Icons / March 2017

Rolex: The Spoils of War

During the 1940s, a gesture – as commercially expedient as it was generous – by German émigré and founder of Rolex Hans Wilsdorf, saw the brand become a huge part of the Second World War.

Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil ‘The Cooler King’ Hilts in German uniform in a publicity shot for 1963’s The Great Escape.

The notion of one individual’s outstanding contribution to a just war effort has always been a potently romantic one. Take Alan Turing, the British mathematics prodigy who cracked the German Enigma Code and pioneered modern computing in the process and who was recently portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film The Imitation Game. Or what about Squadron Leader Wilson Charlton, the RAF bomb disposal expert who defused 200 explosive devices dropped by the Luftwaffe at the height of the Battle of Britain in just 60 days? Then there’s Major  General Percy Hobart, the military engineer whose range of experimental tanks arguably determined the outcome of the D-Day landings.

Usually built into these wistfully told stories of game-changing individuals, as is the case with the above mentioned three men, is the hero’s having come from point zero: Men from markedly unexceptional backgrounds changing history is a powerful plot driver. This is not the case, though, when it comes to the watchmaker who founded Rolex and Tudor, and whose individual efforts seal his own place in Second World War folklore. Hans Otto Wilhelm Wilsdorf scarcely sounds a likely moniker for a man who would go on to show great generosity and trust in a spirit of loyalty to the allied cause, but that was the birth-name bestowed upon the man watch aficionados the world over know simply as Hans Wilsdorf.

In 1904, Wilsdorf was just 23 when he moved from his native Germany to England and founded Wilsdorf & Davis with his brother-in-law, Alfred. In response to the breakout of the First World War, and the subsequent hostility administered to anyone with a Bavarian accent on British streets, he moved Rolex’s headquarters to Geneva. He changed the name to The Rolex Watch Company Ltd in 1915, in all likelihood because the distinctly German phonetics of his own name could prove a commercial blight.

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