WORDS BY FELIX BISCHOF
How to best mark a 40th anniversary? Tradition suggests gifts of precious gemstones to commemorate the occasion. When Rolex – which was originally founded by Hans Wilsdorf in London in 1905 – turned 40 in 1945, the Swiss luxury watch brand saluted its ruby anniversary by breaking records. It was in 1945 that the revered make first unveiled its Rolex Datejust model: then solely produced as an 18-carat gold wristwatch with 36mm case, the timepiece made history as the first self-winding chronometer wristwatch to indicate the date in a window positioned on its dial. Known also as automatic watches, self-winding timekeepers require neither batteries nor manual winding as the natural motion of wearing the watch produces the energy needed to wind its mainspring. In addition to its on-dial date function, the 1945 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust model also debuted the brand's new five-piece link metal bracelet, the aptly named Jubilee bracelet.
The Datejust's timeless make-up and details have since its 1945 introduction inspired a host of considered variations in several sizes. Today, there are new two-tone Rolesor (a Rolex-coined term, Rolesor describes the combining of hard-wearing stainless Oystersteel with precious alloys such as 18-carat white gold) iterations sparkling with diamond-set bezels; this year, a new Rolex Datejust with sizable 41mm case features a polished yellow gold dial. Then, there is the 1953 Rolex Turn-O-Graph 'Thunderbirds' model, its nickname paying tribute to the US Air Force pilots who were awarded Datejust watches upon their return from far-flung missions. Fitted with a rotating bezel marked to 60 minutes, the Thunderbird Datejust could be used by the pilots to measure time intervals, a function that Rolex subsequently revisited in its best-performing tool-watches including the Rolex Sea-Dweller and the Mount Everest proved Rolex Explorer. It also formed the base of the Rolex Submariner, arguably the brand's most popular model.
Rolex first debuted its Submariner model in 1954 (the first models are numbered 6204, 6205, and 6200). At the Geneva-headquartered enterprise, form always follows function: a diving watch, the Submariner is shaped by technical prowess and category-defining developments. Rolex crafted its first waterproof watch cases in 1926, built strong enough to withstand rising pressures below sea level. In 1954, Rolex listed the Submariner with a water-resistance of up to 100 metres. Subsequent models have upped that water resistance to 300 metres meaning that yes, it's safe to wear your Rolex in the shower and when doing lengths at your local swimming pool.
But when exploring the open seas at depth, Rolex' Submariner allows divers to keep track of passing time with its ingenious Chromalight display: the watch's hands and hour-markers are coated or filled in with Rolex' emblematic luminescent material, which gives off a uniform, blue glow that lasts up to eight hours. While it looks good worn on terra firma, Submariners are built to perform: signature features include a rotatable bezel engraved with 60 minute graduations, to let divers monitor diving time and decompression stops.
When first dreaming up the Submariner, Rolex's team envisioned a best-performing diving watch that can be worn every day. It's a motto that has held true to today and the Submariner has been the timekeeper of choice for a cast of luminaries that counts generations of Hollywood leading men including Burt Lancaster, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen. The Rolex Submariner has starred in a staggering eleven James Bond movies; actor Sean Connery wore his in three instalments of the gentleman-spy series.
American actor – and gifted race car driver – Paul Newman preferred to keep time with Rolex' Daytona wristwatch. Produced from 1963 onwards, the Daytona is christened after Daytona Beach, a city by Florida’s Atlantic coast long known for hosting car races. It was one year before the wristwatch's unveiling that Rolex was announced at the official timekeeper of the Daytona International Speedway Racetrack in 1962. The Daytona – the original 1963 design inspired two more generations, issued in 1988 and 2000 respectively – honours its racetrack heritage lineage with details such as a tachymeter scale bezel, used to measure elapsed time and average driving speed.
While its heritage models – the Daytona, the Submariner and the Datejust among them – continue to top wishlists, sought after for their timeless design (Rolex has a soft-touch approach to updates) and superior performance, the Swiss brand continues to innovate. In 2012, it premiered its Sky-Dweller. The first entirely new model in two decades, the Rolex Sky-Dweller boasts 14 patents, including five newly registered ones. Look out for its dual time-zone display: in addition to the local time, the wearer's home (or reference) time is indicated by a small red arrow, its tip pointing towards a 24-hours scale marked on a rotating disc. Then, there is the model's handy 42mm Ring Command bezel: turn the bezel to the left until a click sound is audible to alternate between three positions to change date or time upon touchdown in a new location.
Their thought-through features and easily adaptable, stealthy designs (a Rolex watch really can be worn everywhere and to all occasions) aside, Rolex watches are a sound investment, holding their value. A talking-point among collectors is Rolex's special colour combinations, which update classic models with vibrantly hued dials and bezels. This includes the GMT-Master II: a special take on this superhero of a watch comes with s black bezel matched with a black and blue Cerachrom (a Rolex patented ceramic and chrome component) display. The sought-after design, which was first shown at watch fair Baselworld in 2013, has become known as the Rolex Batman.