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Blog: Rolex's other brands

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

I was contacted by a correspondent about a "Rolex" watch that he had just bought; he said it had Rolex branding on the case and a Unicorn movement. On closer inspection it had in the back of the case the "W&D" sponsor's mark, their initials in an oval shield with points top and bottom, "Unicorn" engraved on the ratchet wheel and "Rolex" on the dial. Let's consider each of the points in turn.

W&D: Wilsdorf and Davis
W&D sponsor's mark
  1. The "W&D" mark in an oval with points top and bottom is the sponsor's mark or responsibility mark of Wilsdorf and Davis. This mark was entered at assay offices in Britain so that the company of Wilsdorf and Davis could submit items for assay and hallmarking. It was struck on any items they sent for assay and forms part of the hallmark, it is not "Rolex branding". NB: the sponsor's mark does not identify the maker of an item, it is the mark registered by the person who submitted it for hallmarking. The W&D mark on Swiss made watch cases is there because they had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office before they could be sold in Britain.
  2. The name "Unicorn" on the ratchet wheel is a brand that Wilsdorf registered as an alternative to Rolex, for use on watches to be sold at lower price points. This is discussed in the section below reproduced from my Rolex page. The name was applied to the ratchet wheel rather than the movement plate because this made life easier for the movement manufacturer - he just needed to keep a supply of relatively cheap engraved ratchet wheels on hand, and then any stock movement could be "branded" simply by changing the ratchet wheel for a branded one.
  3. The name Rolex would not originally have been put on the dial of a Unicorn brand watch, see the discussion below for the exact meaning and role of the Rolex brand Unicorn. The Rolex on the dial of this watch has clearly been added later, possibly quite recently. Be aware that it is very easy to get a brand name painted on the dial of a watch. Caveat emptor; simply painting the name Rolex onto the dial of a watch does not transform it into a Rolex watch!

The section reproduced here is from my page about Rolex.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page.

Other brands

Wilsdorf was extremely pleased with the name Rolex and decided to reserve it as a brand name for his best and most expensive watches, which at the time meant watches made by Aegler with jewelled lever "Rebberg" movements. However, even these were not always fully jewelled. Watches marked Rolex in the case back and on the ratchet wheel are seen with seven jewel movements, that is the bearings for the train wheels are not jewelled.

Wilsdorf realised that markets also existed for watches to be sold at lower price points, so over the years before WW2 he created many other brands to fulfil this demand. Note that these were not model names for Rolex watches, like today's Submariner or Explorer, these were completely separate brand names, alternatives to the brand Rolex. The movements for these watches came from suppliers other than Aegler, from factories that mass produced ébauches such as Fontainemelon and Beguelin. Because of their scale of production these ébauches were cheaper than those made by Aegler, but could be just as good in quality, e.g. with Swiss lever escapements and fully 15 jewelled. However, cheaper cylinder escapement movements were also used.

With such a wide range of brand names and ébauches ranging in quality from Swiss levers with 15 or more jewels down to those with cheap and humble cylinder escapements, Wilsdorf could supply a watch to suit every pocket. But this led to identity confusion. Such a plethora of names and price points all associated in some way with the Rolex brand detracted from Wilsdorf's aim of creating a prestige brand known for quality that could charge accordingly high prices for its watches.

In the early days Wilsdorf often allowed names such as Rolex Watch Company, RWC Ltd. or even just Rolex itself, to be used somewhere on these supposedly lesser brands. This was to give people the vague idea that they were effectively getting a Rolex watch but at a cheaper price. This idea back-fired because it affected sales of the higher priced "real" Rolex watches, so around 1945 all the other brand names except for Tudor were dropped, and eventually Tudor was floated off as a separate company.

The confusion created continues to this day, and working out whether an old watch is or isn't a Rolex. This ultimately comes down to whether Wilsdorf and Rolex would have called it a "Rolex watch" and is often a matter of judgement rather than an exact science. Sometimes I think I am just about getting to the bottom of this, and then another watch with a funny combination of names appears. The problem is not with watches that have no name on the dial at all, it is with watches that have Rolex on the dial when there is no right for it to be there, when it has been added by someone in an attempt to boost the value of the watch.

It is clear is that watches with brands such as Maconi, Unicorn, RolCo etc., were intended to be regarded products of the Rolex Watch Co., but not as "Rolex watches". These "other brand" watches did not originally have "Rolex" as a single word on the dial. That would clearly have given the idea that the watch was a Rolex and for Wilsdorf that was a definite no-no. If they have Rolex on the dial now, it has been painted on later, often much later.

If any of these "other brand" watches did have a brand name on the dial, it was the same as that on the movement, i.e. a watch with RolCo on the movement would have had RolCo on the dial. It might have had Rolex Watch Co. on the dial or elsewhere, often in the case, or even just Rolex somewhere, but as it was not a Rolex watch in the eyes of Wilsdorf and Rolex, it should not have had Rolex on the dial, that would risk damaging the main brand. Sometimes one sees a watch with a confusing mixture of these Wilsdorf brand names on it. Sometimes this can be rationalised, but often it is a result of later modification in an attempt to make the watch more valuable.

The first of Wilsdorf's other brands, registered in July 1909, was "Omigra". This looks suspiciously like Omega, a name that was well known and prestigious long before 1909, when the name Rolex still new and unknown. Wilsdorf must have had second thoughts about this and the registration was cancelled four months later at his request. Another brand registered by Wilsdorf that didn't get off the starting blocks was Elvira. Other names included Rolwatco, Falcon, Genex, Lonex, Rolexis, Lexis, Hofex and Wintex.

One of the next brand names created by Wilsdorf was Marconi, after the inventor and wireless telegraphy pioneer. Marconi Lever was registered on 24 January 1911. This was followed by Unicorn Lever (registered 17 March 1919) and Unicorn Watch (registered 20 November 1923).

The Marconi name was the first to be used to any great extent. Wilsdorf had decided to increase his revenue by creating a parallel brand to Rolex, using non-Aegler movements and Marconi watches are seen with a variety of movements, mostly from factories other than Aegler, and imports into Britain often have the "GS" sponsor's mark of the importer George Stockwell rather than the W&D sponsor's mark. These watches were sold through "parallel" channels, i.e. not through Rolex dealers. Although today Marconi watches are often described as "Rolex" watches, a watch without the Rolex name on it, without the W&D sponsor's mark, and with a non-Aegler movement, has a connection with the Rolex brand that is at best tenuous, although obviously this hint of a connection is what Wilsdorf was trying to create. The problem with the Marconi name was that it was first and foremost an extremely well known as a company supplying wireless telegraphy equipment, to the RMS Titanic amongst many others, but it was not known for watches. By advertising the Marconi name, was Wilsdorf in fact promoting someone else's brand?

The Marconi name was soon dropped in favour of Unicorn. One problem with the name Unicorn was that it could not be registered as a unique name, hence the registration of "Unicorn Lever" and "Unicorn Watch", but anyone could register another phrase using the word unicorn, it wasn't sufficiently unique to be valuable. Wilsdorf then started using more unique names such as RolCo, Oyster Watch Company (which was rather confusing as there was also a Rolex Oyster watch) and many others, one of the best known these days being Tudor.

BTCo. Rolco movement
BTCo. Rolco movement: Click to enlarge

The image here shows a RolCo branded watch movement. This movement was manufactured by Beguelin & Cie S.A. or BTCo., who also manufactured watches under names Damas and Tramelan Watch Co.. This movement has been customised for Rolex by modifying the shapes of the bridges and cocks and putting the name ROLCO on the ratchet wheel. Beguelin also supplied the same movement to other companies including Ingersoll and these movements were made to look different so that it was not obvious that they were all from the same manufacturer. Apart from the shape of the bridges and cocks, all the other parts of these movements (bottom plate, train wheels, escapement, keyless work, etc.) were identical. You can see five different versions of this particular BTCo. movement on the movement identification page.

There was never any secret that Marconi, Unicorn, etc. watches were made for the Rolex Watch Company, but they were not called Rolex watches and not (usually) branded "Rolex". The distinction he created was subtle, but Wilsdorf was a master salesman, perhaps the first modern marketing expert, and he was manipulating names and brands to alter the way things were perceived. Omega did the same thing with Tissot; In "Omega - A Journey through Time" Marco Richon explains that in 1935 an economic collapse in Brazil made it impossible for Omega to maintain sales at Omega's normal price points. Rather than cut prices just for Brazil, which would have inevitably affected Omega branded watches sold in other markets, the company withdrew Omega marketing and sales from the country and sold watches branded "Omega Watch Co. - Tissot" at the lower price points in Brazil.

Today one sees Marconi, Unicorn, ROLCO, Tudor, etc. watches being advertised (not by Rolex I hasten to add) as "early Rolexes". Although this is not accurate, ephemeral things like brand identity are not black and white, which is clearly also what Wilsdorf himself had in mind when he created these other brands. Wilsdorf wanted purchasers of the "other brand" watches to feel that they were getting a Rolex at a cheaper price, whilst at the same time he was busy persuading other people that it was worth paying more to get a real Rolex, a watch with the Rolex brand name on it.

I have seen watches from the Great War era with BTCo. movements in silver cases that have the W&D sponsor's mark and "Rolex" in the case back and "Marconi lever" on the movement. Is this a Rolex? I would say no; it doesn't have an Aegler movement and is branded Marconi. Why is the Rolex name in the case back? It might have been punched by mistake by the person punching the W&D sponsor's mark, or the case might have originally been intended for a Rolex watch with an Aegler movement, or it might just be that Wilsdorf was less careful in the early days about where he splashed the Rolex name. Perhaps he thought he could endorse lower priced Marconi watches with the Rolex name without people calling them Rolex watches.

Tudor dial with Rolex Watch Co. Thanks to Ray in Australia for the image.

The first mention of the Tudor name was in 1926 in a rather strange context. On a piece of notepaper headed "Horlogerie H. Wilsdorf, Bienne" there is a declaration by "vve. de Philippe Hüther" (the widow of Philippe Hüther) that she has registered the name "The Tudor" at the request of the company of H. Wilsdorf, and that she recognises that the brand is the exclusive property of that company and that it that retains all rights to it. The implication of this is that the vve. de Philippe Hüther had been using the name Tudor but that Wilsdorf had proved a prior claim to it so she agreed to register the brand and that Wilsdorf's company would have exclusive rights to it in the future.

The Tudor brand was little used before WW2 except for watches sold in Australia. In 1946 Wildorf decided to create a separate company to sell Tudor watches and so "Montres Tudor S.A." was registered. An an S.A. is a "Société par Actions" or joint-stock company in English, a company owned by shareholders and run by a board of directors. In this case it appears that the shares in Montres Tudor S.A. were wholly owned by Rolex S.A. rather than being publicly offered.

In 1952 Wilsdorf is reported as saying For some years now I have been considering the idea of making a watch that our agents could sell at a more modest price than our Rolex watches, and yet one that would attain the standards of dependability for which Rolex is famous. I decided to form a separate company with the object of making and marketing this new watch. It is called the Tudor Watch Company. Of course by this time Wilsdorf had been selling Marconi, Unicorns and all sorts of other branded watches, but the significant point here is that the Tudor watch was to be sold by Rolex agents alongside Rolex watches. The implication of this is that the brands other than Tudor were not sold by Rolex agents.

So is a watch with the name Marconi, Unicorn, ROLCO, Tudor, etc. on the movement, or marked "Rolex Watch Co.", or with the W&D sponsor's mark in the case back, actually an early Rolex? In the semantically complicated marketing world of Hans Wilsdorf the answer must be "No". It is a watch that was made by, or rather made for, the Rolex Watch Co., but they would not have called it a Rolex watch. At the time it would have been called a Marconi, or Unicorn or Rolco watch - they didn't want to hurt sales of Rolex branded watches at premium prices by calling these brands by the same name; that was the whole point.

A watch with one of these other brand names should really be described as a Rolex Watch Company product, but not as a "Rolex watch", even though it clearly is a watch and it was made for the Rolex Watch Company. This then opens a slightly thorny question as to what is a "Rolex watch", because the Rolex Watch Company didn't actually make any of the watches they sold. The short answer must be that it is a watch that Wilsdorf himself would have called a "Rolex watch", but identifying what exactly that is or was can be a fraught task.

The situation is even more confusing for some early Tudor watches that have Tudor on the dial, often with the name of a Rolex model such as Oyster Prince, and, even going so far as to mark them with "Rolex Watch Co." on the dial or with "Rolex" inside the case back along with the Rolex trademark crown with five points with balls on their ends. The dial shown in the photograph here is clearly meant to be that of a watch of the brand "Tudor", but it also has "Rolex Watch Co. Ltd." around the sub-seconds dial. Is this a Rolex watch? The Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. wouldn't want you to say so, although they might want you to think so.

It is clear that Wilsdorf wanted to give Tudor watches more than something of the the lustre of the Rolex brand without actually calling them Rolex watches. However, this was rather muddled thinking and confused the identities of the two brands, which was not a good idea for either. Tudor was later separated from the Rolex brand and floated off as a completely separate company that stopped using the Rolex name and trademarks on its watches.

However, and this is probably the critical point for most people who are not professional hair-splitters, a watch made with one of these "other" Rolex brands would not have left the factory with the single word "Rolex" as a brand on the dial. If such a watch has the single word "Rolex" on the dial now, then that has been added later by someone else. You don't think that whoever did that might have been trying to deceive you do you? Dear me, what an unpleasant thought. As to the question of whether a watch is really a "Rolex watch" if it doesn't have, or shouldn't have, the single name "Rolex" on the dial, or if it has the Rolex name on it somewhere as well as Marconi, RolCo, or some other name, ultimately it comes down to your views and what you are happy with. But as always, caveat emptor and don't believe everything that you are told.

But give thanks to the marketing people who took the idea of brand names, originally conceived to give people an identity that they could trust, and turned them into slippery ways to manipulate people's dreams and desires.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page. Back to the top of the page.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated July 2017. W3CMVS.