Born in Kulmbach, Bavaria and orphaned as a child, Wilsdorf worked for a Swiss watch manufacturer in La Chaux-de-Fonds. In 1905, he moved to London and set up his own business, wanting to provide quality timepieces at affordable prices. With his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, he founded a watch importing firm called Wilsdorf & Davis, and he partnered with Hermann Aegler, a watch manufacturer in Bienne to import wristwatches.
In 1908, he created the Rolex brand under which to sell his watches, and during World War I, he left England for Switzerland due to wartime tax increases levied on luxury imports. In 1920, he established Montres Rolex S.A. in Bienne. The name "Rolex" was given because it is easily pronounceable in many languages. It was also short enough to fit on the face of his watches. Wilsdorf ultimately moved his company to Geneva in 1919.
By the start of World War II Royal Air Force pilots were buying Rolex watches to replace their inferior standard-issue watches. However, when captured and sent to POW camps, their watches were confiscated. When Wilsdorf heard of this, he offered to replace all watches that had been confiscated and not require payment until the end of the war, if the officers would write to Rolex and explain the circumstances of their loss and where they were being held. Wilsdorf was in personal charge of the scheme.
Wilsdorf also established the high-quality, lower-priced watch brand Tudor, a subsidiary company of Rolex in 1946. Upon the death of his wife in 1944, he established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, to which he left all of his shares in Rolex, making sure that an amount of the company's income would go to charity. The company remains a foundation to the present day. Wilsdorf died in Geneva on July 6, 1960.
- Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum published by the Rolex Watch Company in 1946.
- "New York University Stern School of Business magazine". W4.stern.nyu.edu. Retrieved June 5, 2012.