Long known as the little brother to Rolex, Tudor has its sights set on becoming a big name on its own terms, says Chris Hall.

The story of Tudor’s genesis as a watch brand is well known among enthusiasts. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf – hailed by many as the watch world’s original master of marketing – saw an opportunity to sell watches with Rolex levels of build quality at a lower price. That was back in 1926, Rolex having been formed only in 1905; a few Tudor watches emerged in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1946 that Wilsdorf would form a separate company and make a real go of it.

From then on, Tudor followed a fairly predictable path, shadowing Rolex through the 1960s and ’70s as watches enjoyed their boom years. It, too, created Submariners – now highly prized – and other tool watches similar to their Rolex cousins, many of which found their way on to the wrists of adventurers and soldiers around the world.

But, in line with its founding principles, Tudor was always the younger sibling. Where Rolex put watches on the wrists of Everest’s conquerors, Tudor equipped less newsworthy pioneers on the wastes of Greenland. Rolex was the brand of James Bond and Pan-Am pilots; Tudor had the French Navy. Rolex was the crown; Tudor had the Oyster Prince.

It wasn’t all silver medals, however – Tudor had a 200m Submariner on sale before Rolex, and boasted an automatic chronograph years before the Daytona went the same way. But, in general, if Tudor was known to the wider world, it was as Rolex’s junior brand.

Unlike Rolex, however, Tudor was not stewarded carefully through the “quartz crisis” of the late 1970s and 1980s. By the 2000s it was suffering an identity crisis of its own, bogged down by unappealing designs and no more of a household name than it had been half a century before.

Tudor hit the reset button. Withdrawing from key markets entirely, it made a comeback in 2010 with an approach that was to become emblematic of the entire industry for years to come. Drawing on its 1960s and ’70s bestsellers, Tudor got watch nerds’ attention with the Heritage Ranger and Heritage Chronograph. Just as its founder had envisaged, these were hardy watches made to Rolex levels of quality at prices that reached a wider market (even by today’s elevated standards).

Then in 2013 came the masterstroke – the Heritage Black Bay. Not a reissue of any specific watch, it nevertheless bore its retro influences proudly. With first blue, then red bezels, it kick-started a generation of 1970s dive watch revival editions, and then moved up another gear entirely to become the cornerstone of everything Tudor does.

To date, there have been seven iterations of the Black Bay, including a larger bronze version. This year Tudor added a chronograph model, produced with movements supplied by Breitling (as part of a landmark “swap” deal, Tudor gives Breitling movements for its new Superocean Heritage).

The Heritage Black Bay has become the darling of watch fans, and Tudor has found a better way to be Rolex’s younger brother, realising that it can be more daring (producing a left-handed limited edition Pelagos), louder (working with Italian motorcycle company Ducati) and generally exhibit more zest and verve while retaining that seal of quality.

Importantly, in today’s market, modern-day Tudor has done what its former self never needed or bothered to: invest in its own in-house movements. A mark of independence and – theoretically – quality, in-house movement production is usually met by hefty price hikes; Tudor made the switch with barely a shift in retail prices, further endearing itself to customers.

And yet, for all this, it is probably fair to say that Tudor is not overly well known. Certainly more people will be able to reference Omega, Tag Heuer or Breitling. Reinventing the products to critical acclaim over the past seven years has been vital to winning over the die-hard watch fans, but now Tudor has its sights set on the genuine mainstream.

Hence the announcement last month of David Beckham as the brand’s flagship ambassador, alongside a position as official timekeeper to the New Zealand Lions rugby tour, sponsor of the All Blacks and their talismanic fly-half Beauden Barrett. We may be entering the era where Tudor no longer needs to trade on Rolex’s name; even younger brothers grow up eventually.

Chris Hall is editor of SalonQP.com