Blog: Hans Wilsdorf - Early Days
Date: 2 August 2019Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2021 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 to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Hans Wilsdorf - Early Days
Hans 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.
Bechmann Hosted by Cuno Korten
There seems to be nothing 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 a ‘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 companies that imported Swiss watches and sold them to British retailers.
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 money from his sister and brother-in-law Alfred Davis, and founded the firm of Wilsdorf & Davis, 83 Hatton Gardens, London E.C.
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. They 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 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.
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 and Early Wristwatches
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, partly because they were more prone to damage (and therefore need replacement), and partly because, unlike a pocket watch that was handed down from generation to generations, wristwatches would be fashionable items that would be personable to their wearer, who would also want to have two or three to go with different outfits. Wilsdorf was not really interested in watches from a technical point of view, he was thinking like a marketing person who wanted to generate maximum sales revenue.
In 1902 while 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.
In 1905, soon after founding his firm in London, Wilsdorf 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, and that their immediate success after the autumn launch prompted him to widen the range and introduce a selection of designs in gold cases. Evidently he got his marketing right, the success was not due to a change in fashion; ladies had been wearing fashionable wristwatches like this for nearly twenty years, since the late 1880s.
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.’
Harrop Britannic Bracelet. Click image to enlarge.
Thanks to www.historyworld.co.uk.
The important jewellery firm 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 the Great War, 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 the Great War, 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
In 1907 Hans Wilsdorf opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds for marketing purposes. Wishing to create his own brand he 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; she was 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 the Great War on the side of the Allies, but by then Wilsdorf had long since lost interest in the name.
First registration of the Rolex name in 1908
In 1908 Wilsdorf coined the name Rolex. Some have speculated that this 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, so we shall probably never know for sure, 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 devised the name Rolex.
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.
Rolex Watch Company Limited
London was the export centre for Wilsdorf & Davis watches for overseas markets as well as Britain. Every watch was examined in London before being sent to the retailers, whether British abroad. By 1914 the London company had grown to such an extent that it was occupying a large suite of offices and had a payroll of more than 60 employees.
The Rolex Watch Company Limited was registered in London on 15 November 1915 under the Companies Acts, 1908 and 1913. If nothing had happened to force a change, Rolex might still be a British company with its headquarters in London.
In 1915, as part of the war effort, the British Government imposed an ad valorem duty of 33⅓% on imported luxuries, which included clocks and watches, to conserve foreign currency reserves. This meant that any watches imported into London, even if only for checking before subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this high rate of tax.
Wilsdorf & Davis had opened an office in the Aegler factory in Bienne in 1912 to facilitate their close business relationship with Aegler. As a result of the British import duty, to avoid paying the tax on watches not destined for the British market, Wilsdorf moved his main Swiss office from La Chaux de Fonds to Bienne, and expanded the function of the consolidated office to include checking all the watches he purchased from Aegler, whether they were bound for London or elsewhere, so that watches bound for countries other than Britain did not need to pass through London. For the time being the head office of Rolex remained in London.
In 1919 Wilsdorf decided to relocate the headquarters of Rolex from London to Geneva.
Today the British Rolex Watch Company Limited is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rolex Holdings SA, a company incorporated in Switzerland, and operates as part of the group's distribution and watch servicing operations. The company's principal activity is the sale of Rolex products to the watch industry in the UK and Ireland.
If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2021 all rights reserved. This page updated March 2020. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.