Rolex History Timeline | How Rolex Became No. 1

Rolex is probably the world’s most recognizable watch brand. In this blog post, we will explore Rolex’s history and some of their defining moments.

From deepsea diving expeditions, to the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, and to answering the question of how Rolex got its name.

This is one of the world’s most famous and innovative luxury watch brands for a reason. 

If you don’t know why. Then just keep reading to find out all they have achieved since they were founded in 1905. 

Rolex History

Rolex History Timeline

Check out all of Rolex’s major achievements on a handy to use timeline. Dating from 1905 all the way up to the legendary brands most recent milestones.

DateRolex Achievements
1905Rolex was founded by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis in 1905, in London.

However, Hans Wilsdorf was the true visionary force behind the Rolex brand.

He even claimed to come up with the name.
1927Rolex Oyster was the first water resistant watch case that could handle a 10 hour swim in the English Channel. 

Worn by Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the Channel.
1931Perpetual Rotor was the first self-winding mechanism.

It’s now used in modern day automatic watches.
1935Sir Malcolm Campbell became known as the King of Speed

He set a land speed record of 300 miles per hour, while wearing a Rolex watch.
1945The first Rolex Datejust Ref. 4467 was released.

The world’s first self-winding chronometer with a date complication.
1953Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches reached the summit of Mount Everest with Sir John Hunt’s expedition. 

Which included Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay who were the first men to reach the top of Mount Everest. 

Following this the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer was released.
1953The Rolex Submariner Ref.6204 was released.
Which was the world’s first commercially produced dive watch.
1954The Rolex GMT-Master was released, it was in collaboration with Pan-Am and was one of the world’s first GMT watches.
1956The Milgauss was released, which was a watch that could withstand magnetic fields as strong as 1,000 Gauss. 

This was thanks to its special magnetized shield.
1957The Lady-Datejust was released, Rolex’s first women’s chronometer.
1960The Trieste descended into the Mariana Trench with a Rolex attached to the outside, both could withstand a dive of 10,916 meters (37,800 ft).

This is still the world record holder for the deepest dive ever completed.
1960sSean Connery wore the Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538 in four James Bond movies he starred in:

1) Dr. No (1962)
2) From Russia with Love (1963)
3) Goldfinger (1964)
4) Thunderball (1965)

A further three James Bond actors wore a Rolex Submariner in the Bond movies.
1963The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239 was released. 

The perfect tool watch for endurance racing car drivers.
1967The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller was released, a dive watch able to withstand depths of 610 meters (2 000 ft) with a gas escape valve fitted too.
1971The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II, featuring a GMT hand, which was orange. 

This watch is ideal for underground explorers.
1978The Sea-Dweller 4000 was released, and could withstand depths of 4,000 feet.
1985Rolex began to use 904L stainless steel for the manufacturing of their stainless steel watches. 

This metal is difficult to work with but has a superb polish and has higher corrosion resistance.

Rolex began referring to it as Oystersteel in 2018.
1992The Pearlmaster was launched, which was a flashy variation of the Lady-Datejust.
2000Rolex formulated the caliber 4130 in order to make a simpler version of a chronograph movement. 

The Cosmograph Daytona now incorporates just 201 separate components. A reduction of 60%!
2005The Cerachrom Bezel was invented.

A scratch resistant and UV ray resistant bezel.
2007The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master II chronograph was released. 

One of Rolex’s more controversial watches.
2012The Sky-Dweller was released. 

A masterpiece for world travelers, includes an annual calendar and GMT complication.
2012Rolex joined James Cameron on the Deepsea Challenge to complete the deepest solo dive ever, with a Rolex watch completing the dive too. 

They reached 10,908 meters (35,787 ft).
2014This Rolex dive watch has a huge water resistance of 3,900 meters (12,800 ft)
2017The most expensive Rolex ever sold at auction was Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona at Phillips watch auction in New York, in 2017.

Who Founded Rolex?

Rolex was originally founded by Hans Wilsdorf, and Alfred Davis in 1905. However, Hans Wilsdorf was the true visionary of the Rolex watchmaker.

Rolex first specialized in distributing watches and at the time. Pocket watches were popular while wristwatches were seen as a woman’s jewelry pieces.

That all changed with the First World War. When Trench watches became essential for soldiers. Then men on the frontline needed an accurate watch on their wrist, instead of in their pocket.

Watch Commercial in 1918

Hans traveled to Switzerland where he sought to create an accurate watch by sourcing parts from Bienne. This Swiss city was where many famous companies focused on making small but precise watch components.

By 1919, Hans Wilsdorf moved Rolex to Geneva, Switzerland. Where Rolex still has its headquarters today.

That’s why, though Rolex was founded in Britain. Rolex is considered a Swiss watch brand as it grew into the watch giant we know today in Geneva, Switzerland.

How Did Rolex Get Its Name?

The story goes that Hans Wilsdorf was traveling through London, and the name came to him all of a sudden.

“I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.” - Hans Wilsdorf 

Invention Of The Rolex Oyster

In 1926, Rolex produced their first water resistant watch, the Rolex Oyster. 

The Rolex Oyster is a water resistant case which has a screw-down caseback and a screw down crown. These are now essential elements of all modern day dive watches.

To prove the water resistance of this case. Rolex made sure their watch took part in a major event. They had their Rolex Oyster on the wrist of the first British woman to swim the English Channel.

Mercedes Gleitze the first British woman to swim the English Channel in 1927

In 1927, the Rolex Oyster was worn by Mercedes Gleitze who swam across the Channel. The watch continued to function after she reached the shore.

The Rolex Oyster watch was such a sensation because it could withstand 10 hours of swimming, and was still in perfect working order.

Rolex then took out a full page ad, advertising this event and their achievement in the Dailymail.

Daily Mail, 24th of November, in 1927

Since then Rolex have striven to have their watches keep taking part in big publicity events.

Another successful high adrenaline stunt was the Rolex Oyster that was worn on the wrist of one of the first pilots to fly over Mount Everest. That was Sir Douglas Douglas-Hamilton.

Rolex Oyster Commercial in 1933

Rolex Invent The Perpetual Rotor

One of the earliest inventions by Rolex is now a common feature in every automatic watch today. Which was the Perpetual Rotor. This invention was patented by Rolex in 1931.

The first Perpetual rotor was fitted onto the Rolex Oyster Perpetual. 

Rolex’s Perpetual Rotor

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual is still today one of Rolex’s top entry level watches. It’s a simple timepiece, with a time only dial, with no other complications.

Rolex Release The Datejust

Rolex Datejust “Ovettone” Ref. 4467

One of Rolex’s most iconic watches to this day is their Datefust. Released first in 1945, with the reference 4467.

The long title for this watch is the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust. It had, and still has, an automatic movement, using the Perpetual Rotor.

This watch was the first self-winding chronometer that featured a date window in the world. 

Calling it a chronometer just means that this watch has passed extremely rigorous accuracy tests. This watch was certified by the COSC.

Datejust is still a worldwide bestseller for Rolex. It’s an iconic timepiece and immediately recognizable as a Rolex with its fluted bezel and Jubilee bracelet.

Rolex Datejust Oystersteel & Yellow Gold (Source : Rolex)

Lady Datejust & Pearlmaster

Lady Datejust Today (Source : Rolex)

Rolex then released the Lady Datejust later on in 1957. This watch was Rolex’s very first women’s chronometer.

Rolex also then released a Pearlmaster version of the Lady Datejust in 1992. These timepieces are gorgeous and extremely showy. Covered in diamonds, and often made from Everose gold.

Rolex Pearlmaster Datejust (Source : Rolex)

Rolex & Climbing Mount Everest

Rolex is known for their sponsorship of many famous adventures. The company has been a part of some major achievements in the 1950s, and beyond. 

In 1953, the British expedition led by Sir John Hunt to Mount Everest. Were equipped with Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches. 

On the 29th of May, in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest while wearing their Rolex watches.  

Sir Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay in 1953 (Source : NZ History)

Rolex celebrated this event by releasing the Oyster Perpetual Explorer watch to commemorate it all – a beautiful timepiece that any adventurous individual would want to own!

Rolex Explorer Advertisement (Source : Blowers)

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner Ref. 6204

The first Rolex Submariner Ref. 6204 was released in 1953. This was Rolex’s first dive watch that it had ever released.

Plus the Rolex Submariner was the world’s first commercially produced dive watch.

The first Submariner came with a water resistance of 100m. This was helped with the dive watch’s screw-down crown, and also extra thick acrylic crystal.

Rolex Submariner Advertisement 1955

The Rolex Submariner, or simply the Sub, is one of Rolex’s most iconic watches. Rolex is set to celebrate its 70th anniversary of the Submariner in 2023.

James Bond & The Rolex Submariner

Rolex has also been a favorite timepiece of the 007 agent, James Bond. With Bond preferring the Rolex Submariner. This Rolex timepiece appeared on the wrist of four Bond actors.

When Sean Connery played Bond in the first 007 movies. He wore the Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538 for four of the very first Bond films:

  1. Dr. No (1962)
  2. From Russia with Love (1963)
  3. Goldfinger (1964)
  4. Thunderball (1965)

The Rolex Sub is often referred to as the James Bond NATO watch. As the strap used was a nylon striped strap. Which looked like a later NATO strap.

Sean Connery in Goldfinger wearing a Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538

Then George Lazenby was seen with a Rolex Submariner Ref. 5513. In his only Bond movie called On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Released in 1969. 

George Lazenby holding a Rolex Submariner Ref. 5513

Then Roger Moore, who played James Bond from 1973. He wore a Rolex Submariner Ref. 5513 too. This time in two of his Bond movies:

  1. Live and Let Die (1973)
  2. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Roger Moore wearing a Rolex Submariner Ref. 5513 in Live and Let Die

Timothy Dalton was the last Bond to wear a Rolex Sub. He wore a Rolex Submariner Ref. 16610 in the Bond movie called License To Kill. Which was released in 1989.

Licence To Kill (1989) featured a Rolex Sub Ref. 16610 

Unfortunately, James Bond hasn’t worn a Rolex Submariner watch since 1989. Today the Bond movies are dominated by Omega.

Discover all the watches James Bond wore in our ultimate guide of all the watches worn in the 26 Bond movies!

Rolex GMT-Master

Rolex GMT-Master Ref. 6542

The Rolex GMT-Master Ref. 6542 was released in 1954, and designed for pilots because it had an automatic movement with a GMT complication. Which meant you could read the time from two different zones at once. 

Rolex Magazine Advertisements of Rolex GMT-Master (left) and Rolex GMT-Master II (right)

The Rolex GMT-Master came from a collaboration between Pan Am airlines and Rolex. 

The watch also coincided with what historians call ‘The Revolution of Air Travel’. This was when people started taking commercial flights more often. Due to cheaper prices and planes were able to travel longer distances.

This revolutionary GMT watch is still loved by many modern day pilots. The newer Rolex GMT-Master II is hugely popular with world travelers today.

Curious about GMT watches? Then check out our guide to the top 10 FAQs about GMT timepieces.

Rolex Milgauss

Modern Day (2010) Rolex Milgauss Watch

For those of you who are engineers or scientists, the Rolex Milgauss is pretty much your dream watch. 

It was the first watch capable of standing up to the most powerful magnetic fields. As most watches are ruined if they come into contact with magnets.

This timepiece was first released in 1956. The watch is capable of withstanding magnetic fields as strong as 1,000 Gauss thanks to its special magnetized shield that guards against interference from magnetic fields. 

The watch’s magnetic shield protecting the movement was Rolex’s secret.

However, this watch has polarized Rolex fans for years now. Yet, lately it has been gaining popularity and a bit of a cult following among Rolex fans..

That orange bolt of lightning for a minute hand is an extremely cool feature of the Rolex Milgauss watch.

Rolex Milgauss Orange Lightning Bolt Hand

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239

The first Cosmograph Daytona was released in 1963, and was referenced 6239.

This timepiece was made to meet the high demands of racing car drivers. It was made to be their perfect tool for endurance racing.

The Daytona featured a tachymeter bezel. Which is a bezel that could be used for calculating the average speed. Along with a dial that was easy to read due to the contrasting colors.

The Rolex Daytona got its name from the race carrying the same name in Florida. In 1902, cars first raced on the Daytona beach. This was where automobile racing started.

Several famous drivers over the decades have worn Rolex watches. Including Sir Malcolm Campbell of Great Britain who was even wearing his Rolex watch while setting his land speed record, of 300 miles per hour, in 1935.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Advertisement 1970

Yet, the Cosmograph Daytona wasn’t a big success at first. In fact, the opposite is true. 

Stories have been told about how Rolex retailers in the early days of the watch offered them complimentary when buying other watches. 

Part of the reason for this was that other watchmakers had established themselves as experts in making chronographs like Zenith and Breitling. So Rolex found it hard to compete at the time.

Today is another story. Since the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is now legendary.

Rolex chronographs are even grouped today into two categories by watch collectors. They are either Daytonas or Pre-Daytonas.

Rolex Caliber 4130

Rolex Caliber 4130 for the Daytona

In 2000, Rolex released the new simplified chronograph movement. Which Rolex called the caliber 4130. This was built to make the Daytona Chronograph a more streamlined timepiece.

The Cosmograph Daytona today, only incorporates just 201 separate components. This was a reduction of 60% from the old El Primero 4030 caliber it had before.

This was the infamous Daytona chronograph’s first in-house movement. It was a more powerful caliber too, with a new power reserve of 72 hours. Up from 50 hours with the previous caliber.

Most Expensive Rolex Watch Ever Sold At Auction

One of the most expensive watches ever sold at auction was a Rolex Daytona chronograph. Which was owned by the actor Paul Newman.

The Daytona was from 1963, and it went for $17.7 million dollars at the Phillips watch auction in New York, in 2017.

Learn more about this watch, and more of the most expensive watches ever made.

Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona

Rolex Deep Sea Diving 

Rolex has a long history of pushing their watches to the limits. Deep sea diving is one such challenge that Rolex has made sure to be a part of throughout the decades.

The Trieste Deep Sea Special Test

Rolex welcomed the roaring 60s with a new publicity stunt and adventure mission out in the western Pacific Ocean.

Rolex joined the Trieste for the Deep Sea Special Test for its watches in 1960. 

The bathyscaphe called the Trieste, descended into the Mariana Trench with Lieutenant Don Walsh at its helm, accompanied by Jacques Piccard. 

Trieste with a Rolex attached to it, before their descent (Source : Wikipedia)

Rolex attached one of their watches to the outside of this vessel before it went down into the deep. It was to test the watch’s water resistance. 

When the watch reached the surface again after 37,800 feet (10,916 meters), the timepiece was still ticking away perfectly! This was a record breaking dive for the Trieste team, and for Rolex.

The Trieste was the first manned vehicle to reach the bottom of the deepest trench in the world. Making Rolex the first watch to do the same.

You can check out this great story of 1960, in the Rolex produced mini documentary below.

James Cameron Deep Sea Challenge

James Cameron in his Sub on the seabed

Rolex was a part of another journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

This time with explorer and filmmaker James Cameron. In his Deepsea Challenger submersible vehicle, which reached a depth of 35,756ft (10,898m). On the 26th of March in 2012.

The Deepsea Challenge was the first time since the Triste in 1960. That another human has made a trip into the deepest part of the ocean. 

James Cameron didn’t beat the record that Trieste set, however, he now holds the record for the deepest solo dive ever completed.

And Rolex was a part of this deepsea record breaking mission once more. Making Rolex the undisputed record holder for the deepest diving watch in the world.

Rolex Sea-Dweller

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665

Rolex put all their knowledge of water resistance and deepsea diving into their next dive watch. Which was developed in 1967.

It was the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665. This dive watch was made to withstand depths up to 2,000 feet (610 meters). 

This dive timepiece also featured an escape valve that helps ensure your dive watch stays unharmed by bubbles and decompression phases in hyperbolic chambers.

This watch was made for deep sea diving expeditions. As these were ultra water resistant tool watches. This Rolex Sea-Dweller was released to the public in 1971.

Rolex Sea-Dweller 4000

Sea-Dweller 4000 Ref. 116600

The Sea-Dweller 4000 Ref. 116600 was released in 1988. This Rolex Sea-Dweller had a water resistance of 1,220 meters (4 000 ft).

This watch was discontinued in 2008. However, fans seriously missed the Sea-Dweller 4000, so Rolex had it make a comeback in 2014. Which delighted dive watch fanatics worldwide.

Rolex Sea-Dweller DEEPSEA

Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea (Source : Rolex)

The Rolex Sea-Dweller DEEPSEA was released in 2014. This dive watch is a beast, and has a water resistance of 3,900 meters (12,800 ft)!

Many consider this Rolex dive watch to be one of the best dive watches ever released. 

Rolex even states that this is the dive watch that ‘Conquered the Deep’. And with that level of water resistance, we think they might be right.

Rolex Explorer II

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II Ref. 1655

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II Ref. 1655 was released in 1971. When Rolex added the reference 1655 to their Explorer line of watches, it was not as a revised version.

Instead Rolex offered something entirely new in the Explorer II.

The Explorer II was designed for deep-cave explorers who spend long periods of time in the dark. These scientists are known as speleologists.

The watch has a bright lume, and is extremely easy to read. It comes with a bright orange GMT hand too. So that you can keep track of two different time zones. Perfect for explorers away from home for a long time.

Rolex gave their Rolex Explorer II a new updated look in 2021. Which you can see in their advertisement for the timepiece below.

It still features their bright orange GMT hand though. Which we were glad to see.

904L Stainless Steel (a.k.a. Oystersteel)

In 1985, Rolex became one of the first wristwatch manufacturers to utilize 904L stainless steel in their watches. 

Rolex chose this variety because not only does it take ona superb polish compared to other types of steel, but it also provides greater corrosion resistance as well.

This steel is so good that it can even be compared to precious metals.

This steel did come with its own drawbacks. As it does require specialized equipment in order to use it for watchmaking. Making it a very expensive steel to use to produce watches.

Since 2018, Rolex has been calling this material Oystersteel instead. However, it still can be referred to by its real name of 904L.

Cerachrom Bezel

Cerachrom Bezel

The Cerachrom bezel invented by Rolex in 2005 is virtually scratch-proof, non-fading and highly legible. 

Rolex developed the Cerachrom bezel to make sure that their watches retain all of their beauty even in extreme conditions.

The Rolex Cerachrom bezel is made from an extremely hard ceramic material that won’t scratch, and does not change color when exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Rolex Yacht-Master II

Rolex Yacht-Master II (Source : Rolex)

One of Rolex’s most controversial watches is the Rolex Yacht-Master II, which was released in 2007. It was a watch made for anyone who owned a yacht.

It even had a countdown yacht timer, which is a very niche complication. Rolex enjoys bringing out obscure watches for specific, niche purposes, it gives them an edge over their competitors.

Check out the excellent review below of this divisive timepiece. The IDGuy will delve into why this watch is hated so much, and why it might in the end become a cult classic. 

Rolex Sky-Dweller

Rolex Sky-Dweller

In 2012, Rolex introduced the Sky Dweller watch. This watch will help you keep track of the time across the world.

It’s equipped with a GMT complication, along with an annual calendar that you only need to set once a year. This watch is a high-end sports watch for people who are passionate about travel and adventure.

This flashy timepiece even comes in an 18 ct yellow gold version too. Which would set you back over $40,000!

To Sum Up

Rolex is one of the world’s leading luxury watch brands for a reason. Around since 1905, they’ve made a huge impact on the watchmaking world since then.

Now, why not learn more about another leading watch brand from Japan.

Seiko, is one of the world’s top watch brands, especially when it comes to dive timepieces. Check out our guide to some of the best dive watches Seiko has to offer today.