Rolex, or Montres Rolex SA in full, is a global brand of luxury watches that many would recognize. The company has cemented itself as a premium option for reliable, durable and aesthetically exquisite timepieces offering superior performance and value. Whether you are in the market for a new Rolex or scouting a collector’s timepiece, understanding the rich history of Rolex and its watches is invaluable.
For those looking for Rolex watches in the Northern Virginia area, The Vault Jewelry and Loan offers a range of high-end watch brands, including Rolex. There are several benefits to buying designer brands from The Vault, including the chance to experience and share in the history of Rolex watches.
Read on to discover more about Rolex watch history — including the origins, splendor and lasting legacy.
Rolex Watch Origins
The founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, started the initial company in 1905 when the German-born 24-year-old relocated to London and partnered with Alfred Davis, his brother-in-law. The two established a company, Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd., that created and sold watches using imported parts and supplies from Switzerland. They registered Rolex as a trademark in 1908.
Hans Wilsdorf wanted a name for the company that was short, elegant and sounded exquisite in any language. Wilsdorf made many attempts to formulate a name and tried almost every conceivable letter combination before “Rolex” came to him while traveling in London aboard the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus. Reportedly, a genie whispered “Rolex” into his ear that morning, and to this day, the name stands.
Apart from the political and economic state of the world at the time, Wilsdorf and Davis took a significant risk, betting on the success of their wristwatch-making business. At the time, men predominantly favored pocket watches. Thankfully, six years after Wilsdorf and Davis registered the Rolex name as a trademark, the British government approved their first Rolex timepiece for its accuracy and robustness. Moreover, two years later, the rating office in Bienne, Switzerland, awarded them the First Class Chronometer in 1910 — the first time a wristwatch received this certification.
The following years saw Rolex rebranded as Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. in 1915. Then Montres Rolex SA in 1920, after they relocated the company from England to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1919. The move was to avoid extensive post-war taxes on luxury goods and the high export duties on gold and silver. The five-spoked crown became the company’s illustrious emblem in 1925 and the coronet remains a symbol of wealth and status.
Rolex Watches Through the Years
Rolex offers a vast range of watches with various applications, from deep-sea diving to high-altitude exploring and beyond. You might wonder how to spot a high-quality watch, but with genuine Rolexes, it is never a question. Discover the timeless history of Rolex watches.
Rolex COMEX History
The COMEX Rolex history begins with COMEX — the Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise — created in 1962 by Henri-Germain Delauze in Marseilles, France. It rapidly became a pioneer in industrial deep-sea diving and was particularly famous for its global developments in the gas and oil industry. Finally, a partnership and long-term collaboration formed in the 1970s between COMEX and Rolex.
There were specific differences between the COMEX watches worn by the divers and those intended for the public. The first COMEX models, notably the Submariner 5514, had a highly discreet marking on the back of the case. The initial versions also carried dial indexes infused with Tritium and the last series had dial indexes circled with LumiNova which is safer than previous luminous materials.
There are two distinct categories of the Rolex COMEX. The first is the COMEX Submariner, reference numbers 5513, 5514, 16610 and 16800. The history of Rolex Submariner started in the 1970s and ended in 1997. The 5513 and 5514 were designed to release excessive helium pressure during decompression during diving. The other is the COMEX Sea-Dweller, which debuted in 1977 and Rolex supplied the last COMEX Sea-Dweller to COMEX in 1997. The offering included references 1665, 16600 and 16660.
Rolex Explorer History
The Rolex Explorer was launched in 1953 and developed to supply mountaineers and explorers with a highly robust and durable watch that could withstand harsh mountain and outdoor conditions. The Explorer could withstand temperatures between minus 4 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit while withholding its integrity.
It is rumored that the first Explorer was designed for Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay when they embarked on the expedition to summit Mount Everest. However, the journey was equipped with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Precision watches, known as Pre-Explorers, reference 6150. The initial Explorer I, released in 1953, bore the signature 3-6-9 dial with the Mercedes hands and reference number 6350 and instantly became a popular choice for adventurers. Following its release, two more models followed in 1955 and 1959, reference 6610 and 1016.
Then, in 1971, Rolex expanded the Explorer family tree by releasing the Explorer II with its steel 24-hour bezel and a brightly colored 24-hour dedicated hand, with the reference 1655. In 1989, the history of Rolex Explorer II continued with the following Rolex Explorer II, reference 14270, under development, while Rolex announced the discontinuation of the Explorer I. The Rolex Explorer 2 history continued with the Explorer II ref. 216570 and it was replaced by reference 226570, released in 2021.
Rolex Thunderbird History
The Rolex Thunderbird was released in 1953 and is also known as the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph. The first Rolex Turn-O-Graph, reference 6202, featured a rotating bezel and a solid Oyster bracelet. The name Turn-O-Graph refers to a chronograph, a timepiece offering stopwatch functionality.
Enter the story of the United States Air Force, born in 1947, following the Second World War. A mere six years later, the Air Force developed an elite team known as the Thunderbirds to display the Air Force’s airpower to the public. In the late 1950s, the Air Force requested Rolex supply them with Rolex Turn-O-Graph watches as they possessed the practical bezel that allowed the pilot to record elapsed time.
In 1956, Rolex developed a unique range of the Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph that was 18-karat gold and worn by the Thunderbirds — thus giving it the name. Rolex discontinued the original Thunderbird, reference 6609, in 1959 and replaced it with model 1625. The 6609 is known as the true Thunderbird as the model 1625, which ran until 1977, used a different movement caliber, hands and bezel and came in two variants.
Rolex Milgauss History
The Milgauss was first introduced in 1956 with reference numbers 6543 and 6541. The watch was designed to withstand magnetic fields of up to 1,000 gauss and was geared to a slightly different market. This made the watches appropriate for the scientific community, especially those working around electromagnetic fields. Another unique feature for the Milgauss was the lightning-bolt second hand, introduced initially in the 6541 model.
The Rolex Milgauss could resist magnetic interference as it had a protective casing of ferromagnetic alloys protecting the movement. The watch soon became renowned as it was worn by European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) scientists in Geneva.
The Milgauss was discontinued in 1988 after only going through two different models, the 6541 and the 1019. However, nearly 20 years later, Rolex decided to bring back the Milgauss with model number 116400. The revived Milgauss featured a bright orange color to the signature lightning bolt second hand and dial elements, including luminescent materials. The Milgauss took its final bow in 2023.
Rolex Air-King History
The Rolex Air-King history began when Rolex introduced this watch in 1945, at the end of World War II, as a tribute to the British Royal Air Force pilots, who had previously worn Oyster watches during the war. Interestingly, these watches, which joined the ranks of other notable Rolexes such as the Air-Tiger, Air-Giant and Air-Lion, were not initially automatic. Instead, the Air-King model 4925, followed a year later by the 4499, was hand wound and ran on the Caliber 10.5 movement.
It was only in 1953 that the Rolex Air-King reference 6552 was released with a self-winding movement. The Air-King had a lengthy continuous production spanning almost 70 years and as expected, the models changed drastically over that time. It went from a more straightforward and restrained design to a rather dynamic and bold model number 116900, which came out in 2016 after the Air-King was initially discontinued in 2014 and then brought back.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual History
The original Oyster was launched in 1926 as a waterproof watch — however, Rolex only patented a self-winding mechanism in 1931, when Perpetual was born. Finally, in 1945, Oyster Perpetual was released as a combination. However, the initial mechanism in the first Oyster Perpetual model was the Hunter movement, created by Aegler, a watch movement maker. The movement needed a deeper caseback — earning it the name bubbleback.
The Oyster Perpetual enjoyed continuous production from its inception. It saw a range of models, including the 1030 and 645. The Oyster Perpetual also included the No Date model, starting with reference 1002 in 1959 and was available in various materials, including gold and stainless steel. In 1957, Rolex introduced the Oyster Perpetual Lady-Datejust, available in multiple calibers until its production ended in 1998.
Rolex Yacht-Master History
Rolex designed the Yacht-Master with skippers and navigators in mind specifically. The original Yacht-Master resembled early Daytona models but followed the nautical themes first seen in the Rolex Submariner. The Yacht-Master, reference 16628, was introduced in 1992 and came in 18-karat yellow gold. The watch was water-resistant to 100 meters or 320 feet.
In 1994, Rolex brought out the smaller lady’s model, reference 69628 and they also unveiled a mid-sized version, model 68628. Two years later, Rolex expanded the mid-size and lady’s range by offering the Yacht-Master in two-tone. A year later, in 1997, Rolex released the Yacht-Master, available in platinum and stainless steel. Then, in 2007, Rolex released an exciting addition to the Rolex Yacht-Master history — the Yacht-Master II regatta chronograph watch.
The new Rolex Yacht-Master II was groundbreaking and the world’s first to offer a programmable countdown that used mechanical memory. Later, in 2015, Rolex launched the Yacht-Master — Oysterflex — with 18-karat Everose gold, and it was the first Rolex to feature a rubberized bracelet. Rolex offered the Yacht-Master with case sizes 37mm, 40mm and 42mm until the piece was discontinued in 2021.
Rolex GMT Master II History
The GMT-Master was officially presented in 1955 and was the predecessor of the Rolex GMT-Master II, which came out in 1983 and is a luxury travel watch. The first GMT-Master II, reference 16760, was produced for only five years. A caliber 3085 movement powered the timepiece, an ingenious travel watch allowing the wearer to read different time zones.
Distinct design elements for the GMT-Master II include a sapphire crystal, an independently adjustable GMT hand and from 2007 onward, Rolex added a scratch-resistant ceramic bezel insert. The watch also offered immense accuracy and an increased power reserve of 70 hours. This was all thanks to the continuous improvement of in-house movements that led to the caliber 3285, which possessed the patented Chronergy escapement by Rolex.
The GMT-Master II also offered aesthetic versatility across its models, including gold, stainless steel and two-tone combinations.
Rolex Daytona History
The Rolex Daytona watch offered race drivers a convenient tool to measure elapsed time and then be able to calculate average speed. The Daytona is a mechanical chronograph initially manufactured in 1963, but it wasn’t until 1965 that the Daytona name appeared on the dial. It then went through two more generations, first in 1988 and then in 2000.
The first generation, reference 6239, included a unique and “exotic dial” that was initially undesirable. However, thanks to Paul Newman, the famed actor who pursued a racing career, the watches became more desirable and valuable. The strange dial and the actor’s influence ultimately earned the watch the name Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona. In 2017, his Rolex “Paul Newman” sold for over $17 million at Phillips auction house.
The main Achilles heel of the Rolex Daytona was that it was hand-wound. Thankfully, this changed in 1988 when they released the second series, reference 16520, which was cosmetically similar but self-winding. However, as the movement was primarily from Zenith El Primero, the watch earned the name “Zenith Daytona” to distinguish it from the next generation. In 2000, Rolex released reference 116520, fitted with a genuine in-house movement.
Rolex’s Lasting Impact
With over a century of experience in watchmaking innovation and brand establishment, Rolex universally represents luxury and elegance. The watches have become coveted by collectors and enthusiasts for various reasons, including their status symbol. The popularity and sales of Rolex watches have remained strong over the years, as they are still considered among the world’s best. According to Forbes, Rolex is the leading name in luxury watches, with a tremendous legacy and rich history that is still prevalent today.
The company ensures its timepieces are sought after by frequently updating existing models and releasing new ones. In addition, they understand the power of demand and exclusivity. Apart from being historically relevant, Rolex also has a significant pop culture presence thanks to the popularity of their watches among celebrities, influential figures and famous iconic characters such as James Bond.
The watches are aesthetically pleasing and offer value to the wearer in several ways, including their precision and dependability, high-quality materials, timeless and stylish designs, unique features and innovation. Additionally, most Rolex watches appreciate rather well over time.
Investing in a preowned Rolex watch from a reputable high-end pawn shop is typically a more affordable means of experiencing the luxury brand and a way to invest in a Rolex.
Browse Our Selection of Rolex Watches at the Vault Jewelry and Loan
Looking for a preowned Rolex watch in Virginia? The Vault Jewelry and Loan is your best option. We buy and sell high-end brands and jewelry items, including some of the most popular Rolex models. Visit any of our stores in northern Virginia to find a high-quality, durable and stylish Rolex watch at an affordable price.
Come by today to see our selection or complete our contact form to enquire about our available Rolex watches.