Corrections (for those keen on the long read):
Rolex designs, develops and produces in-house all the essential components of its watches, from the casting of the gold alloys to the machining, crafting, assembly and finishing of the movement, case, dial and bracelet.
And even the brands that produce true “in-house watch movements” still purchase certain highly-specialized parts from suppliers, including items like synthetic rubies, hair springs, and screws. In the end, brands pushing that “in-house” messaging are really just clever marketers.
If nowadays Rolex is an entirely integrated manufacture, certainly one of the manufactures that produces most parts of a watch, this situation only came after Rolex acquired several of its sub-contractors. It was Patrick Heiniger (third CEO of the brand, who took over the position in 1992, after his father André Heiniger) who really started the integration strategy. Under his direction, many companies have been integrated to Rolex. Genex, one of the largest case makers, were one of the first to be bought. Later, in 1998, Rolex acquired the bracelet-maker Gay Frères, a company that is famous for the Heuer beads of rice bracelet and for the bracelets of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and of course for being the ones to manufacture most of the Oyster bracelets for Rolex. In 2000, Rolex took over Beyeler, a “cadranier” or dial-maker. The brand also integrated companies such as Boninchi, the largest supplier of crowns for Rolex since 1919, or Virex et Joli Poli, case-finishers (polishing mainly).
Yet, the most interesting part comes from the movements. For most of us, it was assumed that Rolex was producing their own calibres, unique to the brand, and of course in-house. Well, if this is not entirely wrong, the story is much more complex. Indeed, one name must be considered: Jean Aegler.
Under this name is a Swiss watchmaker (1850-1891) based in Bienne. His manufacture was specialized in manufacturing small movements, especially for ladies watches. He achieved to create a 20mm diameter movement, which was at that time rather impressive. Most of the manufactures were still producing 40mm or 50mm movements, intended to be fitted in pocket watches. Because of this expertise, which could fit the idea of Rolex to sell wristwatches only, he was selected by Hans Wilsdorf in 1901 (thus, before the incorporation of Rolex in London) to become the brand’s unique supplier of movements – a situation that remained true for decades, Rolex only outsourced elsewhere for the chronographs (Valjoux). Movements by Aegler were small enough and mainly known to be highly precise (something that definitely helped Rolex later, in their need for precision).
Even if this company mainly produced for Rolex, they were not owned by the brand, but remained under the control of the Aegler/Borer family. This Rolex/Aegler situation, where movements were actually not properly in-house produced, remained true for close to a century – from 1905 to 2004.
After a few years, seeing that business blossomed for both parties, the relation became much closer. Indeed, in 1920, Hermann Aegler (one of Jean Aegler’s son) became one of the owners of Rolex and was appointed to the board, along with Wilsdorf and Davis. Late 1920s, the opposite situation even reinforced the link between Rolex and Aegler, when both Rolex & Gruen (the second largest client of Aegler) purchased shares in Aegler, which was then renamed “Aegler, Society Anonyme, Manufacture des Montres: Rolex et Gruen Guild A”. This is why you can find antique images of Aegler’s production site with Rolex logo on the roof. End of the 1930s, Gruen sold back their shares in Aegler and, quite simultaneously, Rolex did the same – simultaneously with this, Aegler sold their Rolex shares back to Wilsdorf. In short, Rolex was back entirely in the hands of Wilsdorf and his wife, and Aegler was back in the Aegler/Borer family. Still, the situation in terms of business was remaining very positive and Aagler continued to deliver movement to Rolex. In fact, the Aegler factory was even renamed “Manufactre des Montres Rolex SA“.
To that point onward, both parties had a mutual agreement. Rolex couldn’t buy movements from another manufacture and Aegler couldn’t not sold to another watch brand (to the exception of chronographs, not done by Aegler). So, in terms of production, Rolex movements were exclusive and produced by a manufacture named Rolex. Yet, it is only on 26 March 2004 that Rolex officially took control over Aegler/Rolex Bienne to integrate it to the brand’s portfolio (see Timezone for even more details).
Despite all the controversy, Rolex is still a good watch.
Surprisingly for ages, Rolex did not make their own movements. When introduced in 1963, the vaunted Rolex Daytona used a Valjoux caliber 72 manual wind movement.
It took 25 years to get with the times,and install an automatic chronograph engine - the Zenith El Primero caliber 4030. From 1988 to2000 Rolex relied on outside manufacturing to produce the heart and soul of one of the company’s most iconic watches.
Currently, Rolex’s sister brand Tudor shares its in-house three hand movement with Breitling, in exchange for Breitling’s well-respected chronograph movements. Perhaps in the future, all Rolex products will have 100% in-house construction but I doubt it. In the luxury watch circle, it is often a shell game of brand recognition on the dial vs. what cannot be seen by the customer.