How Long Does a Rolex Last?
If you’re going to spend Rolex money—on anything—you have every right to expect that thing to last a long time.
The brand’s initial buy-in price seems high on first acquaintance, but if you happen to look through any number of vintage watch websites, you will see just how many of them dating back to the 20s, 30s and 40s are still happily ticking away.
That by itself is impressive enough, and becomes even more so when you think about how relatively embryonic the technology of those times was. It is the reason the preowned Rolex market is so buoyant and why the watches retain their value so well.
In the modern day, their name might be a byword for luxury and exclusivity, but Rolex forged its reputation by building watches designed for life, along with all the bumps, scrapes and general adventures that come with it.
So the question is; how long does a Rolex watch last?
As always, this is no place for absolutes. You can take two identical watches, give them to two people with completely different lifestyles and, chances are, each would serve different lengths of time.
Like with anything mechanical, the way a watch is treated will have a major effect on its longevity. One worn everyday, rarely serviced, taken underwater, to the beach, around a racetrack etc. is going to have a tougher time keeping going than one coddled and only brought out on special occasions. That latter model will probably last longer than the other, but the key to the company’s continued success is just how close it is likely to be.
The main thing to consider when talking about the durability of a watch is, of course, its movement. In contrast with other high end manufacturers (the likes of Patek, Audemars Piguet and so on), Rolex’s calibers are no-nonsense workhorses, made to do their job with the least amount of fuss and strong enough to just keep on doing it. The finishing is kept industrial, with none of the extravagant flourishes of their rivals, and there are no display case backs to be seen anywhere in the portfolio. More importantly, they are mechanically simple and physically large, lending them an inherent robustness.
Rolex has really only very recently gone in for highly complicated models, with the release of the Yacht-Master II and the Sky-Dweller, with the majority before then being modest three-handers, maybe with a date function. There is a conscious effort from the brand to do as much as possible with the fewest number of parts—and as any engineer will tell you, the more components something contains, the more there is to go wrong. Even their chronograph movement, the Cal. 4130 inside the legendary Daytona, has just 201 constituents, far lower than any standard type.
That minimalist, highly efficient approach to their engines gives rise to all sorts of anecdotes about people whose Rolex keeps plodding along year after year, with nothing beyond a wiping down with a wet cloth in the way of servicing. It is said that Bond author Ian Fleming’s Explorer ref. 1016 sat in a safe deposit box for 17 years after his death and, upon his daughter retrieving it and winding the crown, it started ticking away again as if nothing had happened.
While that may be true, along with all the other stories of miraculous performance you will doubtless hear, at least a little mechanical sympathy is to be advised if you want your Rolex to last as long as possible.
I’m always a bit surprised when I read about those who never take their Rolex in for a service. Exceptionally strong and reliable though the watches are, they still contain a large number of parts which all have to work together in order for it to keep going, and the tolerances involved are minute.
Not having it professionally looked after at least semi-regularly seems to be taking an awful lot on faith, and I sometimes wonder if those people adopt the same attitude with their cars. It would make for a nervy road trip anyway.
Eventually, whether you use your watch as a daily beater or, as in Fleming’s case, it spends much of its life in a box, lubricants will dry out and the mainspring will wear. How quickly that happens again depends on its treatment, but once the oils are gone, friction damage between components starts, and things tend to get expensive from there on in.
A service is not cheap, particularly at a Rolex center, but they are far cheaper than a new movement.
At the very least, having a watch pressure tested every year is vital. The seals and gaskets ensuring water resistance are susceptible to corrosion, and it takes very little to compromise the integrity of the piece as a whole. Should moisture get inside it will begin to rust the movement, and that is something even the most skilled repairer will be unable to save.
But what about the rest of the watch? Like we said, Rolex’s were made to be used, and a model several decades old is going to have evidence of that in the form of a faded bezel or a spidered dial or patina on the hands and indexes.
While all those elements can be swapped, much of the appeal to vintage collectors are precisely those things which hint at a backstory, something that gives what is, in fact, a mass produced item its own character and, crucially, a uniqueness. No two watches will ever age in the same way, and so each becomes a one-off. An all-original classic reference is commonly worth a lot more than a redialed model or one with replacement parts, even if it is in better condition.
Later generations, though, won’t have get the same weathering. Cerachrom ceramic alloys for bezel inserts and white gold for hour markers have been used precisely to alleviate those signs of aging, so a watch made today should stay looking brand new pretty much forever.
So, How Long Should My Rolex Last?
With movements which are as unfussy as they are tough, housed inside cases that literally wrote the book on solidity, all coupled with a commonsense regimen of maintenance—there really isn’t a limit on how long your Rolex should keep going for.
Since July 1st 2015, every new model which rolls off the line has been given a 5-year international guarantee, so sure are the brand of the standard of their work. (Watches made between 1st July 2013 and 30th June 2015 had their guarantees extended to three years). On top of that, Rolex recommends all its current crop only need servicing every 10 years, an industry-leading schedule.
Older pieces will benefit from an upped frequency of care, but once every three to seven years is usually enough as a rule of thumb.
Rolex is often cited for the timelessness of their designs, with each new generation of a model differing usually only slightly from the one before. But the watches themselves are also incredibly durable, built from cutting-edge components, all of which are now made in-house. Even the metals used are forged in Rolex’s own refinery, including their 904L Oystersteel, just about the strongest type of stainless steel employed by any manufacturer.
That level of fastidiousness and precision over every aspect of their manufacture is something Rolex has always striven for, and is fundamental to why their watches last basically indefinitely.
They were built to last a lifetime, and then be handed down to do the same for someone else.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.