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Quality of Myth

by Adam Harris

I try to explain to collectors that “owning a vintage watch is great; understanding where it sits in horology is fantastic.”

Recently, I came across a video about a collector of vintage wristwatches. Without a doubt, he had an outstanding and valuable collection of Rolex and Patek Philippe wristwatches. Many were rare and exciting pieces, perfect for any museum, including Patek’s own outstanding museum collection.

 

This collector also used his knowledge of buying and selling pieces to pay his way through medical school. For his current collection I give him kudos!

 

I don’t doubt this man’s passion for watches and his collection, but based on some of his statements, it became clear to me that horology was not one of his interests.

 

HOROLOGY noun | ho-rol-o-gy: 1: the science of measuring time.
2: the art of making instruments for indicating time

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/horology

 

I try to explain to collectors that “owning a vintage watch is great; understanding where it sits in horology is fantastic.”

 

To me that is the passion of collecting: not purely owning the timepiece but fully researching and understanding its position or its provenance in horology. History was written by winners, and there is no greater winner than Rolex!

“Think of an old European Royal Court: Patek Philippe is the King—stately, regal and reserved. The King does not approve of fancy gimmicks or quick moves; he is solid, dependable—The top of the line.

Rolex, the Knight—the strongest, most sturdy, and most trustworthy; Rolex will go into vigorous battle and come out none the worse for wear.”

 

Acknowledgments: Gene Stone, The Watch, (New York City: Adams, 2006), 25.

 

How true! Without any doubt, Patek Philippe is the king. I doubt anyone would refute that, and Rolex, the knight—yes strong, dependable, indeed the workhorse of timepieces. “Victory is written by the winners,” and in Rolex’s case “myth becomes fact.”

 

Although Rolex has made outstanding reliable watches, some of the myths occasionally need corrected.

MYTH 1: Rolex invented the self-winding watch.

 

Rolex loved this myth and perpetuated it for 26 years until finally the company admitted it was not true and agreed in 1956 to place a retraction in the UK Sunday Express and Journal Swiss, clearly apologizing to the true inventor of the self-winding wristwatch: John Harwood.

 

It surely must have irked Hans Wilsdorf to remove the photo of Emil Borer, Rolex’s chief engineer, and replace it with a photo of John Harwood.

 

This advertisement (left) is so rare that even though I knew the date the ad ran, I could not trace a copy for years. I believe Wilsdorf (Rolex) bought every single copy! Or would that be starting another myth?

Photo of Adam Harris. Photo credit: NAWCC Museum.

Rare Rolex advertisement with a photo of John Harwood.

Photo credit: Adam Harris.

Rolex apology notice. Photo credit: Adam Harris.

MYTH 2: Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel in 1927 wearing a Rolex Oyster.

 

It’s a great story but not true. Mercedes Gleitze was the first British woman to swim the English Channel on October 7, 1927; she was not wearing a Rolex watch, but some doubts were cast on her achievement when a hoaxer claimed to have made a faster swim only four days later. Hence, Gleitze attempted a repeat swim—dubbed the “Vindication Swim”—with extensive publicity on October 21.

 

For promotional purposes, Wilsdorf offered her one of the earliest Rolex Oysters if she would wear it during the attempt. After more than ten hours in water that was much colder than during her first swim, she was pulled from the sea semiconscious seven miles short of her goal.

 

As she sat in the boat, the TIMES journalist made a discovery and reported it as follows: “Hanging round her neck by a ribbon on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.” When examined closely, the watch was found to be dry inside and in perfect condition, according to Wikipedia.

 

One month later, on November 24, 1927, Wilsdorf launched the Rolex Oyster watch in the United Kingdom with a full front page Rolex advertisement in the Daily Mail. The second myth was born.

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rolex&oldid=675216026

Acknowledgments: Wikipedia-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolex

 

November 24, 1927, the actual watch worn and inscribed “Miss M Gleitze.”

 

I have known these two myths for a long time, but only recently I stumbled on another one that really amused me, because it takes one’s imagination to new heights and shows the remarkable mind of Wilsdorf to exploit the Rolex watch.

Jabex Wolffe Rolex Oyster ad.

Jabbez Wolffe, Elsie (Micky) West also failed to swim the
English Channel. Pittsburgh Press on August 28, 1930.

MYTH 3: Jabez Wolffe swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster.

 

I came across this 1930 Rolex advertisement (left) that implies Jabez Wolffe may have worn the famous Rolex watch during his swims of the English Channel.

 

Researchers at the Dover Museum provided this background:

 

“Glaswegian Jabez Wolffe has been called the unluckiest Channel swimmer in history: Wolffe made at least twenty-two attempts and never succeeded. He failed by merely yards in 1911 and by less than a mile on three other occasions.”

 

“On his attempt on 31 August 1907, Wolffe was accompanied by Stearne and Heaton. Notably, Wolffe was also on occasion accompanied by Pipe-Major Nicholls who played the bagpipes in order to keep Wolffe's stroke rhythm in time at 29-32 a minute.”

 

“On other occasions, Wolffe used a gramophone aboard the pilot boat in order to keep himself entertained and to keep his stroke rhythm equal.”

 

“Despite never achieving his aim of crossing the Channel, Wolffe went on to coach several successful swimmers including Hilda Sharp, Peggy Duncan and Sunny Lowry. Wolffe also wrote a book Swimming Short & Long Distance, which was published in approximately 1937.”

 

http://www.dovermuseum.co.uk/Exhibitions/Channel-Swimmers/Early-Attempts.aspx

 

Actually, Wolffe’s last failed attempt was August 26, 1913, some 13 years before Rolex patented and launched the Oyster watch in 1926. It seems a bit ironic to depict the Wolffe advertisement, when truly the man never even had the opportunity to wear a Rolex Oyster watch.

 

Sadly, like her trainer Jabbez Wolffe, Elsie (Micky) West also failed to swim the English Channel, as recorded in the Pittsburgh Press on August 28, 1930 (bottom left).

 

As I searched for any genuine photos of West actually wearing a Rolex (or any other) wristwatch, I came across this amazing British Movietone News.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

None of these myths detract from Wilsdorf’s contributions to horology; the Oyster watch is still a world leader and innovator. Wilsdorf’s sponsorship of sports figures from 1927 has played an important part in the innovation and patents of Rolex watches, making them among the most durable workhorse wristwatches in the world.

 

We can give much credit to Wilsdorf for his quest to make exceptional durable watches, even though he was not always truthful.

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