Rolex and the Ragtime King

On this, the 97th anniversary of the death of the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, we felt it appropriate to bring to your attention a fascinating and deliberately overlooked footnote in Rolex’s rich history.You won’t find evidence of this episode in the conventional guides to Rolex watches, not even in the celebrated and authoritative Rolex volumes of Guido Mondani is there a mention of the little known fact: Scott Joplin received his own specially commissioned Rolex watch.
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First a little background information. Born in 1868, Joplin was raised in Texarkana, the son of a labourer and former slave. As a child, Joplin taught himself piano on an instrument belonging to a white family that granted him access to it, and ultimately studied with Julius Weiss, a local German-born teacher who introduced Joplin to classical music. Joplin attended high school in Sedalia, MO, a town that would serve as Joplin’s home base during his most prosperous years, and where a museum now bears his name.
In 1891, the first traceable evidence of Joplin’s music career is found, placing him in a minstrel troupe in Texarkana.By 1899, publisher John Stark of Sedalia issued Joplin’s second ragtime composition, Maple Leaf Rag. It didn’t catch on like wildfire immediately, but within a few years the popularity of Maple Leaf Rag was so enormous that it made Joplin’s name; and Joplin earned a small percentage of income from it for the rest of his days, helping to stabilise him in his last years.Joplin moved to St. Louis in 1901, as did Stark, who set his new publishing venture up as “The House of Classic Rags.” Joplin wrote many of the other rags he is known for during this time, including The Entertainer, The Easy Winners, and Elite Syncopations. By the early 1900’s ragtime was all the rage across the parlours of America.In these days of instant access and gratification, where a new song is no more than a quick You Tube download away, it’s hard to appreciate the way in which it would take several years for the ragtime craze to reach Britain’s shores.

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Just as it takes eons for light to reach earth, it took a long time for new musical genres to make their way across the world. Indeed it is the case that by the time Joplin’s sheet music and gramophone recordings reached Britain, his career had long since hit the doldrums.While Wall Street Rag and Peacherine Rag were causing a young Hans Wilsdorf to tap his feet to their seductive syncopated rhythms in 1914 London, Joplin was scraping by in New York, avoiding debt collectors and desperately trying to fund his ragtime opera Treemonisha.
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Meanwhile, despite the fact Rolex is today one of the most highly recognised brands on earth, very little is known or has been published on the history of its highly driven, enigmatic and innovative founder, Hans Wilsdorf.What we do know is that by late July 1914, Britain was entering a war with Germany, triggering World War 1, and suddenly a German name coupled with a German accent was not at all a desirable commodity in Britain. Wilsdorf was looking to settle elsewhere. In this year he also changed the name of the company from Wilsdorf & Davis to the Rolex Watch Co. Ltd, a name he had registered in 1908.We can only speculate, but perhaps Wilsdorf’s next idea was with an eye to ingratiating himself with the Americans in the hope of relocating there. It was common knowledge at the time that Europeans of all strains were prospering hugely in America.
The Rolex Ragtime King
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With his love of ragtime music, Wilsdorf seized upon what was then a brand new marketing strategy – the idea was to create Rolex’s first brand ambassador – America’s most pre-eminent musician – Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime.Pictured above is the only known photograph of the Rolex ‘Ragtime King’. In fact it was a Rolex Rebberg, essentially a pocket watch on a leather strap with the legend ‘Ragtime King’ emblazoned upon it.So enthusiastic was Wilsdorf about this idea that he was determined to sail to New York to personally present the watch to Mr. Scott Joplin. This was considered a courageous feat in light of the sinking of the Titanic just over two years earlier in 1912.Essentially Rolex’s people had been in touch with music publisher John Stark’s people to determine Mr. Joplin’s whereabouts. The voyage had taken weeks of planning, and the idea was that the presentation would be kept as a surprise for Mr. Joplin.

Visiting Scott Joplin

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Armed with the Rolex Ragtime King, 33 year old Wilsdorf and a young associate Mr. Petherbridge, set sail for New York sometime in late September 1914.

In the event, the greater surprise was in store for Mr. Wilsdorf and his travelling companion. They were greeted at New York harbour not by John Stark, but by a representative of the company, sent from their offices in St Louis. He escorted them by motorcar to their hotel.

Above is an artist’s impression of Wilsdorf and Petherbridge arriving at the port with Mr. Wilsdorf on the right. As can be seen from his photograph taken a few years earlier in 1908, the artist’s impression was accurate.

After refreshing themselves at their Park Avenue hotel, the Stark assistant drove Wilsdorf and Petherbridge in a Moyer touring car to the home of Mr. Scott Joplin.

We can only imagine the look on the faces of Wilsdorf and Harrow educated Petherbridge as the respectable white populated avenues of Manhattan slowly gave way to a poorer black neighbourhood.

When the door was opened to two finely attired British gentlemen from the Rolex Watch Company, it took both Joplin and his visitors several moments to overcome their mutual dismay.

Before Wilsdorf stood a red eyed black man with a shuffling gait, prematurely aged and clearly in the grip of a wasting illness. Clearing his throat, Petherbridge said: “Good afternoon my man, is your master in?”

It was quickly indicated by the embarrassed John Stark representative that they were in fact talking directly with Mr. Scott Joplin. The pair were duly ushered into the ramshackle apartment. No one had ever thought to inform Wilsdorf that Joplin was a coloured gentleman.

Sheets of musical notation were everywhere; on the floor, on the table, on chairs, stacked on shelves. They had definitely found their man, even though their man was nothing like what they had expected. There was no Google in 1914, indeed there were hardly any pictures in the newspapers.

Presentation of the Rolex Ragtime King

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Recovering quickly, the ever polite Hans Wilsdorf congratulated Scott Joplin upon his wonderful music. After an awkward silence, Petherbridge handed Wilsdorf the fine leather watch box containing the Rolex Ragtime King and, after a short speech, duly presented it to Scott Joplin.

Wilsdorf probably wasn’t the first, and is definitely not the last fan boy to find his musical hero to be a crushing disappointment in the flesh. Joplin opened the box and stared blankly at the watch – known as a wristlet at that time – an innovation soon to become cherished by British soldiers in the trenches of France in World War 1.

Scott Joplin was stunned that something as small as a wrist watch could tell the time. Petherbridge had to show him how to strap the watch to his left wrist, which shook as he buckled it.

Joplin loved the ‘Ragtime King’ insignia on the wristlet and admired the timepiece on his wrist for several moments. Joplin, recognising Wilsdorf’s accent, asked if he spoke German. Joplin spoke a little German, having learnt the language under his piano tutor Julius Weiss.

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After exchanging a few faltering sentences in German, Joplin, spotting a man of means clearly in awe of his music, made his pitch. Would Wilsdorf sponsor his new ragtime opera Treemonisha? Joplin grabbed several sheets of hastily scrawled musical notation from a table and showed them to a bemused Wilsdorf who exuded polite enthusiasm.

An impromptu concert

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In honour of the occasion, Wilsdorf requested a piano recital and Joplin obliged. Shuffling to his upright piano in the corner of the room, Joplin’s hands hovered unsteadily above the keys. It seemed momentarily as if Joplin had forgotten what to do with a piano.

But then he started to play, and the familiar strains of Joplin’s greatest hit Maple Leaf Rag sailed across the room. Joplin followed it up with Paragon Rag, a lively lilting tune, and a personal favourite of Wilsdorf’s.

When the musician did what he was born to do, the magic for Wilsdorf quickly returned. In no time the founder of one of the world’s most iconic watch brands was tapping his toes to what to this day remains America’s most pre-eminent black musician of ‘serious’ music.

Joplin premiered his latest work, Magnetic Rag and by the time he finished with Swipesy Cakewalk and a rousing version of another cakewalk ‘Les Poissons d’Avril,’ Wilsdorf was putty in his hands. He gifted Joplin 100 hundred American dollars towards his new opera – a small fortune in those far off days equivalent to $2000 in today’s money.

With the impromptu concert finished, Joplin was completely drained, and emotional at the gift of the Ragtime King wristlet and the money. Wilsdorf and Petherbridge made their excuses and left the dirty, cramped ramshackle apartment, stepping over sheets of music as they did so.

“No further mention of this episode”

As soon as they were safely ensconced in their Park Avenue hotel, Wilsdorf turned to his aide and solemnly declared: “Petherbridge, we will make no further mention of this episode to anyone, ever, do you understand me.”

And there we have it. Wilsdorf went on to build one of the world’s most famous watch brands while Joplin slowly descended into madness from tertiary syphilis. He died on April 1st 1917 in Manhattan State Hospital believing that his life had been a failure.

Rolex moved its offices not to America but to Switzerland where they remain to this day.

As for the Rolex Ragtime King, it was pawned and re-pawned by Joplin as failing health made it increasingly difficult for him to earn a living. In 1967 it was bought for $220 by a Rolex collector from the same pawn shop where Joplin left it half a century earlier.

Were he alive today, Joplin would be astounded to learn that, a century after his work was first printed, he is the most successful African-American composer of serious music that ever lived – by far. For your listening pleasure, below is one of the last rags he wrote – Magnetic Rag from 1914.

We leave it to the reader to decide whether Rolex or Ragtime is the greater gift to humanity.

Listen to Magnetic Rag as played by Joshua Rifkin

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