Monday, November 12, 2018

"The testimony of military officers had already started to shift the gender of the wristlet"


Since the eighteenth century, gentlemen who needed to tell time—and wanted to display their wealth—carried pocket watches, either an open-faced design or a model with a spring-loaded cover to protect its delicate hands and face from damage. Most ordinary people didn’t need to know that it was seven thirty in the evening rather than dusk; they told time by church bells, sunrises, and habit. It wasn’t until the expansion of railroads in the middle of the nineteenth century that minutes truly became measured, timetabled, and synchronized. But for a solider going to war, a pocket watch was cumbersome and fragile; it took time to remove it from a pocket, open the case, and put it away safely. The alternative, strapping a watch to one’s wrist, seemed obvious but presented a quite different, and stickier, problem. “Wristlets,” as they were known until the 1920s, were designed for women. As the name implies, they were essentially bracelets designed for showing off jewels (and shapely wrists), and were equipped with a tiny watch face for decoration rather than practicality. It would take one of the twentieth century’s greatest rebranding campaigns to persuade military men to strap time to their wrists.

The company that would become Rolex already understood the importance of branding. Hans Wilsdorf, a twenty-four-year-old German orphan who had apprenticed with a Swiss watchmaker, founded a company in London in 1905 to import small, precise watch movements from Switzerland. The business was initially called Wilsdorf & Davis, after the founder and his brother-in-law and partner, Alfred Davis. Wilsdorf invented the name “Rolex” a few years later and incorporated the company under that name in 1915, by which point it was simple common sense for a British business to shed any German associations. Wilsdorf claimed that he simply combined letters of the alphabet until he found a combination that was easy to pronounce in any language and short enough to fit on a small watch face. He later mythologized the moment of creation—“One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear”—and suggested that the name mimicked the sound a watch made when it was being wound. The quest for the perfect name was reflected in Wilsdorf’s pursuit of accuracy, and his determination to transform the image of the wristwatch. By the outbreak of the war, Rolex had been awarded certificates of “chronometric precision” from Bienne, Switzerland, and Kew Observatory in London, distinctions that had never before been awarded to a “bracelet watch.” Watchmakers had triumphed over the technical challenges; now the problem was sex.