Who owns Rolex

Philipp Mayrhofer, last updated on 02/20/2024

A watch brand whose fame and reputation are second to none: Rolex. The Swiss company, based in Geneva, enjoys an impeccable reputation worldwide and is celebrated for its highly precise, high-quality and well-designed wristwatches. This article is dedicated to the history of the famous watch manufacturer and also takes a closer look at the structure of the company.

The history of Rolex: a brief overview

The Rolex watch brand is inextricably linked with the name Hans Wilsdorf. No wonder, since the history of today's Rolex SA began with the company Wilsdorf & Davis. Wilsdorf & Davis was founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis. At the time, Wilsdorf had just moved to London and was planning to set up a small but fine watch manufactory. With this in mind, Wilsdorf & Davis mainly produced stainless steel wristwatches, the mechanical movements of which came from the Aegler company in Biel.

The decision to concentrate production on wristwatches was extremely unconventional at the time. After all, until then, pocket watches had been the most common type of watch. The wristwatch was an exciting novelty, and it was hard to predict whether it would sell. Even in the early years of Rolex - then still Wilsdorf & Davis - the courage to innovate therefore played a central role.

The name Rolex, which has become synonymous with first-class luxury watches, was introduced in 1908. In 1919, the company's headquarters were moved to Geneva, where Rolex was entered in the commercial register in 2020 as Montres Rolex SA and still has its headquarters today.

From the introduction of the first waterproof wristwatch in 1926 to the development of the self-winding mechanism with perpetual rotor for mechanical watches and the deep-sea dive of the "Trieste", on whose outer wall a Rolex Deep Sea Special defied the enormous strain in 1960, the history of Montres Rolex is characterized by memorable events and impressive milestones. Over the years, the number of coveted collections and iconic watches from Rolex has grown steadily. Whether Day-Date, Explorer, Submariner, GMT-Master II or Cosmograph Daytona: there are many Rolex watches that have secured the status of a true legend.

The founding of Rolex and the role of Hans Wilsdorf

One thing is certain: without the innovative spirit, ambition and foresight of founder Hans Wilsdorf, the success story of Montres Rolex SA could not have been written in this way. There are numerous myths surrounding Hans Wilsdorf and the founding of Rolex, some of which relate to the naming of the company. How did Wilsdorf come to name his own brand Rolex of all things? There is no definite answer to this so far. The company remains vague, stating only that Wilsdorf experimented with the combination of various letters and decided on Rolex on the spur of the moment.

What is proven beyond doubt, however, is the fact that Hans Wilsdorf had the name of the brand written prominently on every watch from the very beginning. Unlike today, it was not very common at the time to display brand names on dials and cases. In this way, Wilsdorf certainly increased the recognition value of his watches and ensured that one glance was enough to recognize whether a watch was from Rolex.

Another business decision by Hans Wilsdorf that influenced the development of the Rolex company was the purchase of the Tudor watch brand in 1936. Wilsdorf acquired the company from the hands of producer Philippe Hüther and made Tudor known as a sister brand of Rolex. Tudor is still successful on the market today and is the affordable alternative to Rolex.

In 1945 - around 15 years before his death - the Rolex founder finally established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, to which all assets and ownership rights were later transferred. The significance of the foundation for the Rolex brand will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

Today's Rolex corporate structure

The days when Hans Wilsdorf was in charge of Rolex are long gone and many a watch fan wonders exactly what the corporate structure of the watch giant looks like today. Or to put it another way: Who actually owns Rolex? After all, Wilsdorf died childless, meaning that no direct descendants could be appointed as heirs. Ostensibly, the company has belonged to the aforementioned foundation since the death of Hans Wilsdorf. The profits generated by the brand flow into the foundation and are managed from there.

In accordance with Wilsdorf's wishes, the primary objective of the foundation is to ensure the continued existence and further development of the Rolex brand. In addition, Wilsdorf decreed that the successes of Rolex SA should also benefit the Canton of Geneva through the foundation. But before we delve deeper into the tasks and impact of the Fondation Hans Wilsdorf, let's turn to the people who run the company, which brings us to Jean-Frédéric Dufour. Dufour was appointed Managing Director of Rolex SA in 2015, having previously worked for Chopard and Zenith, among others.

As the successor to Gian Riccardo Marini, who headed Rolex from 2011, Dufour is set to end an era of rapid changes in the company's high ranks. Before Marini, who was CEO of Rolex for only four years, Bruno Meier led the company for around three years. This rapid succession of appointments and management changes was rather surprising and did not seem to fit in with the brand essence of Rolex SA. After all, Patrick Heiniger, perhaps the best-known Rolex CEO after Wilsdorf, held the post for 16 years until he left in 2008.

With Jean-Frédéric Dufour, who rarely presents himself to the public, it looks like calm has now returned. The current man at the helm of Rolex is not the first to keep a conspicuously low profile and barely exist in the media. On the contrary: the quiet, prudent management style is typical of the Geneva-based company.

Rolex as an independent family business

Unlike many other brands of a similar size, Rolex retains the character of an independent family business instead of being fully committed to "shareholder value". Just as founder Hans Wilsdorf envisioned, the foundation that oversees Rolex makes it possible to think long-term and give top priority to the sustainable, stable development of the brand.

It is not the stock market or shareholders who determine where Rolex is heading, but ultimately the Foundation. A fact that certainly contributes to the company's continued success. After all, Rolex could hardly be better known and more popular worldwide than the brand currently is - and has been for many decades. The recipe for success devised by Wilsdorf therefore seems to be working perfectly.

In Switzerland, Rolex is also known for its generosity and investment in the common good. As already mentioned, Hans Wilsdorf wanted the Foundation to be active beyond the purely commercial aspects of Rolex SA and to ensure that the Canton of Geneva also benefited from the Group's profits. The Fondation Hans Wilsdorf remains true to this approach and supports charitable projects in the Geneva region.

Want a few examples? In 2017, the foundation supported the construction of a campus for the University of Art and Design (HEAD) with a sum of around CHF 100 million. Two years later, the foundation invested several million in saving a cinema in Geneva and in 2020 it contributed 50% of the funding for the Geneva State Archives. Today, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation supports a variety of small and, time and again, remarkably large projects every year. This commitment is just one of the reasons why the name Wilsdorf will probably never be forgotten and will always be associated with much more than "just" luxury watches.

The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation and its influence on Rolex

The Foundation is able to support charitable projects with such large sums primarily thanks to the considerable profits that Rolex generates every year. Rolex SA is probably by far the Fondation's most valuable asset, even if the Geneva-based brand itself does not publish any official figures. Here, the manufacturer presents the public with a bit of a mystery: how high the profit is, how many watches leave the factory each year or what the company's turnover is - these are all topics on which Rolex tends to keep a low profile.

However, considering how well-known and, above all, popular Rolex watches are all over the world, there is no question that the Swiss company with the big name is of almost inestimable value. Value that the foundation has always had at its disposal in such a way that social commitment and business success are not mutually exclusive.

It is known that the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation is governed by an eight-strong Board of Trustees, chaired by Costin van Berchem, a lawyer from Geneva. Its members include members of the Wilsdorf family as well as members of other well-known Geneva families and respected politicians.

As the Rolex company is owned by the foundation, the foundation and the company are inextricably linked and play together "by nature", so to speak. The Foundation holds its hand over the watch manufacturer, while the profits from the sale of luxury watches enable the Foundation to invest in the future of the brand and in social projects in and around Geneva.

Rolex and the Swiss watch industry

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to talk about the Swiss watch industry without the name Rolex being mentioned almost immediately. Rolex watches are quite simply the flagship of the watch industry on Swiss soil and continue to stand out from the multitude of successful watch manufacturers based in Switzerland. This is because connoisseurs from all over the world overwhelmingly agree: in terms of quality, precision and sophistication of the caliber, hardly any watch comes close to an original Rolex. And this despite the fact that the competition is extremely strong. Among Swiss manufacturers alone, competition is at an unsurpassed high level with numerous giants such as Patek Philippe, IWC, Omega, Tag Heuer, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Breguet.

The watch industry has a long tradition in Switzerland and generates around 4% of gross domestic product every year. As the world's most famous export country for watches in the luxury segment, Switzerland is known throughout the world for its renowned brands and the stable value of the watches that are delivered from Biel, Geneva and the like to the world's most prestigious jewelry stores. Of course, the Swiss watch industry does not owe this fame exclusively to the Rolex brand, but to a large extent.

Rolex and its brand philosophy

As already described in more detail, innovations and historic events have played an important role in the development and history of the Swiss luxury brand Rolex. Closely interwoven with this are the brand ambassadors that are an integral part of the company's marketing strategy. Of course, the faces have changed over the years, but the principle remains the same: Rolex relies on inspiring, well-known personalities from the worlds of sport, entertainment, art and culture, winning them over and successfully drawing the attention of broad target groups to its glamorous watches.

Of course, marketing is only a small part of what makes the Swiss-based watch manufacturer so successful in the long term. At the time after Rolex was founded as a new, completely undescribed watch brand, it was the courage to innovate that brought the company attention and prestige. Hans Wilsdorf was more than willing to leave the beaten track and took risks that ultimately made his own brand great.

Quality has always been the top priority at Rolex. The movements of the wristwatches set standards and reliably exceed the expectations that watch enthusiasts have of a high-quality mechanical watch. With sophisticated movements and breathtaking complications, a Rolex watch convinces even the harshest critics.

It is also common knowledge: Anyone who buys a Rolex is buying pure quality and luxury. The Swiss manufacturer's wristwatches are a status symbol, an investment, a technical masterpiece and a chic accessory all rolled into one and finance charitable projects in Geneva and the surrounding area through the foundation. A combination of luxury and social commitment that Wilsdorf could hardly have dreamed of when the company was founded in London.

The future of Rolex: tradition and innovation

From London via Biel to Geneva, where Rolex has its home today, the company has developed in a way that promises an immensely successful future. We can only speculate as to what exactly the manufacture's plans are for the near future. This is because, just as with profits and sales, Rolex is also exercising restraint with regard to its future plans and is not giving any clear indications.

Unless the company completely changes course and continues to focus on what has worked so well in the past, the secret of Rolex's success is likely to remain "tradition and innovation" in the coming years. The healthy mix of brand-new ideas and traditional core values at Rolex produces incredibly popular new wristwatches time and time again that leave no room for disappointment in terms of design, quality and functionality. So we can probably look forward to outstanding mechanical wristwatches in the future too, created with expertise and attention to detail from the dial to the case to the movement - just as we know it from Rolex.


Formerly based in London and now based in Geneva, Rolex has released numerous world-famous wristwatches over the decades and is one of the most successful watch manufacturers in the world. A special feature of Rolex is the company's affiliation with a foundation that is dedicated to social projects, among other things. Since the death of the brand founder, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, of which Rolex is a member, has ensured the long-term success of the brand and supports charitable projects in and around Geneva.

About the author

Philipp Mayrhofer

Hello my name is Philipp. I actually had my first points of contact with luxury watches through YouTube and the many watch reviews that can be seen there. As a result, I was able to acquire extensive watch knowledge.