There's a line by Hans Wilsdorf that is oft-repeated in stories about the origin of Tudor watches, an informal raison d'être for the brand. And it seems as good a place as any to start:
"For some years now, I have been considering the idea of making a watch that our agents could sell at a more modest price than our Rolex watches, and yet one that would attain the dependability for which Rolex is famous. I decided to form a separate company, with the object of making and marketing a new watch. It is called the Tudor Watch company."
A Tudor Oyster-Prince Submariner ref. 7924 from 1958, a Tudor Oyster ref. 4463 in 14k pink gold from 1959 and a Tudor Montecarlo chronograph ref. 7159/01 from 1972.
There you have it, the reason for the founding of Tudor, clearly stated. And today that reasoning still holds sound, the brand’s watches deliver on both reliability and value, as they have all along. Though really, for the majority of that history Tudor watches have essentially been Rolex’s with fewer bells and whistles. Wilsdorf did not start Tudor to make different watches, he started it to sell watches to different people.
In February 1926, the widow of recently departed Neuchatel-based watchmaker Philippe Hüther registered the trademark 'The Tudor' in Geneva for Hans Wilsdorf. One decade on, the brand was transferred to Wilsdorf himself, and later in 1946, a separate entity – Montres Tudor S.A. – was born. But before we get to the pivotal, brand-defining 40s and 50s, let's talk about the early years of Tudor.
An early Tudor print ad from 1952.
In any discussion of Tudor’s history, the subject of Rolex is unavoidable. Wilsdorf's own design purposefully links the two. The Rolex name was registered in 1908, and the company became the Rolex Watch Co Ltd in 1915, moving its base of operations to Geneva in 1919, and, shortly after, re-registering as Montres Rolex SA. From its founding, Rolex was focused on quality and accuracy in the then-new field of wristwatches. Case in point is the awarding of a 'Kew A' certificate to a Rolex wristwatch in 1914, a degree of accuracy and reliability that had previously been the exclusive domain of marine chronometers. Wilsdorf was also concerned with building and protecting Rolex's reputation for precision and reliability, as evidenced by the famous, and phenomenally successful test of the waterproof Rolex Oyster as worn by Mercedes Gleitze in her 1927 cross-channel swim.
The registration of the Tudor name, in the same year Rolex released the Oyster – that would go on to be its most famous and significant line – is hardly coincidence. More likely, it's an early example of what's now a well-worn play in the world of marketing, what we would now call a diffusion brand. Someone walks into a Rolex agent, having seen the splashy Mercedes Gleitze testimony, but cannot manage the not inconsiderable entry price tag of five pounds and fifteen shillings for a Silver Oyster. For them, there is a new, equally dependable alternative, Tudor.
The early years
The brand separation between Tudor and Rolex in those early decades was far from clear cut. The obsession with discreet brand identity, in watchmaking at least, is much more recent. Wilsdorf was aware of the importance of brand positioning, but in those early years, there was far less centralised control, and a far greater interplay between the three key players in the ecosystem of Tudor watches: Tudor (naturally), Rolex, and the authorised agent who distributed and sold them.
A 1932 Tudor sold and signed by Catanach's in Melbourne, Australia.
To illustrate this point, let's take a trip to an early market for Tudor watches, and one far away from Wilsdorf's line of sight: Australia. One of the earliest extant Tudor’s hails from Australia — a 1932 model, retailed by Melbourne jeweller – Catanach's. The watch, used in Tudor's archival materials, is an era-appropriate rectangular number with a chrome-plated base metal case and a twin-signed dial. The Tudor logo bearing the characteristic long ‘T'.
The Australian distributor of this Tudor watch was Willis & Sons, who had been in the jewellery trade since 1858. In a remote regional market in 1932, the name Tudor, and even the name Rolex, would have carried less weight than those of the retailer or the long-standing importer. Further muddying the waters was the fact that it was not uncommon for local retailers to advertise Tudor products with optional upgrades to Rolex movements. This shifting interplay between the various parties would continue well into the modern era.
The Crown and the Rose
Further refinement of Tudor’s brand identity happened in 1936, when the brand adopted the rose and shield logo. This important visual moment paralleled a significant business decision, as Wilsdorf took direct ownership of the Tudor brand. The twin brand marks of the Crown (adopted by Rolex in 1925) and the Rose were significant markers of identity, but also hierarchy.
An early print ad showing the Rose and Shield logos, courtesy of @AdPatina.
Both are royal symbols, but the Rolex crown, in all things, was greater than the Tudor rose. The demarcation went one step further in 1946, when Montres Tudor S.A. was formed as its own business, and, from 1948, began advertising independently. Though the collateral of the time made it very clear in not-so-small print, that the company had the full faith and backing of Rolex when it came to warranties and servicing. Again, reinforcing the symbiotic, separate-yet-together relationship of Tudor and Rolex.
The Oyster Prince
That relationship became even more concrete in 1952, with the significant launch of the Tudor Oyster Prince, a staple collection in the brand's long history — built on Rolex technology. In particular the vaunted 'Oyster' case and perpetual winding mechanism. And while the watch was of royal lineage, it was a prince and didn't wear a crown on the dial. Regardless, throughout the long history of the Oyster Prince, the familial connection was never far away. Depending on the year and the model, the winding crown bore a Rolex crown. The caseback read 'Original Oyster Case by Rolex Geneva', and even the bracelet clasp was a Rolex.
A Tudor Oysterdate from 1965 showing the Rolex stamped case back and clasp.
Put a comparable Tudor, and Rolex Oyster-cased watch side-by-side and, name on the dial aside, the difference would have been mostly semantic for most wearers. Compare them from 10 feet, and even the most experienced collectors would take a second glance.
The people’s watch
Increasingly though, the semantics mattered. If Tudor started advertising independently in 1948, by 1953 the brand was becoming increasingly targeted in who it advertised to.
A display stand saying "Also Tudor by Rolex".
In 1953, Rolex was busy developing its professional family. It was the year Everest was conquered, the year the Submariner was released, and the dawn of the civil jet-age, with Rolex along for the ride with Pan-Am Airlines. Rolex is the brand of achievement, something that was cemented a few years later when Rolex advertising made the bold claim that 'Men who guide the destinies of the world wear Rolex watches'.
Tudor, on the other hand, had much more practical concerns. A campaign from 1953 argued that the main selling point of Tudor was robustness. To prove the point, they subjected the Oyster Princes to a range of grueling everyday considerations such as being worn by coal miners, stonecutters and construction workers during their work, as well as being worn while operating pneumatic drills for hours and racing bikes for 1000 miles.
A Tudor print ad claiming the toughness of the Oyster Prince from 1955.
The sensational headlines of these advertisements exhorted that the watches were 'Punished without mercy' and 'Jarred beyond belief.' This campaign aims to trumpet the strength and reliability of Tudor's watches, but that's not the real point – that is, who the ads are talking to. If Rolex is the brand for those guiding the world, Tudor is the brand for the people who build it. Reliable watches for the workers of the world.
Tudor as the testing ground
Tudor's relationship to Rolex defined the first 84 years of its existence. In 2010 that relationship changed, as — after a period of wandering design — the brand entered into a new era, one defined by a carefully delineated public visage. Tudor was its own brand with a proud heritage to lean on. On the product side, this shift was predicated by the relaunch of the Heritage Chrono, shortly followed by an oddly modernised Heritage Advisor, and then — the big one — the Heritage Black Bay.
A Tudor Oyster Submariner from 1980 sat next to a the modern Tudor Black Bay Fifty Eight.
This watch became a collection that came to dominate the brand. In tandem with this nostalgic wave, the brand re-entered the American market in 2013, with the UK shortly following in 2014. Other corners of the globe, such as France, Germany, Hong Kong and Australia had maintained a consistent Tudor presence, and felt the renewed energy coursing through the brand.
So, Tudor has a new look — but it still retains Hans Wilsdorf's founding mantra of more modest but dependable. However, this time around you might add another criterion: experimental. Contemporary Tudor makes watches that have not, or will not, be incorporated into the Rolex canon. In the last decade, Tudor has released watches with ceramic cases (the Fastrider Black Shield), titanium cases (Pelagos), Bronze (Black Bay Bronze). To date, Rolex has not released watches cased in any of these materials. This, along with the fact that Tudor is much more trend-driven in its design and isn't afraid to introduce or retire collections, all paints a picture of Tudor as a much more experimental brand. Though it is still firmly built on the principles of value and reliability.