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Blog: Hans Wilsdorf - Early Days

Date: 2 August 2019

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 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.

The section below is from my page about Hans Wilsdorf and Rolex. Thanks to Sav for prompting me to get out my copy of the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum and discovering some new information about Cuno Korten, and a possible name for the company that Wilsdorf worked for in London before he founded Wilsdorf and Davis. I have also added some information about the expanding bracelets that Wilsdorf says ‘an important jewellery firm invented and launched in about 1906.’

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.


Hans Wilsdorf - Early Days

Hans Eberhard Wilhelm Wilsdorf was born in Kulmbach, Bavaria, Franconia (Germany) on 22 March 1881, the second son of a family of three. His mother's early death was soon followed by that of his father and, in 1893 when he was 12, his uncles decided to liquidate his father's business and use the proceeds to place the children in a very good boarding school in Coburg. Wilsdorf showed a particular liking for mathematics and languages, which later drove him to travel and work in foreign countries. He apprenticed at a firm of pearl exporters whose sales organisation covered the whole world, which experience he felt was invaluable throughout his whole career.

In 1900, aged 19, Wilsdorf started work at the watch exporting firm Cuno Korten of 49 rue Léopold Robert, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, as their English language correspondent and clerk at a monthly salary of 80 francs. Wilsdorf says that Cuno Korten was a “big concern” exporting about one million francs worth of watches annually.

Outside of the long established watch making centre of Geneva, La Chaux de Fonds and Le Locle formed the hub of the Swiss Jura watchmaking industry at the time. It was a French speaking area of Switzerland so Wilsdorf would have to have spoken Swiss French in addition to his native German and English. In La Chaux-de-Fonds and the nearby Le Locle, Wilsdorf was exposed to the most influential people and companies in Swiss watchmaking, which would later be an important asset in the founding and success of his own business in London, which became the Rolex Watch Company.

Cuno Korten
Bechmann Hosted by Cuno Korten

There seems to be very little known about Cuno Korten. The only thing I could find is the advert from 1904 reproduced here, which says that M. Bechman of the London company Baer, Bechmann & Co. Ltd. will be in Switzerland from 1 August, and that proposals of meetings can be made via Monsieur Cuno Korten of 49 rue Léopold Robert, La Chaux-de-Fonds. This was evidently a trip by Bechmann to find new lines of goods, clocks or watches, to import, and the mention of M. Korten suggests that he was facilitating meetings with Swiss manufacturers and was possibly the Swiss agent for Baer, Bechmann & Co. Ltd. Wilsdorf's English language skills would have been useful in communicating between the English and Swiss offices. Baer and Bechmann themselves would have almost certainly spoken German, but the Swiss watchmaking districts were then still mainly in the French speaking Jura and Geneva.

There is little trace of the many companies that operated in London as import agents for Swiss watch manufacturers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their main tasks were taking samples round to watch retailers, usually jewellers shops, and recording orders, which would be amalgamated and sent on to the watch manufacturers. There were no restrictions on the import of Swiss watches, especially after Gladstone reduced import duties in the 1860s, and before 1907 there was no requirement that gold or silver watch cases be hallmarked.

Today agents for foreign manufacturers often simply send in the orders and receive their commissions, with the manufacturer taking responsibility for delivering the goods and invoicing the customer, but in those days the agent would collect parcels of watches from the shipping agent, paying any import duties, and send the watches on the customers who had ordered them. The appearance of Baer's name in a number of bankruptcies and financial arrangements shows that agents were also responsible for collecting the money from the customer. But it was relatively easy business with little capital involved; all that was needed was an ability to speak English and Swiss French or German, an office, and a working arrangement with one or more Swiss watch manufacturers.

Bernard, or Bernhard, Baer is recorded at 52 Hatton Garden, London, in 1887, where Bechmann & Baer were later listed as clock manufacturers, although they were really importers rather than actual manufacturers. The business was converted into a limited liability company as Baer, Bechmann & Co. Ltd. at 55 Hatton Gardens on 12 March 1902.

By 1913 Baer, Bechmann & Co. Ltd. had disappeared; incorporated into Junghans Brothers Ltd., clock manufacturers, at the same 55 Hatton Gardens address. The London company Junghans Brothers Ltd. went into voluntary liquidation in 1932, no doubt a victim of the severe financial depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Foundation of Wilsdorf & Davis

In 1903 Wilsdorf moved to London, where he said that he worked for an unnamed but “good watchmaking firm” which by 1946, when he wrote the Vade Mecum, had long since closed down. The name of this firm is not mentioned but it seems likely that it was one of the Swiss companies that imported Swiss watches and sold them to British retailers. In Wilsdorf's obituary, the Journal de Genève says the company was based in Neuchâtel.

Given the connection between Cuno Korten and Baer, Bechmann & Co. Ltd. shown by the advert, it seems quite likely that Baer, Bechmann was the London company alluded to by Wilsdorf, and the date of the disappearance of that company in 1913 would fit his statement in 1946 that they had long since closed down.

Growing in confidence with the experience he gained from this and his previous employment, two years after arriving in London Wilsdorf set about establishing his own business. In May 1905, at the age of 24, he borrowed some money from his brother and sister. He was introduced by his solicitors White, Leonard & Co to Alfred James Davis who wished to invest some money. They founded the firm of Wilsdorf & Davis on 22 June 1905 as equal partners with its address at 83 Hatton Gardens, London E.C.

Alfred Davis does not seem to have been involved at all in running the business, he seems to have been a “sleeping partner”; a person who provides some of the capital for a business but who does not take an active part in managing the business. Next to nothing is known about him.

Hans Wilsdorf was a citizen of Germany, not Switzerland. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1911, taking the oath of allegiance on 20 November.

Wilsdorf Buying Trip 1906
Wilsdorf Buying Trip 1906

In the beginning Wilsdorf & Davis did not concentrate solely, or even at all, on the top end watches that Rolex would later become known for. They imported a wide range of items that could be sold at different price points. In the Vade Mecum Wilsdorf says their first speciality was a travelling watch, called a portfolio watch, cased in fine quality leather. Wilsdorf also says that in 1905 he placed a large order for wristwatches with Aegler, a company that he had become aware of when he was working in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

The wristwatches imported from Aegler by Wilsdorf & Davis were their “top of the range” items. When the name Rolex was introduced it was reserved for use on Aegler lever watches, although even these were sometimes made with only seven jewels rather than fully jewelled with 15 jewels.

Wilsdorf & Davis also bought watches from other manufacturers, and not always of lever quality. Watches with cylinder escapement movements are seen with the W&D sponsor's mark, indicating that they were imported by Wilsdorf & Davis, although these were never branded with the Rolex name. The cylinder escapement was mass produced by the Swiss watch industry in the nineteenth century. It was cheap and robust, but inferior to the lever escapement.

The advertisement reproduced here was published in a Swiss trade journal in January 1906 and documents a buying trip to Switzerland by Wilsdorf to find stock. It says that Hans Wilsdorf is staying at the Hotel Fleur-de-Lys until the 22 or 23 of the month. Located right in the heart of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Hotel Fleur-de-Lys is only a few feet from the train station, where no doubt Wilsdorf alighted after a train journey that began at Holborn Viaduct station in London.

The advert says that Wilsdorf is especially interested in Nouveautés, that is novelties, for the English colonies and far-east. Not wristwatches note, or even watches at all; any novelty that might sell in the colonies or the far-east is of interest.

On 1 July 1907, Wilsdorf & Davis established a branch in La Chaux-de-Fonds at 9 Rue Léopold Robert under the same name, Wilsdorf & Davis, managed by a non-proxy manager. The type of business was declared as wholesale watchmaking. This office was closed and the public record of it struck off on 11 November 1911.

Wilsdorf & Davis were not watch manufacturers; they purchased watches from Swiss manufacturers and sold them on to retailers, at first with no branding at all. Then in 1907 British law changed and required that all imported gold and silver watch cases be hallmarked in a British Assay office before they were retailed in Britain. This change in the law caused Wilsdorf & Davis to register a sponsor's mark, the 'W&D' mark shown below, with the London Assay office.

Before any item could be hallmarked, the person sending it in for hallmarking has to register their details and a sponsor's mark with the assay office. Each punch used to strike the sponsor's mark onto items has to be separately registered at the assay office by striking it onto a sheet of lead or copper. This mark mark was then punched into watch cases before they were sent in for assay and hallmarking.

The registration of one's details and a sponsor's mark punch is the vital first step in the process of assay and hallmarking. If an item does not carry a recognised sponsor's mark, it will simply not be received by the assay office. When you are considering a set of marks that you think might be a hallmark, remember that there must be a sponsor's mark.


W&D Sponsor's Mark

This forced adoption in 1907 of the W&D sponsor's mark, something that also happened to look very much like a trademark, is quite possibly what started Wilsdorf thinking about branding and marketing. It is the first such mark registered by Wilsdorf & Davis, and the same mark is also seen on stamped on to watch movements, which was not required by British law.

None of the items imported by Wilsdorf and Davis before 1907 are known; they were, and still are, anonymous items with no name or branding. Because they were sold wholesale to retailers they are impossible to trace, there is not even the possibility of a point-of-sale receipt with the Wilsdorf and Davis name on it.

Wilsdorf in all likelihood thought of the items he imported as simple commodities from the import of which he could take a financial profit but no pride – they could equally well have been grain or sugar or any other commodity. But seeing watch cases stamped with the W&D mark would naturally have caused him some pride, here was some way that the goods that he dealt with would be recognised, which would create a reputation for his business. And a good reputation is valuable, something to be nurtured and cared for.

Wilsdorf realised that building his own brand would be more lucrative than simply acting as an anonymous import agent. He began trying to think of a name for this brand. In November 1907 he registered the names Lusitania, Mauretania and The Eastern Watch for watches and associated parts.

Wilsdorf and Early Wristwatches

The four volumes of the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum
The four volumes of the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum: Click Image to Enlarge.

In the Vade Mecum Wilsdorf says that he became convinced that the wristwatch was the way of the future.

He thought there would be a better trade in wristwatches than pocket watches, because they were more prone to damage (and therefore need replacement), and because, unlike a pocket watch that was handed down from generation to generations, wristwatches would be fashionable items that would be personal to their wearer, who would also want to have two or three different wristwatches to go with different outfits.

Wilsdorf freely admitted that he was not a watch maker and was not interested in watches from a technical point of view, he was thinking as a marketing person who wanted to generate maximum sales revenue and profit.

In 1902, during a stay in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Wilsdorf had become acquainted with the watchmaking company Aegler in Biel / Bienne, who produced a small lever escapement movement with a reputation for precise time keeping and good availability of spare parts due to the modern precision production methods, making extensive use of machinery and gauges so that parts were interchangeable.

Wilsdorf says that in 1905, soon after founding his firm in London, went to Bienne to see Hermann Aegler and placed the largest order for wristwatches ever seen at that time. Wilsdorf says that the first wristwatches produced under this arrangement were for men's and ladies' wear in silver cases with leather straps.

However, the Vade Mecum was written in 1945 when Rolex had become famous for its men's wristwatches. In 1905, men were far less likely than ladies to wear a wristwatch and the assertion that the order included men's wristwatches is a little implausible. Indeed, Wilsdorf himself says At that period, the wristlet watch was not at all popular; in fact it was an object of derision, the idea of wearing a watch on one’s wrist being contrary to the conception of masculinity. If the first order to Aegler did include men's wristwatches, there is no doubt that they would have sold very slowly.

Le Roy Bracelet Watch Advert 1887
Le Roy Bracelet Watch Advert 1887: Click image to enlarge

There is another a statement in the Vade Mecum which suggests that most of the wristwatches sold by Wilsdorf and Davis at the time were for ladies: Next came the idea of the expanding bracelets, which an important jewelry firm invented and launched in about 1906. This too won the approval of our British clientele. From that time on, our little gold watch became increasingly popular throughout the Empire. Note that not only does he refer to the expanding bracelet described in the next section, which was not a feature of men's watches of the time, but he also calls it “our little gold watch” (emphasis added). Although wristwatches are smaller than pocket watches, it is very unlikely that he would have referred to men's wristwatches in this way.

Wilsdorf says that the immediate sales success of his wristwatches after their autumn launch prompted him to widen the range and introduce a selection of designs in gold cases. Evidently he must have got his sales and marketing techniques right, because the success was not due to a change in fashion; aristocratic ladies had been wearing wristwatches for centuries and wristwatches had become fashionable with wealthy ladies for nearly twenty years, since the late 1880s. The advert by Le Roy from 1887 shows a lady's bracelet watch much the same as Wilsdorf & Davis began to sell in 1905.

Harrop's Britannic Bracelet

Britannic Bracelet.
Harrop Britannic Bracelet. Click image to enlarge.
Thanks to www.historyworld.co.uk.

In the Vade Mecum Wilsdorf says “Next came the idea of expanding bracelets, which an important jewellery firm invented and launched in about 1906. This too won the approval of our British clientele ... [and] became increasingly popular throughout the Empire.”

The “important jewellery firm” that Wilsdorf refers to was Edwin Harrop, who called the expanding bracelet they invented in 1906 the “Britannic” as shown in the advertisement reproduced here. Edwin Harrop was granted patent No. 24396/06 in 1907 for this design. The Britannic bracelet became extremely popular and was made for many years – at least until 1964. They are seen regularly today on ladies watches and Harrops must have sold many thousands of them.

Wilsdorf rode the success of the Britannic bracelet, remarking that “... both a new fashion and a great commercial success sprang from an apparently foolhardy idea. Soon we were placing orders for tens of thousands of pieces ...” So the early success of Rolex was, in part at least, due to Harrop's Britannic bracelet.

Wilsdorf doesn't say it in the Vade Mecum, but these expanding bracelets were for ladies' wristwatches. An attempt to introduce a similar expanding bracelet branded “Army” during World War One, emphasising the benefits of a metal bracelet over leather in wet and muddy conditions, fell upon stony ground because of its effeminate appearance, despite the branding.

Very few, if any, of these early wristwatches would have been sold to men, despite what Wilsdorf says. Before World War One, wristwatches were very much considered a woman's item and many men regarded them, like bracelets, as effeminate. An exception to this were military men who did buy wristwatches, but there is no evidence that Wilsdorf was involved in that area, or even realised that this small, specialised, demand existed.

The Britannic bracelet was guaranteed for five years, and tested in public demonstrations over 110,000 cycles. But they don't last forever, especially in everyday use, and many watches from the pre-war period have had their Britannic bracelets replaced. The lugs that attach the bracelet to the case are very narrow and won't take a leather strap, but they can be adapted for a leather strap by fitting Loop Ends.

Creation of the Rolex brand

On 1 July 1907, Wilsdorf & Davis opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds at 9, Rue Léopold Robert, the avenue that runs through the very centre of the town. The nature of the business was given as Horlogerie en gros or wholesale horology. This office was evidently intended to be a point of contact between Swiss watch manufacturers and the London import business. La Chaux-de-Fonds was the heart of the Swiss watchmaking industry and it is notable that Wilsdorf chose this location rather than Bienne where Aegler was based. Evidently, at the time, Wilsdorf do not appreciate the future importance of Aegler to his business.

Wishing to create his own brand, Wilsdorf started using this Swiss office to register brand names in Switzerland. The first he name he chose to register was "Lusitania", on 1 November 1907. Lusitania was an ocean liner launched by the British Cunard Line in 1906; the biggest, fastest and most luxurious liner in the world at the time. In 1915 Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, an event that brought America into World War One on the side of the Allies, but by then Wilsdorf had long since lost interest in the name.

Rolex Registration
First registration of the Rolex name in 1908

In 1908 Wilsdorf coined the name Rolex.

Some have speculated that the name Rolex had some complicated origin such as being derived from hoROLogie EXcellence, but in the Vade Mecum Wilsdorf says that Rolex was chosen because it was a short yet significant word, not cumbersome on the dial (thus leaving room enough for the inscription of the English trader's name) and, above all, a word easy to memorise. It has a pleasant sound and its pronunciation remains unvaried in whatever European language it is spoken. He doesn't reveal where the name came from, but it sounds like he simply made it up. His description of the way the word is short, easy to remember and pronounce echoes the words of George Eastman, who registered the trademark Kodak on 4 September 1888. Eastman said his criteria for creating the name were that it should be short, one cannot mispronounce it, and it could not resemble anything or be associated with anything but Kodak. I am sure Wilsdorf had the same considerations in mind when he decided on the name Rolex for his leading brand.

Wilsdorf registered Rolex as a brand name in La Chaux-de-Fonds on 2 July 1908 as shown in the registration details reproduced here. This shows that Rolex is a trademark of Wilsdorf and Davis, manufacturers of watches, parts of watches and cases. Wilsdorf requested Aegler use the new trademark on all of his watches. Aegler wanted their own name to appear on the watches they manufactured, but reluctantly agreed to Wilsdorf's request. Wilsdorf wanted to create a brand that would distinguish his product from other watches, which may even have contained the same parts - Aegler was not an exclusive supplier to Wilsdorf at that time, also supplying movements to Gruen in America and others.

At the time, Wilsdorf and Davis was a British company based in London, so it is rather strange that the first date of entry of Rolex as a trademark in the British trade marks register is dated 6 July 1912. This was published in the official trade marks journal on 14 August 1912. The current trade mark register shows that the registration was renewed until 6 July 2006 but is now officially “dead.”

Wilsdorf was an alien in Britain until he applied for and was granted British citizenship. He took the Oath of Allegiance on 20 November 1911 and was granted a certificate of Naturalization by the Secretary of State. His address was “The Mansion, Sundridge Park, Kent”, a beautiful mansion house, now Grade I listed, designed by the architect John Nash in the 18th century, with its surrounding estate and gardens planned by the landscape designer Humphry Repton. Wilsdorf was evidently doing pretty well by 1911, although he wouldn't have owned all of The Mansion, just an apartment within it.

End of Wilsdorf & Davis

In the Vade Mecum, Wilsdorf says “It was in 1919 that I finally founded at Geneva, in the offices we still occupy to-day, our present company, the Rolex Watch Co. Ltd., of which I am sole proprietor.”

On 1 September 1919 it was announced that the Biel branch of the general partnership Wilsdorf & Davis, based in London, had expired after liquidation of the company had been completed. It was also announced that the joint-stock company under the name Wilsdorf & Davis Export S.A., based in Biel, had expired after the liquidation had been completed.

In 1920, a number of trademarks that had been registered by Wilsdorf & Davis were transferred to the company Hans Wilsdorf, commerce, in Bienne and renewed.

Beginning in 1928, trademarks registered by Wilsdorf & Davis began to be struck off the public register because they had not been renewed. The first of these was were numbers 22837 to 22839, Lusitania, Mauretania and “The Eastern Watch”, registered by Wilsdorf & Davis, La Chaux-de-Fonds, in November 1907 and struck off in May 1928.

Prisoner of War Watches

Just before Christmas 1942, the Red Cross announced that the German High Command had agreed to let Rolex supply watches to British Prisoners of War held in German prison camps. The prisoners had no means of paying for the watches, but Hans Wilsdorf stipulated that they did not need to pay at the time; all that was necessary was that they give their word as British Officers to pay when requested after the War. This act of trust was rewarded with hundreds of orders, which were duly delivered to prisoners in their prison camps.

Only two per cent of the watches sent to prisoners were not paid for, in many cases because the recipient died in captivity or before they received the bill.

Death of Hans Wilsdorf

Hans Wilsdorf died on 6 July 1960 at his home on the shore of Lake Geneva. He was 79.

In 1945, Wilsdorf handed over his fortune to a trust, the name Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. The trust ensures the continuity of the Rolex Organisation and provides annual grants to charitable institutions.

In 1981, street in Geneva was named Rue Hans Wilsdorf to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The naming ceremony was carried out by Claude Ketterer, Vice-president of the Administrative Council and later Mayor of the City of Geneva. Among those present were Mrs. Wilsdorf and Mr. Andre J. Heiniger, Managing Director and Chief Executive of Rolex. Heiniger joined Rolex in 1948 and became chief executive in 1962. He became the second chairman in the company's history and ran Rolex until his retirement in 1997.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2022. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.