Wilsdorf's Other BrandsCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
In addition to registering the name Rolex in 1908, Hans Wilsdorf registered a large number of other brand names. There is no question that he reserved the Rolex name and brand for his finest and most expensive 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”. They are watches that were supplied by the Rolex Watch Company, but they are 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.
There is also at least one instance of a retailer not accepting Rolex brand name and insisting that their own brand names was used on watches that would usually have been branded as Rolex watches. This was the Northern Goldsmiths Company of Newcastle upon Tyne who insisted that Rolex watches supplied to them be branded Admiralty. These were not cheaper watches, they had exactly the same 15 jewel Aegler Rebberg movements as Rolex watches, but evidently the Rolex name didn't impress the Northern Goldsmiths Company at the time.
With such a wide range of brand names and ébauches ranging in quality from Swiss levers with 15 or more jewels down to those with cheap and humble cylinder escapements, Wilsdorf could supply a watch to suit every pocket. But this 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 watches that were sold by the Rolex Watch Co., but they were not intended to be known 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.
Until Wilsdorf realised what a bad idea it was, the Rolex name and some trademarks such as RWC were allowed to appear alongside some of the other brand names such as “Rolex Marconi”, but if a watch with Marconi, Unicorn, Rolco etc. branding on the movement has the single word Rolex on the dial now, this has usually 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 that identifies a watch that Hans Wilsdorf and Rolex would call a Rolex watch is that it had the single prominent word “Rolex” put on to it during the manufacturing process. At first this was only on the movement ratchet wheel, but with the success of the Oyster in the late 1920s Wilsdorf was able to persuade retailers to take watches with Rolex on the dial.
Note that just having “W&D”, “RWC”, “Rolex Watch Co.”, or any other allusion to the Rolex Watch Company somewhere on the watch doesn't count; such watches were certainly sold by the Rolex Watch Company, but they did not call them Rolex watches. These watches were alternative brands that were sold at lower prices than Rolex watches.
Putting Rolex onto a watch some time later cannot magically transform an ordinary watch into a Rolex watch. There can also be no such thing as an unnamed or unbranded Rolex watch. If a watch has 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 on 1 November 1907, was Lusitania, the name of a Roman province in the south west of the Iberian peninsular. It was also the name of an ocean liner launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 that was sunk on 7 May 1915 by a German U-boat. At the same time, Wilsdorf also registered the names Mauretania, another Cunard ship, this one named after the Roman province of Mauretania on the north west African coast, and The Eastern Watch.
On 20 July 1909, Wilsdorf registered “Omigra.” This looks suspiciously like Omega, a name that was well known and prestigious when the name Rolex still new and unknown. Was this intended to mislead unobservant watch purchasers? Wilsdorf had second thoughts about this and the registration was cancelled four months later at his request.
Another brand registered by Wilsdorf in 1909 that didn't really get off the starting blocks was Elvira. Other names (amongst many) included Rolwatco, Falcon, Genex, Lonex, Rolexis, Lexis, Hofex and Wintex.
One of the 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).
Around 1945 all the other brand names except for Tudor were dropped, and eventually Tudor was floated off as a separate company.
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The Marconi brand was the first of Wilsdorf's other brands to be used to any great extent. The brand name “Marconi Lever” was registered on 24 January 1911 as shown in the notice reproduced here. An interesting detail is that the location is given as La Chaux-de-Fonds. Wilsdorf & Davis had an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which was closed when they opened an office in Bienne, to be closer to Aegler.
Many watches are seen with the Marconi Lever brand name engraved onto the movement central bridge, with no mention of Rolex. However, the connection of the Marconi name with Rolex is well known and sometimes unscrupulous vendors try to “upgrade” a Marconi Lever watch to a Rolex watch by adding Rolex branding. It seems unlikely that a watch that is branded Marconi Lever on the movement, in engraving that is pretty well impossible to alter, would have originally been branded with a different name in the case or dial. However it is relatively easy to add branding to the case and paint a name onto a dial later, and this is often done in an attempt to increase the value of a watch.
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 persuade me that (at least some of) these are genuine, although I am less convinced about the “Rolex Marconi Specials”.
In 1911, the “Marconi Lever” 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 associating the Marconi name with Rolex, people would recognise that they were not exactly Rolex watches but a cheaper alternative with some of the Rolex cachet. This 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 Lever watches, such as one described below.
The movements of Marconi branded watches are often engraved on the central bridge Marconi Lever. Most the movements that I have seen and identified were made by the General Watch Company.
Around 1945, Marconi and all the other brand names except for Tudor were dropped, and eventually Tudor was floated off as a separate company.
Wilsdorf & Davis and Stockwell & Co.
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 gold or silver 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.
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.
The case of this watch has British Import Hallmarks showing that it was retailed in Britain. The principal reason that I was suspicious is that 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. Wilsdorf himself said that it was not until the mid 1920s that British retailers began to accept watches with names on the dial like this. For more detail about this, see Names on the Dial.
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 World War One. 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 surround 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 still carried some allusion to an association with the Rolex Watch Company such as the RWC stamp in the case back.
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 weren't using it in the 1940s, certainly not as Rolex Marconi. 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 name “Unicorn Lever” was registered as a brand on 17 March 1919 by the company Wilsdorf & Davis.
On 4 October 1920 the registration was transferred from Wilsdorf & Davis to Hans Wilsdorf. The reason for this is not known but it is one of a number of similar transfers from Wilsdorf & Davis to Hans Wilsdorf and appears to have been in conjunction with the disappearance of the name Davis from the name of the company.
Hans Wilsdorf registered the name “Unicorn Watch” on 20 November 1923. There is no record of the single word “Unicorn” being registered by Wilsdorf.
A problem with the name unicorn was that because it was already in common usage it could not be registered on its own, hence the registration of the compound Unicorn Lever. But anyone could register another phrase using an image or the word unicorn, as in fact many had already done. There were 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.
Rodi & Wienenberger AG Unicorn
One of particular note because of its date of 10 January 1920 was the registration by A Boichat-Jeanrenaud & Co., Isola Watch Company, of the name “The Unicorn.”
It is surprising that Wilsdorf wasn't aware of these other uses of the name unicorn or, if he was, that they didn't dissuade him from using the name.
Some time later, when is not known exactly but probably after the Second World War, Adolf Schild (A. Schild), used the name Unicorn and an image of a unicorn as a trademark or brand. By this time, Wilsdorf and Rolex had dropped all the other secondary brands like Unicorn except for Tudor, which still exists today.
Another use of the name unicorn and an image of a unicorn as a trademark was by Rodi & Wienenberger AG. The initials R.W.A.G. seen in watch cases have been thought to possibly refer a German subsidiary of Rolex called “Rolex Watch A.G” but this is not correct. Rodi & Wienenberger AG were one of the German companies in Pforzheim who imported Swiss movements and put them into locally made cases. Rodi & Wienenberger AG were active between 1934 and 1985. Another of their trademarks was “Hermetica.”
When it was realised by Wilsdorf that the name Unicorn wasn't sufficiently unique to form a strong brand the name was dropped. Exactly when this was is not known.
An “Upgraded” Unicorn
I was contacted by a correspondent about a “Rolex” watch he had been sold. It was said to have 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 on the case is a sponsor's mark, entered at assay offices in Britain so that items could be sent in for assay and hallmarking. The mark existed before the Rolex name and it is definitely not “Rolex branding.”
- The name Unicorn on the ratchet wheel identifies it as 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, which is what had been done to this watch.
Painting the name Rolex onto the dial of a watch does not transform it into a Rolex watch! This watch is a Unicorn and should not have been advertised or sold as a Rolex watch.
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After Marconi and Unicorn, 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.
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.
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.
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 World War One 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 waterproof wristwatch was the watch that transformed Rolex from just another London based British company importing Swiss watches into a hugely successful and recognised name. With Wilsdorf's extensive and expensive advertising campaign, people began asking for Rolex Oyster wristwatches by name, which enabled Wilsdorf to insist that every watch 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 tremendous success of the Rolex Oyster wristwatch after its launch in 1927, in 1928 Wilsdorf decided to create a similar watch that could be sold at a cheaper price point. The Oyster Watch Company was created on 31 August 1928. The extract from the registration reproduced here shows that it was formally named Montres Huitre S. A., translated into English as Oyster Watch Limited, a public limited company with its registered office in Geneva. The purpose of the company was the manufacture, purchase and sale of waterproof watches related to various patents that were listed in the statutes and which the right to use was granted to the company free of charge. The first board of directors was made up of three members: Hans Wilsdorf, Marguerite Gagnebin and Cécile-Antoinette Gagnebin. At the meeting of 31 August 1928, May Wilsdorf (Hans Wilsdorf's second wife) was appointed as a director.
This meant that Oyster Watch Limited was legally a completely separate company from the Rolex Watch Company and not just another sub-brand. 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. However, the obvious connections between the Rolex Watch Company and Oyster Watch Limited together with the free use of the critical patents for the oyster case and screw down crown meant that the means of waterproofing and even the appearance of the cases were, in the eyes of customers at least, essentially identical and indistinguishable.
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 virtually identical 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.
The confusion created by this marketing blunder continues to this day, with Oyster Watch Company watches being advertised as Rolex Oyster watches, which also was certainly not what Wilsdorf had in mind. The ultimate test of whether a watch is a Rolex watch is whether Hans Wilsdorf would have called it a Rolex watch, and he certainly wouldn't have gone to the trouble of creating a completely separate company, Oyster Watch Limited, only to call its products Rolex watches.
Wilsdorf's idea was evidently that people would recognise the similarity of Oyster Watch Company watches to Rolex Oyster watches, which would make them easier to sell, but that they would realise that they were a similar but cheaper product without affecting sales of his premium Rolex Oyster watches. Of course what actually happened was that people thought that they could just get a Rolex Oyster cheaper. Today marketing companies avoid this “contamination” of the main brand like the plague, but marketing was not so sophisticated in the 1920s. 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.
Because Montres Huitre S. A. ( Oyster Watch Limited) was a legally constituted company, when use of the name Oyster Watch Co. was dropped the company did not just simply disappear. On 28 August 1940, the company ceased to be active and Fernand Lilla and Lucie-Cécilc Berger were appointed administrators, replacing Marguerite Gagnebin and Cécile-Antoinette Gagnebin. On 21 June 1943, a Foundation of the social and relief works of Montres Huître S.A. was constituted to create a relief, mutual aid and assistance fund to provide direct or indirect assistance to the staff of Montres Huître S.A. (Oyster Watch Limited). The registered trademark Oyster Watch continued to be renewed by Montres Rolex SA into at least the 1990s, presumably to stop anyone else from using it.
Oyster Watch Co. Watches
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 basic 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 mass-produced 15 jewel Swiss lever escapement movement must have cost much the same as any other to manufacture. However, Rolex watches were carefully adjusted for timekeeping, which an ébauche like this one would not have been. The adjustment adds significant cost to a watch but leaves no visible sign on the movement.
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 much lower price point than a Rolex Oyster 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, was the last to be granted in 1928, and use of the Oyster Watch Co. name was dropped before or during the second world war. 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.
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 very similar, so this was purely a marketing exercise.
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 widow of 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.
Handley Watch Case Co.
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 low on uncased movements because they were considered to be “parts” and facilitated employment of local people. 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.
In July 1939 The Argus Week-end Magazine printed an article BEHIND THE SCENES IN INDUSTRY—No. 49 A visit to the modern factory of J. W. Handley, at Richmond, where last year over 300,000 watch cases were manufactured, is a lesson in Australian industrial progress. Watch movements — as the complete assembled works of a watch are technically known — are imported principally from Switzerland, the cases, glasses, and the straps being completely manufactured, and the watches assembled, in Australia. In the accompanying pictures, interesting glimpses are shown behind the scenes at this modern factory, which employs over 420 operatives. The complete article and pictures can be seen here: The Argus Week-end Magazine.
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.
Montres Tudor S.A.
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 produce 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 wristwatch ever made has an Aegler movement of some sort. Rolex made a small number of pocket watches with movements made by Buren and others. If a wristwatch 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.
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Wilsdorf registered the brand name Genex on 24 September 1920. It appears to have been unused for a number of years.
Some time later the brand Genex Veriflat was used, although this combination does not appear to have been registered. In January 1929, Genex Prince was registered. Watches are also seen branded Genex Oyster with the waterproof Oyster case, although again this combination does not appear to have been registered.
Most Genex watches seen are ladies' watches such as the one in the image here with a Fontainemelon calibre 30 (cal. FHF 30) ébauche. The train bridge is engraved “Prima” although it appears to be just an ordinary 15 jewel movement. This watch has a gold case (not shown) with Glasgow Assay Office (two opposed and prone letters "F") import hallmarks for 9 carat (·375) gold with the date letter "f" of the hallmarking year from July 1928 to June 1929 - date letter punches were changed when new wardens of the Glasgow office were elected at the end of June so were used over two calendar years.
The way that the wrist strap is attached to the case with two closely spaced knuckles shows that this watch originally had a Britannic expanding metal bracelet. In the Rolex Vade Mecum, Hans 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. Much of the early success of Rolex was, in part at least, due to Harrop's Britannic bracelets, which remained extremely popular until the 1960s.
The ends of the Britannic bracelet were attached to the watch case by the two metal lugs, which have a very small gap into which the end of the bracelet fitted. If the bracelet was broken or wore out and could not be repaired, the only way to attach a conventional strap was to fit the two wire loops called loop ends or lug ends where the ends of the bracelet had been. I can supply these, see Loop Ends for Ladies' Watches.
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Registration of the brand “Admiralty”: Click image to enlarge
Deregistration of the brand “Admiralty”: Click image to enlarge
Wilsdorf registered “Admiralty” as a brand on 1 December 1922 and it was deleted on 6 February 1923. However, watches from before this date are seen with the Admiralty brand.
The Admiralty brand seems to have been associated with the Northern Goldsmiths, a jewellery shop in Newcastle Upon Tyne with an impressive showroom on the corner of Pilgrim Street and Blackett Street where it has been since 1892. There are lots of watches branded “Northern Goldsmiths” and “Admiralty” which suggests that Admiralty was initially a Northern Goldsmiths' brand.
Today this shop is part of the UK wide Goldsmiths chain who say their first showroom opened in Newcastle in 1778 and that they were “the UK's first appointed stockist of Rolex watches in 1919”. It's not exactly clear what this means; Wilsdorf registered the Rolex name in 1908 and watches with Rolex branding on the ratchet wheels of Aegler movements preceded World War One so there were certainly British Rolex stockists long before 1919 (Wilsdorf and Davis did not sell direct to the public). Ironically, it appears that today the Goldsmiths wish to claim that the Northern Goldsmiths was one of the first Rolex stockists when it appears that at the time the company preferred their own Admiralty branding.
Certainly the Northern Goldsmiths was an important jewellers in the early twentieth century. They commissioned Sidney Better, a springer and timer of Arnold Circus, London, to make them a number of tourbillon watches for entry into the Kew watch trials. In each of the four years between l9l8 and 1922 Better's best watches obtained over 90 marks. Only one watch timed by Better was submitted for the 1921-1922 trial and obtained 94.2 marks, the highest ever awarded for an English watch.
A wristwatch with an Aegler Rebberg movement with Admiralty engraved on the ratchet wheel was sold as an Antique 1914 Silver Rolex Admiralty Wrist Watch, a photograph from which is reproduced here. The inside back of the silver case was not shown, but the description said that it has import hallmarks for London 1914/15 with the W&D sponsor’s mark for Wilsdorf & Davis and “the Rolex stamp” These can just about be made out in the photograph, the W&D sponsor’s mark is just above the serial number and the underlined “Rolex” is at the top. The London Assay Office import town mark, the sign of Leo, is just about visible.
There are some interesting features to this watch. It has a 15 jewel Aegler Rebberg movement, the same as was fitted to Rolex wristwatches at the time. The presence of the W&D sponsor’s mark means that it was Wilsdorf and Davis that submitted the case to be hallmarked, which suggests that they were the importers of the watch.
One particularly interesting feature is the two headed arrow with a circle at its middle below the word Admiralty on the ratchet wheel. The same symbol was used on the ratchet wheel of 7 jewel Aegler movements with Rolex on the ratchet wheel. If this watch had been branded Rolex, there would have been “15 Jewels” in place of this arrow, but it seems that there was not room alongside the longer Admiralty name to add the 15 jewels, so the arrows was used to fill the otherwise blank space.
Although there is no mention of the Northern Goldsmiths on the watch, it seems likely that this wristwatch with the Aegler movement branded Admiralty in a case with Wilsdorf and Davis marks was most likely supplied to the Northern Goldsmiths by Wilsdorf and Davis, and that they were a sufficiently important as a customer that Wilsdorf agreed to have their Admiralty brand rather than Rolex put onto the ratchet wheel.
The 1914/15 Northern Goldsmiths Admiralty branded wristwatch pre-dates Wilsdorf's registration of the name “Admiralty” as a brand on 1 December 1922.
Beguelin Admiralty Watches
On the NAWCC Message Boards, Dan Mace posted an image of a Beguelin movement with a ratchet wheel with the same engraving, not only the name brand Admiralty but also the same detail of a circle with two arrows projecting from it like this <---o--->. The crown wheel of this movement also has Swiss Made on it, but it is different from the one on the 1914/15 Aegler movement in that it has a fixed central core around which the outer section of the wheel rotates. This suggests it is a later movement than the Aegler, as well as being sourced from a different manufacturer, Beguelin, who also used the name Tramelan. From the dates of the registration and deregistration of Admiralty by Wilsdorf, it seems likely that this Beguelin movement dates to 1922 or 1923.
It seems that Wilsdorf might have decided that Admiralty was a good name to use for a brand and registered it himself for one of his cheaper ranges of watches with Beguelin movements. Was the cancellation of this brand in 1923 due to the Northern Goldsmiths having a stern word with him about using the brand Admiralty? It seems at least possible.
The company H. White & Co. Ltd. of 63 Cheapside, London E.C., was formed in the nineteenth century by Harry White. Although the original company was liquidated in 1899, the name continued and H. White & Co. Ltd. achieved high marks with many watches entered into the annual trials of deck watches at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, between 1902 and 1914.
Although I have not seen it, there are reports of a wristwatch in a silver case bearing hallmarks for 1914/1915 with a movement by A. Michel, Fabrique d'Ébauches, Grenchen. The white enamel dial has “H. White & Co. Makers to the Admiralty” and “THE ADMIRALTY LEVER”.
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Wristwatches are worn in a more exposed and vulnerable position than pocket watches, which made it important to improve the sealing of the cases of early wristwatches to prevent moisture getting in and damaging their movements. This was especially important for wristwatches destined for a humid and damp tropical environment.
An elementary, almost brutally simple, way of protecting a watch from moisture was to place it completely inside a larger case with a screw-down bezel, the outer case forming a hermetic encapsulation totally enclosing and protecting the watch within. Watches employing this double case design are usually called “Hermetic”.
It is evident that Hans Wilsdorf, co-founder and managing director of Rolex, saw potential in this design and some watches with this type of hermetic case were made for Rolex. There was evidently some doubt in his mind about the viability of the design, because most, if not all, of them were not sold as Rolex watches but were sold under the name Submarine as a separate brand. Many of these watches appear to have been sold to countries in the middle and far east with tropical climates, where their waterproof characteristics were especially necessary.
Although some people, usually those selling the watch, call anything that has even a hint of a connection with Rolex a “Rolex watch”, the correct test of whether a watch is a Rolex watch is whether Hans Wilsdorf would have called it one himself, and from the markings on the Submarine watches that have been seen it is clear that Wilsdorf and Rolex would not have called them Rolex watches.
It is possible that some watches with hermetic cases might have originally been sold as “Rolex Hermetic” watches. It is difficult to be sure about this because many of the surviving watches have been altered to make them appear to be Rolex watches and one that is convincingly and undoubtedly a Rolex watch, with the correct markings in the case and on the movement, has yet to be seen.
What should these Submarine watches be called? They are not Rolex watches so it is not right to call them “Rolex Submarine” watches, and there is also the earlier Tavannes Submarine, a waterproof wristwatch that has a prior claim to the Submarine name. Because they were sold by the Rolex Watch Company (RWC), like many other non-Rolex watches, it seems reasonable to call them “RWC Submarine” watches.
If any genuine Rolex watches with hermetic cases do turn up, then of course it would be right to call them “Rolex Hermetic” watches, but none are currently known.
A U.S. patent for the hermetic case design was granted to Frederick Gruen on 20 May 1919, patent number U.S. 1,303,888 "Wrist-Watch" with a priority date of May 29, 1918. A Swiss patent for a virtually identical design was granted on 4 January 1921 to Jean Finger, a watch case maker of Longeau, Berne, Switzerland, patent number CH 89276 "Montre a remontoire avec boitier protecteur" (stem winding watch with protective box) with a publication date of 2 May 1921.
The granting of two separate but identical patents like this to Gruen and Finger should have been prevented by international patent law but evidently wasn't. There is no indication that either party tried to register their patent in the other's country or challenged the other's patent so it seems that they simply existed in parallel. The fact that Jean Finger's design is so similar to the Gruen design does not mean that he copied it; it is such a simple and obvious idea that it could have occurred to any watch case maker - so obvious that it is surprising that a patent was granted. To be patented, an invention must be novel and not obvious to someone “skilled in the art to which the invention pertains”.
Wilsdorf evidently bought some rights to the Jean Finger patent, because in 1922 he applied for and was granted a British patent, No. GB 197208 “Improvements in and Relating to Watches”, on 10 May 1923 for exactly the same design, with the priority date 26 May 1922. This patent is also strange in the it does not say that Finger has assigned the rights to the invention to Wilsdorf, and it was not granted under the patent convention existing at the time where Swiss patents would be accepted in Britain. It appears to be a completely separate patent, although the design is exactly the same. No watch case manufactured in Britain under this British patent has ever been seen.
Watches using Jean Finger's patent hermetic case design were produced for Rolex from around 1924. Because the British patent was granted to Wilsdorf, it is sometimes said that he, or Rolex, made the cases of these watches. This is not true, neither Wilsdorf or Rolex made watch cases, they (or rather the suppliers who they bought watches from) bought cases from specialist watch case manufacturers such as the company of Jean Finger. In fact, since Jean Finger owned the Swiss patent on the hermetic case design, all the hermetic cases made in Switzerland must have been made by his company, whether they are marked as such or not.
That many of the cases were made by Jean Finger is evident from the trademark of the initials "JF" for Jean Finger and the words "Double Boitier Brevet 89276" (Double Case Swiss Patent 89276), a reference to the Jean Finger patent. The presence of the initials W&D within a fancy surround does not show that the case was made by Wilsdorf & Davis, or by Rolex, neither of whom actually made watch cases. The W&D stamp is a sponsor's mark that was applied to the cases so that they could be sent to a British assay office to be hallmarked. Despite what many so-called experts say, the sponsor's mark does not show who made an item, and the hallmarks show where an item was hallmarked, which is not necessarily where it was made.
Wilsdorf registered the name “The Submarine” in March 1922, shortly before he applied for a British patent on the Jean Finger case design, which seems far too close in time to be a coincidence. In the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum, Wilsdorf wrote that “To my technical assistants, my constant refrain was, from the earliest days: We must succeed in making a watch case so tight that our movements will be permanently guaranteed against damage caused by dust, perspiration, water, heat and cold. Only then will the perfect accuracy of the Rolex watch be secured.” The Vade Mecum was published in 1946 so it is not proof as to when Wilsdorf had this idea, but I have a wristwatch with a Borgel screw case with Wilsdorf and Davis' sponsor mark that was hallmarked at the London Assay Office in 1910 or 1911 so it is evident that Wilsdorf was investigating waterproof watches well before World War One; indeed, from the “earliest days” as he says.
The presence of the W&D sponsor's mark in the case of hermetic watches causes some people to refer to them as Rolex watches, but there is no evidence that the Wilsdorf or the Rolex Watch Company ever called them Rolex watches. The sponsor's mark was required in order to get the case hallmarked, nothing more than that: on it's own, it is not a sign of a Rolex watch.
Mauro Monti has researched this aspect since 2020 and tells me that he has catalogued 25 different watches of the “Hermetic” type with a Jean Finger patented case, 13 of have the Wilsdorf & Davis sponsor's mark. Of these, the ones with Rolex name on the dial are clearly either refinished dials or dials with the lettering subsequently applied.
The current evidence is that Wilsdorf and Davis, and the Rolex Watch Company, did not refer to these Submarine watches as Rolex watches, so neither should anyone else, although people (usually sellers) often do for obvious reasons. For this reason, and to avoid confusion with the earlier Tavannes Submarine wristwatch, these watches should be called RWC Submarine watches.
Was the hermetic case the solution to Wilsdorf's quest to create as waterproof watch? No.
The hermetic case was not a great design. It achieved the desired result at the cost of considerable inconvenience to the user, who had to unscrew the bezel every day in order to get at the watch to wind it, and then screw the bezel back on, which the fine threads make a tricky operation. It was also not an elegant solution, which is probably why Wilsdorf didn't use if for his prestige Rolex models. He could see that it would have some appeal, particularly in the tropics where high humidity could cause an unprotected watch movement to rust very quickly. He perhaps initially got quite excited by the idea, buying some rights to the Jean Finger patent and ordering some watches to be made, but he seems to have quickly lost enthusiasm and the model was never eagerly adopted and promoted.
It must be noted that these RWC Submarine watches are not related in any way to the earlier 1915 Tavannes “Submarine” wristwatch sold during World War One by Brook & Son of Edinburgh. The fact that Hans Wilsdorf registered the trademark “The Submarine” in March 1922 is a bit strange, given the existence of the earlier watch of essentially the same name. It seems unlikely that Wilsdorf had not heard of the Tavannes Submarine wristwatch since it was heavily advertised by Brook & Son during and after World War One, but neither Brook & Son or Tavannes registered the name as a trademark, so Wilsdorf perhaps thought that he was free to use the name. The fact that he registered the name “The Submarine” rather than simply “Submarine” might possibly have had something to do with this.
An RWC Submarine
The RWC Submarine watch shown in the images here belongs to the family of a correspondent who has kindly given permission for the the images to be used. The minute hand is not original but the hour hand and the numerals retain a lot of their original radioactive radioluminescent paint which continues to emit radiation and radon gas even though the paint no longer glows.
The first image at the top of the page shows the watch with the bezel of the outer case unscrewed, showing the watch inside. There is a joint (hinge) to the left of 9 o'clock and a small tab to be lifted by a finger nail between 4 and 5 o'clock which enable the watch to swung out for winding and setting. Since the watch has to be fairly small to fit inside the outer case, which itself is only 30mm outside diameter, there is no room for an automatic winding mechanism, which also at the time hadn't yet been applied to wristwatches by John Harwood. The absence of automatic winding meant that the bezel had to be unscrewed every day so that the watch could be wound manually. This was the Achilles' heel of the double case design; unscrewing the bezel to wind the watch everyday was a nuisance and the bezel threads were subject to wear from the regular unscrewing and re-screwing.
The outer case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for the hallmarking year from June 1922 to May 1923, which makes this an early example of the hermetic watches produced for Wilsdorf and Davis. It has Jean Finger's trademark JH stamp and reference to the double case patent, and the Wilsdorf and Davis W&D sponsor's mark.
The movement is an A. Schild calibre 345. The fact that it is not an Aegler movement further reinforces the view that Wilsdorf did not regard these as Rolex watches.
Although the enamel dial is badly damaged around 11 and 4 o'clock, the logo of a unicorn and the legend SUBMARINE below it are very clear and undamaged. This shows that they were applied as vitreous ink and permanently fixed into the underlying enamel by being fired during the dial making process, which makes them as indelible and permanent as the rest of the dial.
Rolex and Ingersoll
The dial also has the remains of the name “Ingersoll” above the small seconds. This has partially flaked off, showing that it was applied in enamel paint some time after the dial was made. Enamel paint does not stick well to the smooth surface of an enamel dial and over time it flakes off.
The presence of the Ingersoll name on the dial is striking. Ingersoll began in America as Robert H. Ingersoll & Bros, a catalogue sales and mail order operation known amongst other things for its low prices. In 1896 it introduced a watch called the “Yankee” which was sold at the very low price of one dollar. Ingersoll sold millions of these watches and advertised it as “The Watch that Made the Dollar Famous!”
The Ingersoll company in England was founded in 1904 under the name “Connecticut Watch Company” as a branch of the American firm specifically to sell watches, and in 1916 was incorporated as the Ingersoll Watch Company Ltd. When the American parent company was declared bankrupt in 1922 the English company continued under the name of Ingersoll Ltd. In Britain, the Ingersoll dollar watch was advertised as the Five Shilling Watch, the exchange rate under the gold standard being four US dollars to one pound sterling.
Why would Wilsdorf & Davis and Rolex, who were trying to make a name for themselves as suppliers of expensive Rolex watches, want to get involved with Ingersoll? I mentioned this to James Dowling, who remarked that the way the Ingersoll name had been applied to the dial in enamel paint is the way that watches were customised for British retailers at the time, and that in the 1930s Ingersoll had a shop on Regent Street in London.
This solves the mystery; the British Ingersoll company must have recognised that, in addition to very cheap watches, there was a market for more expensive watches and bought Submarine watches from Rolex, which were customised by painting the Ingersoll name onto the dial. Although Wilsdorf and Rolex would not want to supply Rolex watches to Ingersoll, reserving those for only the top jewellery and watch retailers, it is well known that Wilsdorf developed a number of other brands such as Marconi and Unicorn for sale at lower price points by less exclusive retailers. It is evident that the RWC Submarine watch fell into this category.
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Unmarked or Unsigned Rolex?
Fairly often, correspondents contact me wondering if they have a Rolex watch because It looks very much like images I’ve found of a Rolex watch from this time or it looks a bit like the pictures of a Rolex found on the Titanic, or there is no name on the dial and they have read that they [Rolex] didn't put their name on them till after 1926, or because the dial has a red 12, or any one of numerous other reasons, such as their brother or a man in the pub said so. Invariably, the watch is not a Rolex watch or a Rolex Watch Company product.
Just because a watch looks like a Rolex watch doesn't mean that it is a Rolex watch. All watches look somewhat alike and if you search long enough you can probably find a Rolex watch that does look like your mystery watch, but that doesn't mean that your watch is a Rolex watch.
A red or blue 12 certainly does not identify a Rolex watch, or a military watch. Wristwatches with red and blue 12s were made before the company of Wilsdorf and Davis or Rolex even existed.
Rolex didn't make watches, they bought them from manufacturers such as Aegler, Fontainemelon, the General Watch Company and Beguelin. Those manufacturers also supplied watches to other companies, so the only thing that distinguishes a watch supplied by one of these manufacturers to Rolex from one they 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 Wilsdorf's “other brands”.
Rolex didn't put Rolex on the dials of watches sold in Britain until after 1926 because British retailers didn't allow it. The concept of a “brand”, which would conflict with the retailer's identity and reputation, was fiercely resisted by British retailers. If there was to be any name on the dial, British retailers wanted it to be their own name. It was not until the late 1920s that British retailers began to accept Swiss manufacturer's names on the dials of the watches they sold. For more details about this, see Names on Dials.
The only thing that makes a watch into a genuine Rolex watch is that it originally had certain Rolex markings applied to it at the factory. My grandfather's and grandmother's wristwatches have the correct Aegler Rebberg movements for Rolex wristwatches of their date. But if they didn't have the W&D sponsor's mark in the case back and Rolex on the ratchet wheel, they would be just ordinary run-of-the-mill Aegler wristwatches, not Rolex wristwatches.
If there is no original Rolex branding on the watch, it has nothing to do with Rolex and is simply an unbranded watch. If it has “Rolex Watch Co.” branding then it was sold by Rolex, but it is likely to be a Unicorn or Rolco or one of Wilsdorf's other brands. A watch is only a Rolex watch if it meets the criteria at What is a Rolex Watch?.
There is no such thing as an “unmarked Rolex”.
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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 World War One, 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?
I have seen a wristwatch with a silver case with British import hallmarks for 1915 to 1916 and the W&D sponsor's mark with the name Marguerite stamped in the case back and on the movement. The movement has a cylinder escapement, 8 jewels and “1 one adjustment”. Watches with cylinder escapement movements are usually regarded as being cheap, but the adjustment, probably for isochronism in positions, shows that this one was better than just a basic cheap movement.
Marguerite was registered as a trademark by Wilsdorf and Davis on 4 July 1912. Although the name Marguerite sounds feminine, and is indeed used for ladies' watches today, the watch in question has a black dial with radium luminous numerals and hands and, at 32mm case diameter, looks more like a man's trench watch than a lady's wristwatch.
There is a second sponsor's mark in the case, F.W in cameo within a rectangular surround. It was suggested that this was the mark of Frederick Wright, a case maker working in Coventry in the mid-nineteenth century, which doesn't seem very likely. The F.W mark in this watch case is not recorded in Priestley but from the FW marks in Culme it appears to be number 5327 entered by Francis George Wesson in 1908, which would tie in with the start of British import hallmarks. Wesson was earlier recorded entering marks as a glass mounter, but when the requirement for foreign gold and silver watches was passed into law in 1907 he might have decided to act as an assay agent. The presence of Wesson's mark in the case as well as the W&D mark suggest that it was Wesson who actually sent in the case to be hallmarked.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated September 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.