Rolex's Other BrandsCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.
In addition to registering the name Rolex in 1908, over the following Hans Wilsdorf registered a large number of brand names. There is no question that he reserved the Rolex name and brand for his best watches, the ones made by the Aegler watchmaking company. However, Wilsdorf recognised that there was a market for more watches than Aegler could produce, and also for lower priced watches, so he thought up many other brand names which were used on watches bought from a number of other watchmaking companies. These were not model names for Rolex watches, unlike today's Submariner or Explorer models, these were completely separate brand names, alternatives to the brand name “Rolex”. These were Rolex Watch Company watches, but not Rolex watches.
The movements for these non-Rolex 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 were perhaps cheaper than those made by Aegler, but could be just as good in quality, e.g. with Swiss lever escapements and fully jewelled. However, cheaper movements, even cylinder escapement movements, were also used for these other brands.
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 taste and pocket. But this inevitably resulted in 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 making Rolex a prestige brand for which he could charge accordingly high prices.
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. One of the first steps was to remove Rolex as a single word from the other brand watches, although it was still used as e.g. part of Rolex Watch Co. 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 ultimately comes down to whether Wilsdorf and Rolex would have called it a “Rolex watch”. The problem often occurs with watches that have Rolex on the dial when it shouldn't be there, when it has been added by someone in an attempt to boost the value of the watch.
It is clear that watches with brands such as Maconi, Unicorn, RolCo etc., were intended to be known as 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 identified the watch as a Rolex, and for Wilsdorf that was a definite no-no. It appears that until Wilsdorf realised what a bad idea it was, the Rolex names was allowed to appear alongside some of the other brand names. If they have the single word Rolex on the dial now, it has been painted on later, often much later.
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What IS a “Rolex Watch”?
To be clear about what is not a Rolex watch, we first need to define what makes a watch a Rolex watch.
The Rolex Watch Company purchased watches from a number of different watchmaking companies and sold them under various brand names. So what makes one of these watches a “Rolex” watch as opposed to something else? The principal distinguishing feature is that it had the single word “Rolex” put on to it during the manufacturing process. Not “Rolex Watch Co.” or any other allusion to the company. Needless to say that simply putting Rolex onto a watch some time after it was made cannot magically transform an ordinary watch into a Rolex watch.
There can also be no such thing as an un-named or un-branded Rolex watch - that is a non-sequitur. If a watch does have Rolex on it, then it is either a genuine Rolex or a fake. But if it doesn't have Rolex on it at all, then it is definitely not a Rolex.
The Name on the Dial
Watches branded Marconi, Unicorn, etc. would not have the name “Rolex” on the dial as a single word on its own. That would defeat the whole purpose of creating a brand to be sold at a lower price point. If any of these 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. Sometimes they had “Rolex Watch Co.” on the dial or elsewhere, often in the case, or even sometimes “Rolex” on the case or movement, or even in a few cases on the dial alongside the other brand name, e.g. “Rolex-Marconi”, but since it was not a Rolex watch in the eyes of Wilsdorf and Rolex, it would not have “Rolex” as a single word on the dial, that would have devalued and damaged the main Rolex brand.
Watches are seen with a confusing mixture of these brand names on the dial, movement and case. Sometimes this can be rationalised by understanding what Wilsdorf was trying to achieve, but often it is the result of later modification in an attempt to make the watch more valuable. This most frequently is the addition of the name "Rolex" to a dial which never had it when it left the factory.
Logos and names are usually added using enamel paint, which looks quite convincing. If you know what you are looking for, it is easy to distinguish a name or logo added in enamel paint from a vitreous enamel dial, as I explain at Enamel Dials. Printed metal dials can be more convincing, but if the name shouldn't be there, it is still wrong and, since it is usually impossible to clean paint off a printed metal dial, an original dial has been ruined in the process.
The Other Brands
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).
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Marconi Lever: General Watch Co. Movement.
The Marconi name was the first to be used to any great extent. The brand name “Marconi Lever” was registered on 24 January 1911.
Sometimes watches are seen with “Rolex Marconi” or “Rolex Marconi Special” on the dial. I have seen enough Rolex Marconi now that appear to be genuinely old to convince me that at least some of these might be genuine, although I am less convinced about the “Rolex Marconi Specials”. However, there are more watches with just Marconi than Rolex Marconi so, if the Rolex Marconi watches are genuine, I think it was an idea that was very quickly squashed because it was taking sales away from the pure Rolex watches.
In 1911 Marconi was Wilsdorf's first venture into creating an alternative line of watches. Although these were similar quality to Rolex Aegler watches, often 15 jewel levers, they would have been sold at a lower price point, the higher volume making up for the lower margin. Marketing of any sort in Europe was in its infancy at the time, so Wilsdorf thought that by calling them “Rolex-Marconi” people would recognise that they were not exactly Rolex watches but a cheaper alternative with some of the Rolex cachet. Which of course backfired - people simply thought that they could get a Rolex watch at a lower price. This type of dual “Rolex +” branding was not repeated on later “other brands”. Today the connection between Rolex and Marconi is well known and Marconi watches are often described as simply “Rolex” watches, which is not right; at most they are “Rolex-Marconi”, and some have no doubt been “upgraded” from simple Marconi watches.
The movements of Marconi branded watches are often engraved on the central bridge with "Marconi Lever". All the movements that I have seen and identified were made by the General Watch Company. This was founded as "La Generale" by the Brandt brothers, who also founded the Omega Watch Company. The General Watch Company was created to manufacture watches aimed at the lower end of the market. In 1906 the Brandts withdrew from involvement with the company and it went its own way, soon diversifying into better quality watches with lever escapements. They made watches with the brand name "Helvetia".
Marconi watches in gold or silver cases imported into Britain often have the “GS” sponsor's mark of Stockwell & Company rather than the Wilsdorf and Davis W&D sponsor's mark. Watches that have movements marked Marconi and cases with the W&D sponsor's mark might be marriages rather than original pairings.
Stockwell & Co. were international carriers who, after June 1907, also acted as Assay Agents for clients who didn't have British branches. Wilsdorf & Davis were based in London and had registered their W&D sponsor's mark in 1907 so they didn't require this service from Stockwell & Co., although it is quite likely that they used Stockwell to transport watches from Switzerland to the UK. The use of Stockwell as assay agent for some Marconi watches suggests that in these cases Wilsdorf was trying to hide the connection between the Marconi and Rolex brands. Marconi branded watches are also seen in cases with Wilsdorf & Davis' sponsor's mark and the RWCo. Rolex Watch Company trademark.
Wilsdorf & Davis and Stockwell & Co.
Stockwell & Co. were a large company of British carriers with links to international carriers. They specialised in the transport of watches from Switzerland to Britain. From June 1907 they also acted as Assay Agents for some of their clients who imported watches in gold or silver cases.
Wilsdorf & Davis almost certainly used Stockwell & Co. to transport all their watches from Switzerland to London, and they also used Stockwell & Co. as assay agents for some of their watches, such as the Marconi watches discussed above. Wilsdorf & Davis had registered their own W&D sponsor's mark in 1907 so they didn't necessarily require this service. There were two reasons I can think of why Wilsdorf & Davis would have used Stockwell & Co.'s assay agent service. (1) To disguise the connection between an unbranded or "other brand" watch and Rolex. In this case, only Stockwell's GS sponsor's mark appears on the case. (2) When the assay offices that Wilsdorf & Davis were registered at had a long backlog of work. In this case, sometimes both the W&D and GS sponsor's marks are seen on watch cases.
“Rolex Marconi” Wristwatch
Sometimes early wristwatches turn up with Rolex on the dial. Often this is fake and has been added later to boost the perceived value of a watch. The wristwatch shown here caught my eye; as soon as I saw it I doubted that the “Rolex Marconi” wording on the dial was original or genuine, and it is not. It has been added later in enamel paint.
There were two principal reasons that I was suspicious; first, watches of this age, around 1917 to 1918, that were sold in Britain didn't carry manufacturer's names or logos on the dial because British retailers didn't allow it, and second, because Marconi was created by Hans Wilsdorf to be a brand that was separate from the more expensive Rolex brand for watches, so the two names should not be seen together like this.
It is recorded in the book by Dowling and Hess that Hans Wilsdorf registered the name “Marconi Lever” on 24 January 1911. They also say that the Marconi brand was first used on a watch in 1920. Dowling and Hess note that Marconi watches were sold through “parallel channels”, which meant dealers who were not Rolex agents.
The watch is a typical trench watch, which were in great demand by newly commissioned officers heading for the front line in the Great War. It has wire lugs, an unbreakable crystal (as original but replaced) and skeletonised poire squelette hands and Arabic numerals to take radium luminous paint, of which traces remain.
The case has London Assay Office import hallmarks inside the back for sterling silver, the date letter "b" for 1917 to 1918 and sponsor's mark GS for Stockwell & Company.
The case also has a W&D mark which looks like a genuine Wilsdorf and Davis sponsor's mark. However, a second sponsor's mark in addition to the GS sponsor's mark is unnecessary, and this one is clumsily struck at an angle with a wobbly “W”,. The shield is the right shape and the mark looks like one recorded in Culme, but the low resolution of the images in Culme make an exact comparison impossible. The mark looks more like an engraving than the clear impression made by a punch; it appears to be an engraved copy of a genuine W&D punch mark which was most likely added to the case to strengthen the impression that this might be a Rolex watch. But lots of non-Rolex watches are seen with the W&D sponsor's mark, so this proves nothing.
The movement was made by the General Watch Company of Bienne, originally founded by the Brandt brothers who also founded Omega.
The movement is a typical of the time Swiss split-plate movement, with a lever escapement and jewelled to the third hole for a total of 15 jewels. The balance is plain and the balance spring appears to be blued steel, so it is not compensated for changes in temperature. The screws in the rim of the balance, which in a compensation balance would be used to adjust its temperature compensation, are steel and are only there for show. Lever escapement movements were the best technology for wristwatches at the time, and this one is of middle quality; fully jewelled but not temperature compensated.
The engraving of the name “Marconi Lever” on the movement looks original to me and I have no hesitation in saying that the watch is a genuine Marconi Lever, made by the General Watch Company and sold by the Rolex Watch Company. But it is not a Rolex watch, or a Rolex Marconi watch.
The engraving of a brand name onto the movement was unusual before the 1920s. Branding of watches was something that was unusual in Britain at that period, and something that British retailers were quite opposed to. So whether this movement is from the same period as the case or actually a few years later is open to question.
Fake “Rolex Marconi” Logo
The dial is enamel, which means it is made of vitreous enamel, a glass like material. The white background and the black numbers and tracks are fired at high temperature in a furnace, which bonds them together. As soon as I saw it I was suspicious that the name logo “Rolex Marconi” had been added later, which it has. This is easy to tell.
A quick look at the dial using a hand lens shows that the "Rolex Marconi" on the dial has been added quite recently in enamel paint. I have tried to illustrate this in the two pictures here, although it is not easy to show with a photograph. With the dial under a lens or microscope it can be turned to catch the light which shows up the logo as an addition to the flat enamel of the dial very clearly.
The image with the red lines shows that the logo is not horizontal with the numbers, but also notice that the logo appears blacker than the numbers and tracks. This is because the black vitreous ink used to make the numbers and tracks mixes a little with the white enamel of the dial as it is fired, which takes away some of the intensity of the black, whereas the logo has been applied in black enamel paint which just sits on the surface of the dial.
The second image was illuminated with a strong oblique light and shows how the enamel paint of the logo really stands out from the surface of the dial in a way that the fired numerals and tracks don't. See also how crisp and sharp the logo looks compared to the rusty old hands and traces of original luminous paint on the hands and numbers. Would paint applied to the dial at the same time that the hands and the original luminous paint were new really still look like that? No; genuinely old enamel painted logos dull from oxidation and dirt, and are usually flaked off partially or even nearly completely, over the intervening years, like the example shown at Fired or Painted?.
It is clear that the “Rolex Marconi” logo was added after the dial was made. How long after we don't know, but my conclusion is that someone has quite recently “enhanced” an original Marconi Lever watch. There are two reasons why I think this was done quite recently:
- Watches of this age (1917/18) sold in the UK didn't have the manufacturer's logo painted on the dial; British retailers simply didn't allow it, see Names on Dials for more details of why this was.
- The logo is too perfect, names painted onto enamel dials 100 years ago have dulled from oxidation and dirt, and usually flaked off partially or even completely in the intervening years. Enamel paint does not stick well to glass, which is essentially what the vitreous enamel dial is made of. However, this logo is intact and really crisp and shiny - it almost looks as if the paint is still wet!
- It is well known that the Marconi name on watches was associated with Rolex, although it was intended to be an alternative brand with Marconi watches being sold at a lower price point than Rolex watches. Today some unscrupulous people use this association in an attempt to “upgrade” Marconi branded watches to Rolex watches, for obvious reasons.
The “Rolex Marconi” logo is not part of the vitreous enamel dial, and was not on the dial when the watch was made. It has been added later in enamel paint, the condition of which shows that it is quite recent.
In view of the hallmark date in the case and the 1920 date for the first use of Marconi quoted by Dowling and Hess, the suspicious second sponsor's mark, and the engraving on the movement, there must be a question as to whether the case and movement started life together or whether this watch is a marriage. The dial and hands are of the correct style for the period of the case, although use of dials and hands like this continued after the war, but the engraving on the movement is unusual for the period and looks out of place.
This watch would not have had any manufacturer's name on the dial when it was new, which gives the game away even before studying it in detail. But watches like this with “Rolex Marconi” and similar legends are seen quite often. This one is clearly a fake, but are they all? I think that they probably are, that Wilsdorf would not have allowed the Rolex name to appear like this on a watch that was supposed to be sold as a completely separate brand; it was not supposed to be a “Rolex” watch, even if it was sold by the Rolex Watch Company. If you think that you have evidence to show otherwise, then please do get in touch!
Rolex Marconi Special
With regard to watches marked “Rolex Marconi Special“ on the dial, the brand name Marconi Special was registered by Wilsdorf on 31 August 1923, but I think that by the 1920s Wilsdorf had realised the error of conflating the Rolex and Marconi brands and these would not have been branded as Rolex watches, although they would have carried some allusion to an association with the Rolex Watch Company.
There are a lot of these coming out of Argentina at the moment (2019), often described as “VINTAGE & FINE ROLEX MARCONI SPECIAL HAND WINDING 1940 WRISTWATCH”. As far as I can make out, Rolex dropped the name Marconi in the 1920s and certainly weren't using it in the 1940s. These watches have dials that are in much better condition than the watches themselves, which are usually pretty badly corroded, so it is clear that the dials have been repainted. All of these are obviously fakes and in most cases have nothing at all to do with Rolex. It appears that someone in Argentina has set up to take anonymous watches, redo their dials and hey presto! brand new 1940s Rolex Marconi Specials!
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The Marconi name was soon dropped in favour of "Unicorn". One problem with the name Unicorn was that because it was already in common usage 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 an image or the word unicorn, as many had already done.
I found a number of registrations of trademarks with unicorns, the earliest being Gabus & Fils in 1887, followed by Courvoisier Freres in 1895, Wittnauer & Co. in 1901, J. Ullmann & Cie in 1912, and so on. I am surprised that Wilsdorf wasn't aware of these, but it is clear that he soon realised that Unicorn wasn't sufficiently unique as a brand to be valuable. Some time later, probably after the Second World War, Adolf Schild (A. Schild ), used the name and an image of a unicorn as a trademark or brand.
I was contacted by a correspondent about a "Rolex" watch he had bought; he said it had Rolex branding on the case and a Unicorn movement. On inspection it had the "W&D" sponsor's mark in the case back, "Unicorn" engraved on the movement ratchet wheel, and "Rolex" on the dial. Let's consider each of these points in turn.
W&D sponsor's mark
- The "W&D" mark in a gold or silver watch case is a sponsor's mark. It 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 that they sent for hallmarking and forms part of the hallmark. It is not "Rolex branding".
- 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. As such the name Rolex would not be used for these watches, that would have affected sales of the higher priced Rolex branded watches. This is a Unicorn watch, not a Rolex watch.
- The name Rolex would not originally have been put on the dial of a Unicorn brand watch. It is very easy to get a brand name painted onto the dial of a watch. Simply painting the name Rolex onto the dial of a watch does not transform it into a Rolex watch!
Wilsdorf then started using more unique names such as ROLCO, Oyster Watch Company (which understandably confusing since there was also a Rolex Oyster watch) and many others, one of the best known these days being Tudor, which is discussed in a separate section further down this page.
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 mechanism, 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 of Omega watches 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 lower price points in Brazil.
In 1952 Wilsdorf is reported as saying For some years now I have been considering the idea of making a watch that our agents [emphasis added] 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 intended to be sold alongside Rolex watches or by Rolex agents.
Although Tudor watches were sold alongside Rolex watches by Rolex dealers and agents, at the time they were carefully differentiated. A Rolex advert in 1947, as conditions were still recovering after the end of the war, said that “Available in Britain today are a limited number of Rolex Oysters — first and still foremost waterproof watch in the world—and Tudor Oysters, ideal in the lower-price field and manufactured under strict Rolex supervision.” Retail prices were Rolex Oyster in stainless steel, with adjustable expanding steel bracelet, £26.0.0 : with leather strap, £23.15.0 (incl. purchase tax), Tudor Oyster in stainless steel, with leather strap, £ 15.15.0 (incl. purchase tax.) . These prices are in pounds, shillings and pence and show that the Tudor Oyster with leather strap was sold at two thirds the price of the equivalent Rolex Oyster. The cost of manufacturing the two watches would have been essentially the same, so this was purely a marketing exercise.
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.
These were early days for marketing and branding. Wilsdorf tried to create a situation where the "Rolex Watch Company" marketed watches branded as Rolex, and also watches branded Marconi, Unicorn, ROLCO, Tudor, etc. These were sold at different price points, with Rolex branded watches being the most expensive and the other brands filling lower price points, so that there was a watch for every customer no matter what they could afford. The Rolex Watch Company name being associated with all the different brands would give customers reassurance that whatever they paid, they were getting a good quality watch. Unfortunately, most customers were not interested in what was inside the watch, whether it was a fully jewelled lever escapement movement made by Aegler, or a cheaper mass produced movement from one of the ébauche factories. And no doubt some retailers didn't draw this to their attention.
Soon all these other brands were thought of simply as "Rolex watches" and Wildsorf's carefully differentiated marketing strategy and price structure collapsed. If one could buy a "Rolex watch" with the Unicorn brand on it at a fraction of the price of a "Rolex watch" with Rolex on it, why would anyone pay the higher price. This was not what Wilsdorf had intended. He wanted people who could afford them to buy Rolex branded watches, and others who were less well off to buy one of the cheaper brands. But because of the deliberate association of the Rolex name with the cheaper brands, sales of those soared whilst more expensive watches sat on retailer's shelves. After struggling to differentiate the different brands and their price points, Wilsdorf gave up and all the other brands were dropped. Only Tudor was retained, eventually spun off as a separate company.
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 or, more likely in my view, 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. He must have quickly realised that this was a mistake.
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Oyster Watch Co.
The Rolex Oyster wristwatch was the watch that transformed Rolex from just another London based British company importing Swiss watches into a successful and recognised name. With Wilsdorf's expensive advertising, people began asking for Rolex Oyster wristwatches by name, which enabled Wilsdorf to insist that every one had Rolex Oyster on the dial. British retailers didn't like it, but to refuse to stock the watches was to lose out on sales, and no retailer wants to do that.
With the success of the Rolex Oyster wristwatch assured, Wilsdorf decided to create a similar watch that could be sold at a cheaper price point. By 1932 Rolco and Unicorn models of the oyster design had been made, with Fontainemelon movements and Snowite cases. Some time after this, so mid-1930s, the “Oyster Watch Co.” was created. The Rolco and Unicorn names were dropped and the watches were simply signed “Oyster Watch Co.” or “Oyster Junior Sport”. Many (all?) of these watches were smaller size models that were fashionable in the 1930s.
The suffix “Co” would normally signify a separate company, although the Oyster Watch Co. doesn't appear to have been an actual company, just a brand name. Watches branded Oyster Watch Co. have movements made by ébauche manufacturers other than Aegler S.A., the company which made the movements for the “real” Rolex Oyster watches.
The Oyster Watch Co. was not a great idea. There was little attempt to hide the link between Rolex and the Oyster Watch Co. - how could there be, when the watches were very similar and both used the Oyster name. Indeed, it might even appear to some that the Rolex Oyster was made by the Oyster Watch Company for Rolex, which was certainly not what Wilsdorf had in mind.
Wilsdorf's idea was that the reputation of the Rolex Oyster would brighten the appeal of Oyster Watch Co. watches and make them easier to sell. But of course what actually happened was that people thought that they could get a Rolex Oyster cheaper than one with Rolex on it. Today marketing companies avoid this “contamination” of the main brand like the plague, but marketing was not so sophisticated in the 1930s. Sales of Oyster Watch Co. watches inevitably hurt sales of the real, more expensive, Rolex Oyster. The Oyster Watch Co. name was dropped at the end of the Second World War, when Rolex dropped all the other non-Rolex brand names apart from Tudor.
Most Oyster Watch Company watches have movements made by the ébauche manufacturer Fontainemelon. Although Oyster Watch Company watches were sold at a lower price point than Rolex Oysters with Aegler movements, there was probably not a lot if any difference in the cost of these ébauches. Many of the parts came from the same external suppliers used by both companies - the assortiment, the balance, lever and escape wheel, all came from one of a small number of specialist manufacturers, jewels came from another, mainspring barrels already assembled with their spring came from another, etc. Making the plates and wheels and assembling all the parts into a movement did not leave a great deal of scope for price variation: one 15 jewel Swiss lever escapement movement cost much the same as any other to manufacture.
The movement and case back shown here are branded Oyster Watch Co. The case back has the same list of patents found in the case backs of Rolex Oysters, and the SAR under a coronet trademark, so there is no attempt to conceal its connection to the Rolex Watch Company. But this watch has a cheap injection moulded case and was intended to sell at a lower price point than a Rolex wristwatch.
There is very little hard evidence on which to base a date for this watch. There are no mentions of the various numbers of world's records that are found in the case backs of Rolex watches, because of course this is not supposed to be a Rolex watch. Details of the Oyster Watch Co. are few and far between and there are no obvious clues from the watch itself. The US patent listed, No. 1661232, is the last to be granted in 1928, and the Oyster Watch Co. brand was dropped before or during the second world war, so the best I can do is to say 1930s. If you have an Oyster Watch Co. case with fewer patents listed than this one, please let me know. Otherwise it appears that most Oyster Watch Co. watches were made in the 1930s.
The bottom plate of the movement has the FHF trademark of Fontainemelon showing that they manufactured the ébauch. It's a 10½ ligne FHF 30 movement ticking at 18,000 vph. It has a Swiss straight line lever escapement and fifteen jewels, so it is a good quality basic movement. Fontainemelon mass produced ébauches so perhaps this would have been a little cheaper than an Aegler ébauch, but similar in quality to Aegler's own 15 jewel movements. This one is marked "unadjusted", which was put onto movements to make them cheaper to import into America, adjusted movements being charged a higher rate of import duty.
This Fontainemelon movement was also used in Tudor watches, when it was called the Tudor calibre 59. There was also a centre seconds version called the 59(SC). The Fontainemelon reference for this movement was FHF 30-1. Although the Tudor version is usually described as being “based on” the Fontainemelon movement, the only modification seems to be the engraving of the Tudor name on the bridge. This was almost certainly done by Fontainemelon as the ébauche was being made, it would not be practical or cost effective to engrave onto a completed movement.
The case of this Oyster watch is made from the "Snowite" injection moulding zinc alloy. This is a very poor quality material and, although it is chrome plated, the back very heavily pitted on the outside. I don't have the other parts of the case so I don't know how well they survived; the case back was against the wrist and some people's perspiration can cause corrosion damage, even on some grades of stainless steel. This case is particularly bad.
Later watches with Snowite front parts to their cases have stainless steel backs to avoid this. However, even the front parts of Snowite cases can suffer from heavy corrosion. It is not a good material.
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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 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.
Tudor Advert from 1961
The Tudor brand was little used before WW2 except for watches sold in Australia. The image here shows the dial from one of these, which in addition to "Tudor" clearly carries "Rolex Watch Co. Ltd". Surely anyone could be forgiven for thinking that this was a model of Rolex watch, not a completely separate brand.
Many watches sold in Australia have cases that were made by Australia's largest case maker, J. W. Handley in Melbourne. Handley made cases for Rolex, Tudor, Unicorn, Cyma, Omega, Tissot and many others. This was to reduce import duties on Swiss watches imported into Australia. Duties were lower on uncased movements because they were considered to be “parts” which facilitated local employment of craftspeople. Also, the case, especially a gold case, was a significant proportion of the cost of a finished watch. A case in sterling silver cost about the same as the movement, a gold case considerably more. Making the cases locally reduced considerably the value on which import duty was levied.
The ébauche shown here from an Oyster Watch Co. branded watch is a Fontainemelon calibre 30, cal. FHF 30; it was also made in a centre seconds version FHF 30-1. It's a 10½ ligne diameter round movement ticking at 18,000 vibrations per hour. It has a Swiss straight line lever escapement and fifteen jewels, so it is a good quality movement basic mass produced. It was also made in a 17 jewel variant with end stones for the escape wheel bearings, and an indirect centre seconds version called the FHF 30-1.
This ébauche was widely used in the Rolex Watch Company's “other brand” watches such as Oyster Watch Co. and Tudor. In Tudor watches it was called the calibre 59 and the centre seconds version called the cal. 59(SC). Although the Tudor version is usually described as being “based on” the Fontainemelon movement, the only modification seems to be the engraving of the Tudor name on the bridge.
In 1946 Wilsdorf decided to create a completely 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.
The relationship between Rolex and Tudor caused the advertising copywriters to dance a merry jig. In early trade adverts it was said that Tudor was "sponsored" by Rolex. Later Tudor adverts such as the one from 1961 reproduced here said that they were "made" by Rolex. The use of the word "made" in this context is stretching the normal meaning of the word rather beyond breaking point in my view, since Rolex didn't actually make anything; the ébauches, dials, hands, cases, straps and bracelets of all Rolex, Tudor, Marconi, Unicorn, ROLCO, etc. etc. watches were made by companies not owned by either Wilsdorf or Rolex.
Emphasis on the (lower) price point of Tudor watches was relentless. Advertising copy said that Tudor watches were "... for the man whose purse is modest, yet whose aspirations are high." The ruggedness of Tudor watches, the waterproof case of the Tudor Oyster, the high quality of the watches, were repeatedly emphasised. Surely only somebody who worked in the advertising department could convince themselves that they were really advertising something completely separate and different to the more expensive "real" Rolex watches. Or am I just too cynical? Actually, these trade adverts were not supposed to be seen by the public - but what salesman sensing a potential sale and commission would resist mentioning the Rolex connection.
In fact, the technical differences between a Tudor watch and a Rolex watch were vanishingly small; even the advertising department couldn't come out with a convincing explanation of precisely what the difference was. The only really significant difference was in their prices. It was therefore understandable that people thought that a Tudor was a cheap Rolex, it just didn't carry the bragging rights of its more expensive stable mate. Which is why a lot of Tudors and other early Rolex Watch Co. watches have been "upgraded" in more recent years by having Rolex added to their dials or movements.
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When Is a Watch Really a “Rolex Watch”?
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 watch? In the semantically complicated marketing world of Hans Wilsdorf the answer has to be emphatically No.
These other brand watches were made for, or sold to, the Rolex Watch Company, but they would not have called any of them a Rolex watch. The other brands were not model names of Rolex watches, they were intended to be completely separate and, let's be brutally clear, cheaper brands. They used non-Aegler movements so that they looked different, and they were sold at lower price points. Whether they actually cost less to make is not the point. After the problems caused by the initial Rolex-Marconi mistake they were called simply a Marconi, Unicorn, Rolco, etc., watch. Wilsdorf didn't want to hurt sales of premium priced Rolex branded watches by associating these other brands too closely with the Rolex name, but of course it was inevitable that people did do that, especially in the resale market.
A watch with one of these other brand names is correctly described as a Rolex Watch Company product, but not as a Rolex watch, even though it clearly is a watch that was sold by the Rolex Watch Company.
This then opens the question as to how to identify a "Rolex watch". The short answer must be that it is a watch that Hans Wilsdorf himself would have called a "Rolex watch" and which would have had the name Rolex put on it clearly at the point of manufacture.
By far the easiest identification for very early Rolex watches is that they had Aegler "Rebberg" movements. But Aegler didn't stand still and new calibres were developed that succeeded the Rebberg. But the fact remains that almost every Rolex watch ever made has an Aegler movement of some sort. If a watch doesn't have an Aegler movement, or one of the small number made with movements from other manufacturers, e.g. from Valjoux for chronographs which Aegler didn't make, then it isn't a Rolex watch.
Some early Tudor watches have Tudor on the dial along 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 – at least while you were in the shop and reaching for your wallet.
It is clear that Wilsdorf wanted to give Tudor watches more than something of the lustre of the Rolex brand without actually calling them Rolex watches. However, this 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, do you? Dear me, what an unpleasant thought. As always, caveat emptor: don't believe everything that you read or are told.
Unmarked or Unsigned Rolex?
I was contacted by a correspondent who had purchased a trench watch and identified the movement as a Beguelin (BTCo.) from my Movement Identification page. From this he also knew that Beguelin supplied watches to Rolex. He told me that there are no markings on the case but the dial and crown are identical to many pictured Rolex on Google. His question was “Is it an unmarked Rolex?”
I explained that Rolex didn't actually make watches, they bought them from manufacturers such as Aegler, Fontainemelon, and Beguelin. Those manufacturers also supplied watches to other companies, so the only thing that distinguishes a watch supplied to Rolex from one supplied to another company are markings on the watch, such as the W&D sponsors mark, or the name Rolex or Rolex Watch Co., or the name of one of their “other brands”. Therefore there can be no such thing as an “unmarked Rolex”. If there is no Rolex related branding on the watch, it has nothing to do with Rolex and is simply an unbranded watch.
Beguelin movements were not used in Rolex watches. They were used for other Rolex Watch Co. brands such as Rolco, Marconi or Unicorn. Any watch with a Beguelin movement and Rolex on the dial has had the name on the dial added later, Wilsdorf and Rolex did not use the Rolex name for these watches.
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W&D Watches with Cylinder Movements
Watches sometimes turn up with the W&D sponsor's mark and very basic movements with cylinder escapements. The images here are of one of these that was auctioned on eBay, and I have seen at least two others virtually identical.
The inside of the back of the silver case has the Wilsdorf and Davis W&D sponsor's mark, which shows that it was imported into the UK by their company. The case was punched with their sponsor's mark before being sent to an assay office to be assayed and hallmarked. The hallmarks are London Assay Office import hallmarks for ·925 (sterling) silver. The sign of Leo is the ‘town mark’ used by the London Assay Office on imported items. The date letter, a Gothic ‘b’ in cameo, is for the hallmarking year from 29 May 1917 to 28 May 1918.
The movement is very basic. It has a cylinder escapement and no train jewels. The red stone at the centre of the regulator is the upper end stone for the balance staff, so it looks like it has four jewels, two end stones and two jewel holes for the pivots of the balance staff. The very best cylinder escapements made by the likes of Breguet had ruby cylinders, but this one will have a steel cylinder. There is nothing particularly wrong about movements with cylinder escapements, when new they were capable of quite good time keeping but they do require very regular cleaning and oiling. They were mass produced by Swiss manufacturers in the nineteenth century in millions. The finish and lack of jewelling on this one identifies it as being one of these mass produced movements and very cheap.
So why were Wilsdorf and Davis handling these very basic and cheap watches? There is no name on this one, indeed nothing to identify it other than the W&D mark. There is certainly no suggestion that it is a Rolex watch, despite what some vendors might like you to think. The ones I have seen are all wristwatches, and all are dated from their hallmarks to the time of the Great War, during which there was a tremendous demand for wristwatches from men heading for the front. I suspect that this was simply ‘making hay while the sun shines’. When there was such a tremendous demand for anything in wristwatch form, who would resist importing and selling whatever they could get their hands on?
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved. This page updated October 2020. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.