How did Rolex get its name?

It’s the most famous luxury watch brand in history, but the story behind the iconic company's name remains shrouded in mystery.

Peter Iantorno December 8, 2015

For most illustrious watchmakers, the origins of their names are pretty straightforward – man makes watch, man starts watch company, man names said company after himself. Easy.

It's a pretty common theme: Chopard was founded by Louis Ulysse Chopard; Patek Philippe was a joint venture between Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe; Audemars Piguet is the result of a friendship between Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet; and it’s not hard to guess which storied Swiss watch brand was established by Jehan Jaques Blancpain all the way back in 1735. You get the picture.

However, in the case of Rolex, one of the best-known brands for luxury watches in the world, the tale of how it got its name is somewhat different. It all started back in 1905 in London, when German watchmaker Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis began importing superior Swiss watch movements into England under the rather unimaginative company name, Wilsdorf and Davis.

The movements were placed into high-quality watch cases, which were engraved ‘W&D’ on the caseback before being sold to jewellers, who would put their own names on the dials.

Wilsdorf and Davis Watch.jpg An old Wilsdorf and Davis caseback, complete with 'W&D' engraving.

After three years of operating in this way, the company opened an office in the mountainous Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds and set about creating high-quality, extremely precise movements of its own. While the research and development into chronometric precision was progressing nicely, there was one thing about the company that still jarred with Wilsdorf: the name.

In Wilsdorf’s opinion, to display the long winded ‘Wilsdorf and Davis’ or the rather easy-to-forget 'W&D' on the company’s watch dials would either take away from the appealing aesthetic of the watches or be so simple that nobody would remember them. He wanted the company’s timepieces to bear a name that was short, easy to say and remember in any language and, most importantly, looked great on a watch dial.

And so, after much pondering and debate with friends and business associates, the name ‘Rolex’ was finally decided upon. But here’s where the story starts to become unclear: why was the name ‘Rolex’ chosen? What does it mean?

The truth is, nobody knows for sure. One theory is that the name is taken from the French phrase horlogerie exquise – meaning ‘hoROLogical EXcellence’ – however, Wilsdorf never confirmed this.

Hans Wilsdorf.jpg Legendary Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf.

In fact, the only comment Wilsdorf ever made on the subject of the company name is a somewhat mysterious and perplexing one. “I tried combining the letters of the alphabet in every possible way,” he told a reporter. “This gave me some hundred names, but none of them felt quite right. 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.”

Did Wilsdorf genuinely believe the name was the work of a 'genie', or was he simply having some fun with an unfortunate reporter? We suspect the latter.

However the name came about, what we do know is that Wilsdorf registered the trademark ‘Rolex’ in 1908, and in 1915 the company name was officially changed to what we now know as the most famous watch brand in the world.

The rest, as they say, is history.