the Swiss watchmaking industry. In the early 1950s that figure rose to 90 percent.)

Rolex today

Rolex watches today embody the legacy of many of Hans Wilsdorf’s innovations. (Including the Oyster case and Perpetual self-winding movement.) But first and foremost, every Rolex manufactured is a certified Swiss chronometer. Something taken almost for granted now.

Each movement is still tested twice. First by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC). And then by Rolex after being cased. Rolex’s criteria for precision are twice as exacting as those of an officially certified chronometer. (Advanced methodologies and equipment have been developed by the company to carry out this final check.)

In summary, you can rest assured that your Rolex is keeping chronometric time, just as Hans Wilsdorf intended it. To explore our full range of Rolex timepieces, please visit us at our Norwich boutique.