Rolex – Design Icons and Superlative Timepieces

Rolex Watches at Toovey's
A selection of Rolex gentlemen’s wristwatches which totalled £23,000 at Toovey’s

For more than 100 years Rolex have produced superlative timepieces which today are considered design classics.

Rolex is one of the world’s strongest brands representing more than a century of precision watch making, creativity and aspiration. Many may be surprised to learn that the company we know today as Rolex was founded in London by Alfred Davis and his brother in law Hans Wilsdorf in 1905. It traded as Wilsdorf and Davis. Hans Wilsdorf wanted his watches to bear a name that was memorable, short and easy to say in any language. In 1908 he registered the trademark ‘Rolex’. In the same year he opened an office in Switzerland.
In 1914 the Kew Observatory awarded a Rolex watch a Class A precision certificate for accuracy, a distinction usually reserved for marine chronometers. Heavy tax duties in the UK after the Great War on luxury imports and exported precious metals used in watch cases caused Wilsdorf to move the company to Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1927 Rolex developed the first waterproof and dust-proof watch named the ‘Oyster’. In 1931 this was complimented by Rolex inventing the world’s first self-winding mechanism.

As a fine art auctioneer in Sussex I have spent some thirty-five years journeying with people sharing the stories of their lives told through objects. I have often reflected that the most precious objects in our lives are those that allow us to tell these stories – the prompts to fond memories. I refer to them as the patchwork quilt of our lives. Rolex has always understood this and today its ambassadors are drawn from leading figures in the arts and sport whose lives are reflected in the these remarkable timepieces.

Rolex diving watches have been design icons since their introduction in 1953. They were the first diving watches to be waterproof to 330 feet. The ‘Submariner’ illustrated, with its leather strap, was made in 1965. The 1986 GMT- Master is similarly inspired. Introduced in 1955 the mechanism was able to simultaneously show the time in two zones allowing it to be used for navigation by those crossing the globe. The movement was improved in 1982 making it easier to use.
The two Rolex Oyster Perpetual wristwatches from 1958 and 1959 in their restrained stainless steel cases with simple dials are beautifully conceived. In contrast the 18ct gold Day Date wristwatch and the two colour Datejust appeal to those with more glamorous tastes.

New or old a Rolex combines the status of a design icon with superlative time-keeping. This combination delights connoisseurs and collectors. The selection of Rolex wristwatches illustrated have just sold at Toovey’s for £23,000.

Perhaps it’s time to change your wristwatch. Toovey’s Director, Tom Rowsell, is preparing his next specialist auction of fine watches which will be held on Thursday 23rd January 2020. Entries are still being invited. Tom and his team of specialists are always delighted to share their passion for watches and offer advice. They can be contacted on 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Time to collect wristwatches

An Omega Speedmaster Professional Chronograph gentleman’s wristwatch, circa 1970
An Omega Speedmaster Professional Chronograph gentleman’s wristwatch, circa 1970

Over the millennia humankind has sought to record and measure time. Watches which can tell the time with exceptional accuracy can be bought for very little today and yet our enduring fascination with exquisitely engineered mechanical watches remains undiminished. Not only do these watches connect us with the present but they also link us with points of extraordinary human endeavour and adventure from our past. Wristwatches have become a booming collectors’ market with prices at auction continuing to rise.

The Omega Speedmaster Professional Chronograph has become an icon of space exploration. Buzz Aldrin wore one as he stepped on the lunar surface for the very first time in 1969. The Omega Speedmaster Professional has been used on all NASA’s piloted space missions, including the period of manned Moon landings between 1969 and 1972, and is still used by astronauts today. The example shown here dates from 1970, the year of the fated Apollo 13 mission whose story has been immortalised in film and writing. Against the odds the astronauts and their damaged spacecraft were returned safely to earth after they were forced to abort their Moon landing. Date, make, condition, model and originality are vital to a watch’s value and this example realised £10,500 in a recent Toovey’s specialist watch sale.

A Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Submariner Sea Dweller 4000 gentleman's steel bracelet wristwatch, circa 2006
A Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Submariner Sea Dweller 4000 gentleman’s steel bracelet wristwatch, circa 2006

Perhaps the most iconic of all diving watches is the Rolex Submariner. The idea was conceived in 1953 by Rolex board member and keen diver, René- Paul Jeanneret, who identified the potential for a diving watch which could also be worn every day. The French underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau, invented the aqua-lung ten years earlier in 1943 and is said to have used a Rolex Submariner himself on occasions. His underwater adventures aboard the ship Calypso would be made famous by the BBC television series of the 1960s and 1970s.

Early and rare examples of Rolex Submariners can command five and six figure sums at auction. But later pre-owned examples, like the one shown here dating from 2006, can be purchased at auction for between £3000 and £6000 depending on condition.

A Tag Heuer Monaco LS Automatic steel cased gentleman's wristwatch, circa 2015
A Tag Heuer Monaco LS Automatic steel cased gentleman’s wristwatch, circa 2015

The watchmaker Heuer can trace its history back to 1860. It became TAG Heuer in 1985. Heuer was a leading maker of stopwatches and from the 1950s to the 1970s their chronograph wristwatches became popular among amateur and professional motor racers including the actor Steve McQueen. The Tag Heuer Monaco LS Calibre 12 gentleman’s wristwatch illustrated copies the earlier version and dates from 2015. Whilst the 1970s originals command the highest prices these pre-owned, beautifully crafted later editions fetch around £2000 at auction today representing great value to the watch and motoring enthusiast.

The increasing demand and prices for wristwatches at auction reflects the enduring appeal and strength of this collectors’ market. Toovey’s next specialist watch sale will be held on Thursday 7th September 2017 and further entries are still being accepted.

Tom Rowsell, head of Toovey’s specialist watch auctions, is always delighted to meet with fellow wristwatch enthusiasts and can be contacted by telephoning 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.