THE WATCH BOOK – ROLEX The Complete Rolex Story By Gisbert L. Brunner (RRP £50. Publisher: teNeues)
Gisbert Brunner is a renowned timepiece collector, expert and journalist who has made wristwatches his speciality – fellow collectors have several of his books on the subject and the latest has recently been published. Rolex aficionados, collectors, owners (or wannabe owners) should certainly add this weighty and luxurious tome to their library… at the very least for the images, particularly of some rare models.
Although 220 pages sounds like a lot of reading – even taking into account all the images – each page is divided into three text columns: German, French and English. This might be a blessing, or a not-getting-your-money’s-worth curse, depending on your viewpoint. Personally I quite liked checking out horological vocab in foreign tongues (elapsed-seconds hand? Achtelsekundenschritten obvs.). However, occasionally and seemingly randomly, several pages are in one language, which means a bit of leafing back and forth in order to check out the relevant images for the story. Is this nit-picking? Ok, maybe.
The author chose to kick-off the book with the history of Rolex by focusing on Hans Wilsdorf, the Bavarian-born businessman who conceived the brand and significantly the name ‘Rolex’. According to Brunner his name was effectively written out of the company’s history (or at least buried) after his death in 1960, coming to light as recently as 2008. His is a fascinating story, the details of which Brunner obtained from friends, family and work colleagues, and re-tells them lovingly.
Initially setting up in London as a wholesaler of watches, Wilsdorf jumped on the emerging wristwatch bandwagon in 1905 by finding a Swiss wristwatch manufacturer, Aegler, and the first batch of 50 gold and silver watches sold like hot cakes. By 1908 he’d opened a subsidiary in Switzerland, acquired British citizenship and come up with a name for his watches, as well as the crown logo. Later, his second wife Betty, recalled that the name ‘Rolex’ was extracted from the term ‘rolling export’. Not so romantic, but who cares now?
What is interesting is that Wilsdorf also wanted a name short enough to occupy as little space as possible on the watch dial, and memorable, so that shops (like Asprey) would be willing to buy watches that didn’t have their own name on the dial. It was an uphill task to win them over, but with each chronomatic success, and the breakthrough of the first watertight wristwatch in 1927 (christened the ‘Oyster’), Wilsdorf delivered nothing but watches bearing the name Rolex.
Just one snippet of historic info in this fascinating read – surely even the greatest Rolex aficionados will find early details that they perhaps weren’t aware of. Wilsdorf’s first wife died in 1944 and as the couple had no children, the philanthropist established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation to become the future owner of Montres Rolex SA. Dividends were to be used to finance charitable, artistic, horological and scientific endeavors.
Naturally Brunner doesn’t omit the many Rolex achievements post 1960. The following chapters outline the very many milestones since the early days, beginning with 1908 and a beautiful image of one of the earliest known watches. As well as photos of early models – front, back and movements – there are certificates of accuracy that helped secure Rolex’s success.
The book chronicles the emergence of the celebrated (and some best forgotten) models, beginning with the Oyster. All the details that any buff would want and expect are there – the genesis of each and every technicality is explained, the problems that arose and how they were overcome, and the stunts employed to make sure people talked and wrote about the Oyster in particular illustrate Wilsdorf’s sharp marketing mind – an early Mad Man.
And then there are the testimonial from Rolex owners and testers – from royalty to adventurers – highlighting the milestones of the brand.