The story of Rolex is intimately associated with human achievement. Hans Wilsdorf, the company’s founder, saw the mutual benefit of equipping people who were record breakers with an Oyster watch: the first of a long line of athletes and explorers was Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel.
In 1927, a young British secretary called Mercedes Gleitze took a place in the annals of watchmaking history with a sporting exploit that brought the first waterproof watch to the world’s attention. The 26 year-old swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster, spending more than 10 hours in the chilly waters between France and Great Britain. At the end of the swim, the waterproof wristwatch was declared to be in perfect working order.
She was the first Englishwoman to manage the arduous swim, still a rare feat at the time, and she earned huge popular acclaim. Rolex’s founder and director, Hans Wilsdorf, celebrated the landmark event with a full-page advertisement on the front of London’s Daily Mail proclaiming the success of the first waterproof wristwatch and chronicling “the debut of the Rolex Oyster and its triumphant march worldwide”. Mercedes Gleitze effectively became the first Rolex Testimonee, a symbol of achievement who also demonstrated the new watch’s qualities in action.
Rolex wristwatches became renowned for their reliability, helped along by Hans Wilsdorf’s commercial acumen. The Oyster watch “defied the elements” and could go anywhere, resisting dust, water, perspiration, heat, cold and even snow according to advertisements of the time. Rolex’s director sought to back those claims.
Hans Wilsdorf ensured that the reliability and waterproofness of the Oyster were proven under ever more severe conditions. In the 1930s, Rolex engineers devised and patented machinery to test waterproofness during the manufacturing process. Explorers and pioneers increasingly put the wristwatches to real-life tests in hostile environments.
The Rolex wristwatch also took on the basic form and characteristics that are inherent to all Oyster models to this day. The revolutionary new self-winding Perpetual rotor mechanism harnessed the energy of every movement of the wrist to wind the watch. Since the wearer no longer needed to unscrew the winding crown every day, waterproofness was enhanced.
In 2005, more than half the annual production of watches certified by Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) were Rolexes. To date, Rolex still holds the record for the most certified chronometer movements in the category of wristwatches.