Blog: Rolex on the dialCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have either changed or added to significantly.
This blog entry is part of my page about Rolex.
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Rolex on the dial
Early Rolex watches, by which I mean before about 1925, are often clearly marked Rolex inside the case back and on the ratchet wheel, as well as carrying the W&D sponsor's mark if they are in gold or silver cases and carry British hallmarks. These watches usually do not have the Rolex name on the dial, but occasionally one finds one that does and the question is asked; is this original? I don't think that it is, at least not on Rolex watches sold in Britain. If early Rolex watches like this with British hallmarks carry the Rolex name on the dial it was applied after it left the factory - and probably quite recently. Why do I think this, well, it's a bit of a complicated story, but here goes . . .
Wilsdorf began his business in London in 1905 as an importer, ordering watches from Swiss manufacturers and selling them to British retailers. Until 1 June 1907 these watches would have carried no signs that Wilsdorf had ever had anything to do with them. Gold and silver watches would have Swiss hallmarks inside the case back and "Swiss made" on the movement and dial. But from 1 June 1907 imported gold and silver watches were required to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office, so Wilsdorf had to enter his details and a sponsor's mark, the well known W&D in a shield with points top and bottom, at the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall. Imported gold and silver watches were stamped with this sponsor's mark before being sent for hallmarking. It might have been this development that eventually gave Wilsdorf the idea that he could put his own brand onto watches that he ordered from manufacturers in Switzerland.
This gives rise to another question that comes up quite often, is a watch that carries the W&D mark but no other marks actually an early Rolex? In my view the answer must be no. Wilsdorf was very proud of the brand name Rolex and only used it on watches that he was proud to put his name to. Watches sometimes turn up with the W&D mark that are not of the top grade, with unjewelled trains for instance. These are sometime thought to have forged W&D marks, but I think it is more likely that in the early days when Wilsdorf was getting the business off the ground he would import anything that he thought he could make a margin on, but he didn't give these the Rolex name.
Wilsdorf also created a lot of other brand names such as Unicorn, Marconi, RolCo and Tudor for lower price points, always keeping the name Rolex for the premium, top line, products. To begin with there was no secret that these were products of the Rolex Watch Company and were often marked as such, but Wilsdorf did not intend to call them "Rolex watches". It seems that initially Wilsdorf was happy if people got the impression that they were getting a Rolex watch at a lower price. But over time it was realised that this was not a good idea as it took sales away from the premium Rolex brand, and as people became more brand conscious it diluted the effects of expensive marketing that was aimed at building up the cachet of owning a Rolex, so gradually the Rolex name was disassociated from the other brands. But once an idea is planted it is very difficult to stamp it out, and today people often describe a watch with one of these other brands as a "Rolex watch". For more about these other brands see Rolex and other brands.
My grandfather's 1918 silver Rolex wristwatch. No Rolex on the dial, and there never has been
In my view, unless a watch carries factory applied Rolex branding, then Wilsdorf wouldn't have regarded it as a Rolex, and neither should we. By factory applied Rolex branding I mean specifically the single word Rolex (Not "Rolex Watch Co.", "RWC" or any other variant) either stamped into the case back, engraved onto the ratchet wheel, or fired into the enamel of the dial. Of course any of these can be faked, someone could get Rolex and W&D stamps made to mark case backs, could engrave Rolex onto a ratchet wheel, or take one from a scrap movement, or could paint Rolex onto the dial. Of these, putting the name Rolex onto the dial is the easiest to do, but also the easiest to detect, because with a touch of solvent the paint will dissolve. The same as happens to retailers names painted on to enamel dials. I am sure that when Wilsdorf started applying Rolex branding to watch dials, this would have been fired into the enamel and impossible to remove.
So when did Wilsdorf start applying factory Rolex branding to watch dials? In the beginning, in common with almost all other watches sold in Britain at the time, the Rolex name was stamped or engraved on the case and movement only; the dial was left free for the retailer to apply their name. To start with Rolex was a new and unknown name whilst most of the stores they supplied had been in business for a long time. Naturally people would have more faith in a watch with the name of "Asprey" or "Harrods" on the dial, rather than the unknown Rolex. This might not have been the case for markets outside Britain, of which more below
Wilsdorf had great difficulty in getting British retailers to accept the name Rolex on the dial as he explains in the Vade Mecum Despite the qualities of [the Rolex] name, it took twenty years of hard work to make the idea acceptable in England. At first, I ventured to inscribe it on one watch in every six; then it appeared on two, and later three, in every six. This half victory was still unsatisfactory and we knew that it would take many more years to obtain the desired result. Tired of waiting, in 1925, I decided to launch the "Rolex" trade mark by means of an intensive advertising campaign. The policy entailed annual expenditure of more than £12,000 - not for one year alone, but for several in succession. One of the results thus obtained was that dealers agreed first that four, and later five, out of every six watches should bear the name of "Rolex". At last, in 1927, the waterproof "Rolex-Oyster" was launched and we were then in a position to announce definitely that in future not one of our watches would ever again leave our works without our name on the dial, inside the case and on the movement.
Note that Wilsdorf says that one of the reasons he liked the name Rolex was that it was not cumbersome on the dial (thus leaving room enough for the inscription of the English trader's name) (emphasis added) and that it took twenty years of hard work to make the idea acceptable in England (emphasis added). His initial idea was clearly that the name Rolex would be placed on the dial whilst still leaving room for the English retailers name, but the retailers were not amenable. Britain and the empire was an important market for Wilsdorf and Rolex, which may be why he concentrates on this point. But is is clear that had the English retailers not prevented him from putting Rolex on the dial he would have been at it like a shot.
Wilsdorf is rather vague about what date he means when he says At first, I ventured to inscribe it on one watch in every six; He says the struggle took twenty years, and that At last, in 1927, the waterproof "Rolex-Oyster" was launched and we were then in a position to announce definitely that in future not one of our watches would ever again leave our works without our name on the dial ... Twenty years before 1927 would be 1907, when Wilsdorf had only just thought of the name Rolex. The implication of this is that right from the start one in every six British imports, which can generally be distinguished because cases at the time were usually gold or silver and carry British import hallmarks, would have had the Rolex name fired into the enamel at the factory. But I suspect that Wilsdorf is stretching the facts and that it was not actually until the 1920s that he really started on this campaign. After all, if he was so impatient and really had started in 1907 with one in six, why would he have waited until 1925 to get the proportion up to four in six? That doesn't ring true to me.
For markets other than Britain I am sure that Wilsdorf would have insisted on having Rolex on the dial from an earlier date, as did other manufacturers such as Longines and IWC, so there will Rolexes from earlier than the 1920s with the name Rolex fired into the enamel of the dial, but these would not have been officially imported into Britain and so would not carry British import hallmarks. Personal imports where someone buys a watch abroad and then returns to Britain are not required to be hallmarked. If you have a Rolex with the name fired into the enamel on the dial and a British hallmark earlier than 1925 I would be very interested to see it.
Dial cross section
Today one sees watches carrying pre-1920 British hallmarks and with the name "Rolex" on the dial. Sometimes these are not even Rolex branded watches; Marconi and Unicorn watches end up with Rolex on the dial. Why is this done? Today people are so conditioned to seeing brand names on everything that they like to see the name on the dial. Sometimes novice collectors even think that a watch without a name on the dial is not genuine. However, adding a name to a dial is easy to do, and is no surety against forgery.
In fact, most if not all early Rolex watches with British hallmarks, and names like Marconi, Unicorn etc. on the movement but with Rolex on the dial have had the name added by the simple expedient of painting it on with enamel paint. Dealers know that this makes the watch easier to sell and gets a better price, even though they know it is not original.
Original names on enamel dials were applied while the dial was being made, fired into the enamel along with the minute tracks and hour numerals. This was easy to do while the dial was being made and the most durable. The cross section through a dial here shows how enamel dials were made. A sheet of copper cut to the correct size and shape and with holes for the hands and dial feet attached, was coated with vitreous enamel, essentially crushed glass. This was then heated in a furnace until the enamel melted, bonding to the copper and forming a smooth surface. The numerals and minute and seconds tracks were then painted on, also in vitreous enamel, and the dial fired again. This melted the enamel of the numbers and other details and bonded them to the base layer of enamel. In the cross section I have shown a white enamel dial with a red 12. When the enamel of the numbers and other details melted and bonded with the underlying enamel it became virtually flat with the dial surface as the cross section shows.
If the name to be applied was not known at the time the dial was made - such as the name of the eventual retailer, then the name was painted on later with enamel paint. The importer might have offered this as part of his service to the retailer, or the retailer may have arranged himself for his name to be painted onto the dial. Enamel paint is a totally different material from vitreous enamel, it is called enamel because it forms a harder, glossier, surface than other paints such as oil paint. However, unlike vitreous enamel, enamel paint can be dissolved by a solvent such as acetone or isopropyl alcohol.
Often a retailer's name painted on to an enamel dial has partly or almost completely worn away over the years, whereas the rest of dial markings are still crisp and sharp. This is an easy indication that the name was painted on after the watch was made. However, a name painted on recently using enamel paint can be difficult to identify, it looks crisp and sharp and glossy, just like the rest of the dial. However, there are two ways in which such an addition can be identified.
- Look carefully across the dial at an oblique angle with a lens in good light. As the cross section shows, enamel paint stands up proud of the surface unlike the fired enamel numbers which are virtually flat. If you can see the name standing up like this it has definitely been added, but a very skilful painter will make the letters very flat so some painted names can be difficult to detect by this method.
- Wipe the suspect lettering with a solvent that dissolves paint such as acetone. Names fired into the enamel will not be affected by the solvent whereas names painted on later will dissolve and wash off, leaving the original enamel details of the dial intact.
If you have a pre-1925 Rolex with an enamel dial that has the Rolex name in fired vitreous enamel, not just painted on in enamel paint which can look very similar, and the case has pre-1925 British import hallmarks, then do let me know. Of course just one example is not be proof, the dial could have been modified or exchanged for instance, we really need a few hundred examples to be sure.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated July 2017. W3CMVS.