The vintage Rolex watches of the 1940s set the stage for the incredible growth of the brand by combining amazing design with new cutting-edge features.
Innovation has always been synonymous with Rolex, but the hard work during the 1940s launched the company into the future.
Innovation Since the Very Beginning
Dedicated watchmakers have been pushing the envelope of creativity and watch engineering since the company was founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis.
By the 1940s, the company was determined to survive and thrive in an uncertain world.
The vintage Rolex watches of the 1940s are some of the company’s most inspiring and rare timepieces because they mark a critical turning point for the epic brand.
Important Rolex Innovations Leading up to the 1940s
The 1920s and 30s were huge innovating times for Rolex.
The company had created the first waterproof watch in 1926 with the Rolex Oyster and made headlines when Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel wearing it.
Ten hours later, Gleitze emerged from the water, and the ‘Oyster’ was still ticking.
A few years later, in 1931, Rolex invented and patented the very first self-winding perpetual movement, setting a new standard in watchmaking that’s still in use today.
Pilots wearing Rolex Oysters took on Mount Everest in 1933, flying over the mountain for the very first time. The first flight to such heights was accompanied by perfectly working Rolex watches.
Rolex completed their land, sea, and air conquest by accompanying Sir Malcolm Campbell when he set the land speed record in 1935. The “King of Speed” wore a Rolex while racing over 300 miles per hour across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
In the Middle of Conflict
By the early 1940s, it was clear the world was heading for major conflict.
German forces were marching across Europe, and Rolex was right in the middle of world war.
The company found ways to support Allied forces in the 1940s and continued innovating, leading to some of the most iconic models in the company’s history.
Iconic Models of Vintage Rolex Watches of the 1940s
Many iconic models exist throughout Rolex’s 115-year history, but a few stand out as pivotal for the company in terms of innovation and design.
Not only that, but their role within the historical events of the 1940s gives certain models a timeless and sentimental appeal.
3525 Chronograph Monobloc
One of the most popular chronographs Rolex ever produced was the 3525.
Made famous during World War II, captured soldiers from the Allied forces would be supplied with the watch directly from Hans Wilsdorf himself.
The watch was produced between 1939 and 1945 and was available in yellow gold, stainless steel, steel and gold, and pink gold.
The watch became known as the ‘PoW’ for its reputation among captured servicemen during the war.
Collectors also refer to the watch as ‘Monoblocco’ for its solid steel case and bezel was constructed out of a single metal piece.
The watch added to its notoriety by appearing in the movie, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.
As captured British soldiers would have their watches confiscated by German guards, they would request the 3525 chronographs as a replacement.
Rolex sent over 3,000 new watches to the internment camps, and many of them would include handwritten letters from Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubble Back 3372 Stainless Steel
Between 1933 and 1955, Rolex produced the Bubble Back with various reference numbers falling into the category.
The 1940s vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual had an interesting feature; the Bubble Backs featured protruding cases where the self-winding movements would set.
Bubble Backs included two important innovations perfected by Rolex.
As the brand’s reputation for quality and innovating wristwatches grew, self-winding was not the only feature demanded by customers.
The Bubble Back models were also completely waterproof, something that was necessary if wristwatches were to become more widespread and practical for daily use.
For vintage watch collectors, water damage is a serious concern. The bubble back Rolex with a stainless steel case is a great place to start a 1940s vintage collection knowing that water damage might not be as much of a concern as other vintage watches.
It was an important time for Rolex and the watchmaking industry in general, as watch design shifted to house much more complex self-winding components inside wristwatches.
The ‘Bubble Back’ marked this innovating leap.
1945 Rolex Datejust 4467
In 1945, Rolex continued its innovating spirit by combining a self-winding wristwatch with a date indication window on the dial.
Something that appears to be a simple feature by today’s standards was actually a huge milestone for the industry. The vintage Datejusts were “just in time” for the company’s 40th anniversary, and now they are a timeless classic for Rolex.
Not only was the watch enclosed in an Oyster Case, meaning it was completely waterproof, but now the watch would display the date.
With intermediate gears and a spring mechanism, the 3 o’clock positioned window automatically changed at midnight. Rolex could now proclaim that by looking at its watches, the date was just.
Another really cool 1940s vintage Rolex model is the Precision ref 3540. This watch featured an 18K solid gold case and black dial.
Also included was a Diamond smooth bezel dial with hour markers and a gold band with 35mm case.
This could be a great vintage watch for beginner collectors with its modest price tag. Current listings for the highest prices for this watch on eBay are just around $4,000.
The Rolex Air King
After the Battle of Britain in 1940, Rolex developed the Air-King. The purpose of the watch was to commemorate the pilots of the Royal Air Force.
Now one of Rolex’s longest-running models, the Air-King holds an important spot in the iconic brand’s history.
The Air-King was named partly after the brave British Royal Air Force pilots who fought in World War II, and also named for its substantial case, giving it the ‘King’ indication.
The first Air-King, Rolex reference 4925, is one of the more difficult models to acquire, making it a desirable piece among collectors.
Hans Wilsdorf himself was the mastermind behind the original Air-King, featuring a stainless steel Oyster case and a dial with a time-only dial.
1940s Ladies Vintage Rolex Cocktail Watch
Rolex crafted some of the most elegant lady watches of the 1940s. Ref. 5859, featuring 18K white gold, roman numerals on the dial, and plenty of diamonds, is a stunning example of 1940s vintage Rolex.
Current retail prices for a new Lady Rolex watch can easily top $10,000, while a 1940s vintage Lady Rolex can be found for less than half that price.
The 1040s vintage Lady Rolex could be a great addition to any collection full of vintage timepieces.
How to Identify Vintage 1940s Rolex Watches
The serial number on a Rolex indicates the approximate date the watch was created.
The serial number will be engraved between the case lugs near the bracelet links. Many 1940s vintage Rolex watches were engraved with a serial number on the outer case back.
Beginning in 2005, Rolex also started engraving serial numbers inside the case.
One important thing to keep in mind is beginning in 1953, Rolex restarted the serial number range, so particular caution should be taken when dating vintage Rolex watches that might fall before the 1953 date.
Into the Future
The Rolex watches of the 1940s set the stage for the company to expand into one of the most storied brands in the world.
While competing with Patek Philippe, Grand Seiko, and Tiffany, the decade launched Rolex ahead of the pack. The 1950s would bring the Submariner and GMT Master, a favorite of test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Sir Edmund Hillary summited Mt. Everest wearing a Rolex Explorer, marking a vital marketing campaign the company would duplicate over the years.
The 1960s featured the Cosmograph Daytona dedicated to the 24 Hours of Daytona. We all know what happened with the Daytona watch.
Paul Newman purchased one, and eventually, the watch became the most expensive Rolex of all time.
Since the very first original Rolex, innovation has been at the heart of the company. And there’s no evidence of that trend slowing down.
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