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“Ghost In The Machine”

Have you ever wondered where Rolex came from, or what makes it tick? Hans Wilsdorf exited the world we share more than a half-century ago, or did he? Perhaps he is more alive today than ever?

 
If you have ever read any of my super-detailed Rolex history stories, you know I don’t just publish a bunch of pretty high-definition pictures with text. Instead, I take you back in time—in the Rolex time machine—and do my best to place you in the catbird seat so you may live through the events, and that is exactly what I have done with this incredible story.
 
To the best of my ability, I am attempting to show you things from Hans Wilsdorf’s perspective—in chronological order. This way you get to live through the whole experience and see what Hans Wilsdorf saw–first-hand.
 
Despite the fact, Rolex is one of the most highly recognized brands on earth today, very little has previously been known or published on the history of its highly driven, enigmatic and ultra-innovative marketing genius founder, Hans Wilsdorf. The man the world came to know as Hans Wilsdorf was born in 1881 with the birth-name of Hans Eberhard Wilhelm Wilsdorf.
 
Hans Wilsdorf was a rugged individualist with an absolute commitment to excellence which remains today. Hans Wilsdorf had uncanny insight into strategic design and marketing and refused to compromise quality.

“We want to be the first in the field and Rolex should be seen as the one and only–the best.” –Hans Wilsdorf (1914)

Prior to writing this story, there were only three known photographs on the entire World Wide Web of Hans Wilsdorf, and one of them was exclusive to Jake’s Rolex World. Not only were there very few photos, but, very little cohesive writing on Hans Wilsdorf’s history? So much so, it really seemed as if Hans Wilsdorf never existed, or had become a ghost of sorts.
 
This is particularly strange, since, while Hans Wilsdorf was alive, his name appeared on every piece of Rolex advertising and collateral material. So how and why did he disappear? Was it by design, or did time simply forget him?
 
Somebody, once said, “History does not seem like history when you are living through it.” It is possible time forgot Hans Wilsdorf, but on Jake’s Rolex World I found that to be absolutely unacceptable for many, many reasons.
 
The truth is, I am extremely curious to learn as much as I can about Hans Wilsdorf since his soul is in every Rolex ever made, including every new Rolex manufactured today. I believe this story will shed substantial light on the ghost of Hans Wilsdorf, and I hope to bring him back to life in all of his glory and magnificence.

Watchman Of Our Time

This story will walk you through the life and times of Hans Wilsdorf as accurately as can be done today, and give you, the reader, an uncanny perspective into what he saw and experienced as major milestones throughout the time of his life–from the genesis of Rolex, up through the development of the tool watch.

This article contains the greatest number of photos ever published of Hans Wilsdorf, including, many, never before seen candid images of the man.

“It is not with low prices–but on the contrary–it is with improved quality we cannot only hold the market but improve it.” –Hans Wilsdorf 1912

The history of Rolex is the story of Man & Machine, and this story begins with the elusive historical figure and founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf as a small boy and walks you through his entire life, and beyond…
 
If you think about it for a moment, watches were really the first computers. In other words, they computed the time, and before the iPhone; before the laptop; before the desktop; before video games; before the TV, radio, and car, mankind had the watch to fidget with and obsess over.
 
When I see people today passing the time by constantly pulling their iPhones and Android smartphones out of their pockets or purses to fidget with, I think about how men a hundred years ago, did the same thing with constantly pulling their pocket watches out of their vest watch pocket to constantly check, wind, stare at and fidget with. Watches kept people company before smartphones did.

Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecume
by Hans Wilsdorf

Before we begin exploring Hans Wilsdorf’s lifetime achievements, I must share something very interesting with you. I have been researching this story for years, slowly putting together the elusive, ambiguous, and often cryptic pieces of the Rolex history puzzle that makeup Hans Wilsdorf’s life.
 
Often times I would stumble into or over puzzle pieces and not even understand what I was looking at until years later, it would suddenly dawn on me what I had seen and what it meant.
 
Like with any jigsaw puzzle, I began by identifying and separating out all the puzzle pieces with straight edges, and assembling them all into a frame so I could then work inwards. The challenge was many of the border pieces were missing from this complex puzzle, and this has been a constant source of frustration which somehow inspired me to push ahead that much more.
 
Back in 2010, just after I completed the first detailed draft of this story, I discovered an enormous piece of the Hans Wilsdorf puzzle, and it came in the form of a small book Hans Wilsdorf wrote himself, which was part of a 4 volume set of books published in 1946 named Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum. I discovered the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum when I readan amazing article on the History of Rolex written in 2006 by David Boettcher. I reached out to Dave and he sent me a scanned copy of Vade Mecum, which was invaluable to this story.
 
From what I understand, there were only 1000 copies of this book ever published, and Volume 1 was written by Hans Wilsdorf. Vade Mecum is Latin and translated into English it literally means Go with me. I believe this 4 volume set was originally intended as a manual for Rolex authorized dealers as a way to educate themselves about Rolex product.
I was SHOCKED when I first came across this book, and I almost fell out of my chair when I first read Hans Wilsdorf’s story in his own words!!! Discovering this writing of Hans Wilsdorf presented me with a challenge. Of course, I wanted to immediately publish it, and at the same time, I realized since I was already almost done researching and writing my biography of Hans Wilsdorf, that telling the same story would be redundant on some levels.
 
After much careful consideration, I decided to do something out of the ordinary, and add the entire contents of Hans Wilsdorf’s writing in with my own. I did this because I realize having Hans Wilsdorf’s autobiographical account mixed in with my biographical account should give you, the reader, the best of both worlds.
 
I also decided to put ALL of Hans Wilsdorf’s writing in bold green, italicized letters, within quotation marks. This way you can easily distinguish his words from mine. So let’s hop in the Rolex Time Machine and get going on this marvelous journey through Rolex history!!!

Hans Wilsdorf’s Parents

Let’s begin by taking a look at the 1881 photo of Hans Wilsdorf’s parents, Anna and Johann Daniel Ferdinand Wilsdorf.

This next photo was taken in 1887 when Hans was 6 years old. Hans Wilsdorf is pictured on the far right along with parents Anna and Ferdinand Wilsdorf. Brother Karl (left) and sister Anna (center right).

The two images above appear courtesy of German author Gisbert L. Brunner and appear in his book titled “The Watch Book ROLEX.” Gisbert “Carl” Brunner knew and interviewed Hans Wilsdorf’s second wife, Bertha ‘Betty’ Wilsdorf-Mettler several times back in the 1980s, whereby he gained insight into Wilsdorf. Gilbert is the author of around 30 books on watches and has specialized as a watch journalist since 1981.
Early Years
In Hans Wilsdorf’s Own Words
 
“I was born on March 22nd, 1881, of Protestant parents, the second son of a family of three. My mother’s early death was soon followed by that of my father and, at the age of twelve, I was an orphan.
My mother’s brothers thereupon decided that it would be wiser to liquidate the prosperous business which had belonged first to my grandfather, and later to my father, believing that in this way we children could be better prepared for life without having to call upon anyone for help.
 
Our uncles were not indifferent to our fate; nevertheless, the way in which they made me become self-reliant very early in life made me acquire the habit of looking after my possessions and, looking back, I believe that it is to this that much of my success is due.”
 
I have to interject for a moment and point out how profound this point is that Hans Wilsdorf just made. It’s so true, struggles in life make us achieve. If everything is just handed to you, it takes the wind out of your sails. Let’s continue with Hans Wilsdorf telling his fascinating story:
 
“We were placed in a boarding school of excellent repute where we received that sound education so necessary to the man who has to make his own way in the world.
 
I showed a particular liking for mathematics and languages and this inclination drove me to travel and work in foreign countries. I began my career as an apprentice in a very important firm of Pearl exporters whose sales organization covered the world. The experience gained there has proved invaluable throughout my career.
 
In the year 1900, I went to La Chaux-de-Fonds, to work as an English correspondence and clerk with Messrs. Cuno Korten, 49, rue Leoppold Robert, at a monthly salary of frs. 80.– (about 3 15s. in the currency of the time).
 
This firm has now closed down (the Head having left Switzerland) but at that time it was a big concern exporting about one million francs worth of watches annually; all grades of watches were dealt with, although only a small proportion was manufactured by the firm itself.
 
My work there provided an excellent opportunity to study the watchmaking industry closely and to examine every type of watch produced both in Switzerland and abroad.
 
In 1903, I settled in London, again working for a good watchmaking firm which has also long since closed down. Two things struck me most forcibly about my new employers: on the one hand their commercial competence and, on the other, their lack of specialization.
 
I soon gained confidence in myself and, in 1905, at the age of 24, decided to set up in business alone, feeling that my training and education had prepared me to stand on my own.

The Winning Of The First Round

 
“The first result of this decision was the founding, in 1905, of the firm styled Wilsdorf & Davis, 83 Hatton Gardens, London E.C., with a modest capital at its disposal. “

Hans Hilsdorf, Founder of Rolex pictured above in 1905 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

As we just learned, in 1905, Hans started his first business with a much older business partner named Alfred James Davis, who was Hans Wilsdorf’s brother-in-law. Their company was named Wilsdorf & Davis and they specialized in selling watches and watch parts. The photo below is the placard sign that was placed on the outside of the front door of Wilsdorf & Davis headquarters in London, England.

The image below appears courtesy of Rolex and shows a young Hans Wilsdorf in 1906 pictured third from the left, behind the tree, holding a cup of tea. I am not 100% certain, but I believe it is very likely that is his sister Ana Wilsdorf next to him, along with her husband, Alfred James Davis, who was Hans Wilsdorf’s brother in law and partner in Wilsdorf & Davis!

In 1908, Hans Wilsdorf registered the name of Rolex as a trademark for Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd., and the image below, which appears courtesy of David Boettcher is the official registration from July 2nd of 1908.

In the next photo below, we see Hans Wilsdorf commuting on a horse-driven bus through London, England in 1908. Hans Wilsdorf said in 1958, on the 50th anniversary of Rolex history:
 
“I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way. This gave some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. It was one morning when I was sitting on the upper level of a double-decker powered at that time by horses, driving along Cheapside in London, that a good genie whispered in my ear: “Rolex.” A few days after this fruitful journey, the Rolex brand was filed, and then officially registered in Switzerland by Wilsdorf & Davis.”

Al, who goes by “Alcan” on RolexForums.com, sent in the next two photos of his 1908 Wilsdorf & Davis pendant watch, that he recently had restored. It was made the same year that Hans Wilsdorf registered the Rolex trademark.

In the photo below we see the “W&D” engraving etched into the back of Alcan’s 1908 Wilsdorf & Davis pendant watch. This is a really fascinating story, and you can learn much more about the details of how he restored this beautiful watch.

As we learned, Hans Wilsdorf was born, Hans Eberhard Wilhelm Wilsdorf on March 22, 1881, in Kulmbach, Bavaria (which is now part of Germany) to Ferdinand and Anna Wilsdorf. Unfortunately, Hans Wilsdorf’s parents passed away unexpectedly when he was only 12 years old. Hans and his two siblings went from living a sheltered life with his parents to live with his maternal uncles.
Hans attended a boarding school in Coburg and went on to attend business school in Bayreuth before he left Bavaria at the end of the 20th century. Hans Wilsdorf’s mother was a descendant of the popular Maisel brewing family–but he was not interested in going into the brewing business. Hans was to inherit a significant amount of money from his parent’s estate, but it was stolen when he was a child, so he had to fend for himself.
 
Hans moved to Geneva, Switzerland to work for a pearl dealer. He then went to work for Cuna Korten in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1900. Cuna Korten was a fancy Swiss company that specialized in exporting Swiss pocket watches. Since Hans spoke English, German and French he was responsible for handling the business correspondence which helped him later in understanding international strategic marketing.
 
Hans was also responsible for winding several hundred watches daily and monitoring their accuracy. Cuna Korten was a large and profitable organization and being exposed to all those watches obviously resulted in Hans developing severe WISitus as well as a very deep appreciation for precision and beauty.
 
Cuna Korten obtained the majority of their merchandise from vendors in France, Germany, and Switzerland. While at Cuna Korten, Hans became obsessed with creating perfect watches. Hans then had to go back to Germany to serve in the Army in 1902. When he got out of the German Army he moved to London, England where he met and fell in love with his wife, Florence Frances May Wilsdorf—Crotty, and went on to become a British Citizen. The image below is from the 1911 Census of England and Wales and if you look closely on line 7, you can see Hans Wilsdorf’s information including the fact he was 30 years old in 1911. This was obviously taken prior to him getting married later in the same year, and it appears courtesy of The National Archives in London England.

Florence Frances May Wilsdorf—Crotty

Hans Wilsdorf’s first wife 


Hans Eberhard Wilhelm Wilsdorf got married to Florence Frances May Crotty on Thursday, April 13, 1911 in the Croydon Borough of South London at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Saint Paul’s Cathedral sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London and is one of the most iconic and famous sights. Saint Paul’s is also very famous as it held Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral services, as well as hosting the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.

The photo below is of Hans Wilsdorf’s first wife, who passed away on April 26, 1944 in London. Hans Wilsdorf was completely devastated by the loss of his beloved wife and turned his focus toward Rolex. After May Wilsdorf passed away, Hans Wilsdorf transferred 100% of his shares in Rolex to the Wilsdorf Foundation, which owns and runs Rolex today. The image below appears courtesy of Gisbert L. Brunner.

Rolex to this day has a British sensibility as well as a Teutonic and logical German disposition, coupled with the conservative Swiss disposition–this all comes from its founder, Hans Wilsdorf.
 
From a design perspective, Hans’ design ethos and aesthetic were far more German than French, Italian or Swiss and I argue this is still true to this day. In other words, Rolex design to this day is more Germanic than anything else. As a matter of fact, Hans was chauffeured in a Mercedes for many years of his life and the CEO of Rolls Royce kept trying to get him to switch but he refused. Hans was German to the core as were his masterpiece Teutonic Rolex watches.

Nowhere Man

Time After Time

 

It is interesting to note Hans Wildorf was brought up in the Protestant faith. In Bavaria, he lived in an area that was primarily Catholic, and he was constantly teased by boys who were part of the primarily Catholic faith so he was treated as an outsider.
 
At age 33, in 1914, a decade after Hans moved to England and began to build Wilsdorf & Davis, World War I broke out and the British citizenry developed a severe hatred of the German’s. Since Hans was of German descent, with a German name and accent, he was looked down upon, which is likely one of the reasons he moved Rolex’s headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland and moved to Geneva himself. 

Despite the fact Hans Wilsdorf had registered the Rolex trademark in 1908, he continued using the Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd. name in England, and it is very likely he formally changed the name to The Rolex Watch Company Ltd. in 1915 in response to the English conflict with the Germans. In other words, the name “Wilsdorf” was clearly German, and since England was at war with Germany, German names were frowned upon.
When we think of the Rolex brand today, we think of it as one of the most established Swiss brands, which is steeped in Swiss tradition, but for at least the first half of Rolex’s existence, it was looked down upon by the Swiss watchmaking establishment. Rolex was considered an alien company or an outsider, which made Hans work that much harder to achieve success and ultimately greatness.
 

Hans Wilsdorf’s Great Challenge

Time Will Tell

 
Mankind began trying to keep time for many thousands of years. Ancient civilizations used all kinds of crude methods for trying to keep time, including the measurement of motion of stars in the night sky.
 
Five thousand years ago, the ancient Sumerians created a calendar that divided the year into 12 months with 30 days each. Other cultures used sun clocks and sundials that told the time by measuring shadows, and later mankind began measuring time by measuring the elapsed time using an hourglass which measured how quickly sand could fall through a skinny tube–from one chamber to another.
 
In Europe, the great cathedral’s were the first to have clocks that would allow passers-by to tell the time.
Mankind began trying to keep time for many thousands of years. Ancient civilizations used all kinds of crude methods for trying to keep time, including the measurement of motion of stars in the night sky.
 
Five thousand years ago, the ancient Sumerians created a calendar that divided the year into 12 months with 30 days each. Other cultures used sun clocks and sundials that told the time by measuring shadows, and later mankind began measuring time by measuring the elapsed time using an hourglass which measured how quickly sand could fall through a skinny tube–from one chamber to another.
 
In Europe, the great cathedral’s were the first to have clocks that would allow passers-by to tell the time.
Then the development of the pocket-watch in 16th century Tudor, England changed everything. The challenge with the first pocket watches is they were very large and did not keep very accurate time.
 
In the 17th century, pocket watches evolved and became more precise, and were slowly adopted by wealthy men who could afford them.
 
For the first time, two men could accurately synchronize their actions with a device they carried in their vest. The pocket-watch changed everything.
Despite the fact Hans Wilsdorf was responsible for the popularization of the wristwatch, he was also a huge collector of pocket watches. As a matter of fact, the pocket watch below is from Hans Wilsdorf’s personal collection that contains pocket watches going back 400 years.
 
The pocket watch below was made in 1665 in Germany by Jeremias Flug of Passau. The watch is fully enameled and the form has silver-set turquoise, and the back enamel depicts the Departure of Ulysses.

 

The most fascinating detail on the pocket watch below is the original pocket watches only had one hand which was an hour hand. Second hands did not come along for many years and were really the first complication on a pocket-watch. I think there is a simple elegance to a one-handed watch. To learn more about the Hans Wilsdorf Pocketwatch Collection please click here.

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