Hans Wilsdorf Bio
Hans Wilsdorf was the man behind Rolex, arguably the most popular luxury watch brand in the world. With his brilliant and insightful innovations, Wilsdorf’s work revolutionized the entire field of horology. Apart from the Rolex brand, Wilsdorf also created the Tudor brand, another popular watch company.
Many of the astonishing innovations in watchmaking that occurred in the early 20th century were a result of Wilsdorf’s genius. From the emergence of the “wristlet” watch (the precursor to the modern-day wristwatch) to the introduction of waterproof watches, Wilsdorf was at the forefront of pushing the frontier of watchmaking to levels that had never been imagined before.
Wilsdorf’s Early Life
Hans Wilsdorf was born on March 22, 1881, to Anna and Johann Daniel Ferdinand Wilsdorf. He was born in the Frankish Kulmbach province of Northern Bavaria in modern day Germany. He was the second of three children, an older brother named Karl and a younger sister named Anna. His family was a successful middle-class family, as his mother descended from the popular Maisel family that owned a large brewing business. They were a Protestant family living in a predominantly Catholic community. This caused some difficulty for the Wilsdorf family at the time.
By the time Hans was 12 years old, both of his parents had passed away. His mother had died first, followed by their father, leaving them a sizeable inheritance. As orphans, his maternal uncles took young Hans and his siblings in, liquidating his late parents’ assets in order to care for the young children.
Later in life, Hans would write in his book “Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum” that the early passing of his parents shaped the rest of his life. He described his maternal uncles as not being “indifferent” but that the events that immediately followed the death of his parents made him become more self-reliant.
Hans’ uncle sent him to a boarding school in Coburg, Germany which was about 25 miles away from home. He soon developed an aptitude for mathematics and languages, even becoming quite fluent in the English language. Such a skill was particularly useful as the British Empire and the United States of America were the two richest nations at that time, making English an important language skill to have. He then went on to attend a business school in Bayreuth.
Early Apprenticeship Career
After school, Hans soon began working as an apprentice for a large-scale pearl merchant. During his time there, he paid a lot of attention to the way in which the business was run, noticing that they made a great deal of profit despite not actually creating any product. The company merely purchased pearls and then graded and sorted them before exporting them to jewelers overseas.
Internship at Messrs. Cuno Korten
At the turn of the 20th century in 1900, Hans decided to pursue his passion which was watchmaking. He got an internship at Messrs. Cuno Korten, a growing watch company at the time, located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. During his time at Cuno Korten, he worked as an English Correspondence and Clerk. He soon became even more fascinated with watch movements and their precision, nursing his ambition to establish his own watchmaking company one day.
Wilsdorf & Davis
By 1903, Hans moved to London and spent a brief period working for another watchmaker. He began to notice a few areas that were lacking in the business models of the firm and he decided to take the plunge by starting his own watchmaking company.
At some point in the year 1905, Hans was convinced that it was time to make the move. He was 24 years old at the time. He got into business with Alfred James David, his brother-in-law and the two set about trying to form their own watchmaking company. It would take another 3 years before the company was finally established. With a modest capital at their disposal, the pair established Wilsdorf & Davis at 83 Hattons Gardens, London E.C.
The Wristlet Watch
Hans Wilsdorf was the pioneer of the wristlet watch, a watch small enough to be worn on the wrist. At the time, the pocket watch was in vogue and a wristwatch was seen as being impractical. After setting up Wilsdorf & Davis, Hans successfully convinced a watch movement manufacturer based in Switzerland to produce watch movements that could be used on watches small enough to be worn on the wrist. The company was called Aegler, and it was located in Bienne, Switzerland.
Establishing the Rolex Brand
The Rolex brand-name was registered as a trademark of Wilsdorf & Davis on July 2, 1908. The trademark was registered in Switzerland under Wilsdorf & Davis fabrication. Hans would later say that the inspiration for the name came about as a result of his wanting to create an iconic brand image. He drew some inspiration from Kodak which had been coined by George Eastman in 1884. Just like Eastman, Hans Wilsdorf wanted the trademark of his watches to be short, punchy, impossible to misspell, and not have any semantic meaning.
The decision to name the brand, Rolex, was a marked departure from the custom of the time wherein watchmakers used their own names. Hans liked the name because it was easy to pronounce and it had a “pleasant sound” that was neutral, no matter what accent the speaker who was trying to pronounce the name had.
However, the idea wasn’t an instant hit in England. In the beginning, the name would be inscribed on 1 in every 6 watches. This then increased to 2 in every 6 before later becoming 3 in every 6 watches made by the company. It wasn’t until a massive advertising campaign in 1925 that the name began to become popular, with dealers agreeing to inscribe it on 5 in every 6 watches made by the company. By 1927, the company had the exclusive right to have the name Rolex inscribed on every watch that it made.
Fallout from World War I
By 1915, the relationship between the Germans and the English had turned sour and World War I would break out the following year. German sounding names were not particularly welcome in England. Even though Rolex was already a registered trademark, the company still went by the name Wilsdorf & Davies. The open hostility towards Germans by the English necessitated the changing of the name of the company to Rolex.
In 1916, a 33.3 percent customs duty was imposed by the British government and this severely affected Rolex. Up until that period, London was the trade capital of the world. The company then had to relocate to Bienne, Switzerland which is why to this day, many associate the Rolex brand with Switzerland.
The Oyster and the Mermaid
There have been a great many innovations that came out of the Rolex Watch Co., when Hans Wilsdorf was at the helm, with brilliant designs like the hermetically-sealed case and the snap-front hunting case. However, the creation that would permanently establish Rolex in the annals of watchmaking history was the oyster range of Rolex watches.
Between 1925 and 1931, Hans Wilsdorf created and patented the Rolex Oyster waterproof watch-case as well as the Rolex Perpetual Movement. 1925 was also another momentous year for Wilsdorf and Rolex as it was the year in which their iconic 5-point crown logo was created.
The idea of a perpetual driven, self-winding watch had long fascinated horologists. By creating the Rolex Perpetual Movement watch, Wilsdorf took Rolex to a whole new level of impetus as far as the watchmaking industry in Switzerland was concerned. The next step for Wilsdorf was to convince people of the unique value proposition inherent in a waterproof watch and a perpetual driven, self-winding watch.
The inspiration behind the name oyster came from the fact that the watches kept underwater just as well as oysters did, without any damage to their respective parts. Hans came up with a genius advertising strategy of having watch dealers display the Rolex Oysters in glass fish-tanks by the window of their shops so that passers-by could see that the watches functioned perfectly underwater.
The Rolex Oyster even gained more recognition when Mercedes Gleitze wore it for her swim across the English Channel. She became the first Rolex ambassador, wearing the Rolex Oyster on her vindication swim. She didn’t finish the swim, making it only 80 percent of the way and having to be pulled out of the water for fear that she was going to freeze to death. Despite her inability to complete the swim, she did emerge from the water with the Rolex Oyster watch still working perfectly despite being in the water for more than 8 hours.
After leaving the German Army in 1902, Hans moved to London and there, he met and with Florence Frances May Crotty. Her brother, Alfred James Davis was Hans’ was a watch-case maker and became Hans’ business partner. Florence passed away in 1944, two years before the creation of the Tudor brand. The passing away of his first wife left a lasting impression on him as he turned his devotion inward to the Rolex company.
The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation
After his wife’s passing, Hans set up the Wilsdorf Foundation and transferred all of his Rolex shares to the foundation. The Wilsdorf foundation is still in charge of running the company. Hans Wilsdorf passed away on July 6, 1960, at the age of 79, in Geneva, Switzerland. He had over 700 patents and is considered to be one of the greatest watchmakers of all time.