Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for a mechanical watchmaker, the world wasn’t plunged back into the pre-technological dark ages at the stroke of midnight on Dec 31st 1999. While a real Y2K bug might well have seen Rolex’s customer base grow even more, at the dawning of the new millennium, it was difficult to see how the brand could have become any more successful.
The nineties had been very good for Rolex. The quartz crisis was like a barely remembered bad dream, and as the numbers rolled over to 2000 without a single plane falling from the sky or even one reactor meltdown, their reputation as the luxury watch manufacturer had become carved in stone.
By choosing not to compete with the cheap electronic timepieces flooding in from Japan and the U.S. and concentrating instead on producing the kind of remarkable watches that were something of an event every time you put them on, they had placed themselves so far ahead of their rivals in terms of public perception that it was barely a competition. Then, as now, you could ask anyone in the street to name the first luxury watchmaker that popped into their heads and be pretty much certain what the answer was going to be.
Rolex Innovations of the New Millennium
Behind the gates at Rolex HQ, the ethos remained the same as it always had. A company that knows more about time than most knows that it doesn’t stand still, and to maintain their unrivalled status they would have to keep their range of products updated with evermore ingenious and desirable innovations.
The first decade of the new millennium saw the Swiss giants come up with a hatful of modernizations for their fleet, some tucked away in the depths of the mechanisms, others very much visible, but all with the same intention; keeping them head and shoulders above anyone else in both quality and style.
It also introduced us to two watches; one similar to an old favorite in name only, representing their most complicated creation yet and another, an ultra tough variation on an iconic Rolex name that just happened to be celebrating its half-century.
Below we’ll look at some of the brand’s most important developments in the 2000s.
The Cal. 4130
Undisputed industry leaders or not, Rolex will not be rushed. Their all-conquering racer’s watch, the Cosmograph Daytona, had finally hit the big time in the eighties, some twenty years after its release, when its initial manually wound movement, the Valjoux 72, had been replaced with the heavily modified self-winding Zenith El Primero. It had lifted the Daytona’s popularity through the roof, with supply lagging so far behind the demand because of the time-suck of having to use third-party movements that waiting lists stretched on for years.
In 2000, Rolex released a new Daytona, the ref. 116520 with, for the first time, an all in-house automatic movement. The Cal. 4130 had taken five years of research and development, stripping out 20% of the parts of the previous caliber, increasing the size of the mainspring barrel and the balance wheel to give a longer power reserve and improved accuracy, and fitting a vertical clutch. Replacing the horizontal clutch of the El Primero movement (renamed the Cal. 4030 after Rolex had customized it) led to the elimination of backlash on the chronograph seconds hands—their tendency to ‘jump’ when activated as the teeth on the gears fought for alignment.
The result of all their hard work was a caliber recognized as one of the finest, most accurate and most reliable movements ever made. Loved by watchmakers everywhere for its ease of servicing, it has secured the Daytona’s status as the world’s favorite chronograph.
The Parachrom Bleu Hairspring
The same year as Rolex brought us the Cal. 4130, they quietly introduced us to a new type of hairspring, the Parachrom. Taking its name from its PARAmagnetic qualities and the Greek for ‘color’ (CHROM), the niobium, zirconium and oxygen alloy rendered the replacement for the Nivarox hairspring of old 10 times more resistant to shocks and completely unaffected by magnetic fields.
Finding its first home in, fittingly, the new Daytona, it was soon rolled out across the whole of the Rolex range. After a further 5 years of development, the oxide coating was thickened to 50-100nm to give even greater long-term stability, with the side effect of the spring turning its distinctive blue color as it reacted with the air. In 2005, the Parachrom Bleu debuted inside the Cal. 3186 of the GMT-Master II, before being adopted by all subsequent Rolex movements.
Widely recognized as the most counterfeited watchmaker in the world, Rolex has always looked for ways to make life as difficult as possible for those trying to forge their creations. In 2003, they took it to another level of economic muscle flexing when they changed their entire steel production line to 904L.
Unbelievably tough and exceptionally difficult to work, 904L steel is usually the preserve of the aerospace or chemical engineering industries. It is also around three times more expensive than the 316L steel they, and the rest of the world’s watchmakers, had been using until that point. As well as making it nigh on impossible for any imitators to fake one of their designs, the sheer scale of the financial outlay it took to replace their tooling facilities also ruled out competition from other, genuine, manufacturers.
Chest beating aside, this superalloy, with its extra Chromium, Molybdenum, nickel and copper content, is the perfect material for the brand’s range of tool watches. Its huge rust and corrosion resistance saw it serve a successful trial with the Sea-Dweller back in 1988 and its ability to hold a polish ensures a Rolex steel watch looks unlike anything else on the market.
The change to 904L steel was one of the clearest indications yet of just how strong a lead Rolex had over its competitors.
Ensuring their legions of metallurgists were the hardest working people of the decade, 2005 also brought us the first example of the scratchproof, fade proof, practically unbreakable ceramic bezel insert, known as Cerachrom.
Whereas the aluminum surrounds Rolex had been using for decades were impressively tough, they were still at the mercy of ultraviolet rays, which caused their color to diminish over time. They were also relatively easy to mark, especially during the sorts of activities in which the watches they were attached to were meant to be worn.
The new ceramic material solved these problems, and its diamond-polished surface gave the Cerachrom bezels a high gloss finish that forever stayed as lustrous as when they were first produced.
However, of all the models in its catalog Rolex could have chosen to introduce the new material, they decided on the GMT-Master II. As they hadn’t yet worked out a way to introduce a two-tone color scheme to Cerachrom, the ref. 116718LN (for Lunette Noire) featured an all black bezel. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Rolex faithful, as the very thing that set the GMT apart from the rest of the range was suddenly lost.
It would take a further eight years for the first of the bi-color surrounds to put in an appearance, when 2013 brought us the ref. 116710BLNR, a black and blue GMT that quickly became known as the Batman.
Even so, the GMT-Master remained one of Rolex’s most popular models, and Cerachrom has proved itself an impervious addition to many of the brand’s pieces. Although an impressive technological advancement, there’s many a vintage collector who will miss the unique look an aged bezel brings to a watch. Like a time worn face, what better way to tell your own story?
The Rolex Watches of the 2000s
The Submariner ref. 16610LV
When you’ve reached a dignified middle age, you’re allowed to go a little eccentric. Or that seemed to be the thinking of the Rolex higher-ups when they released the 50th anniversary edition of the most iconic dive watch ever made. Their half-century pat on the back to themselves emerged in 2003 when the Submariner ref. 16610LV was launched with a bright green bezel.
Immediately splitting opinion, and almost as quickly gaining the nickname The Kermit, it signified a huge departure for the normally straitlaced Swiss. While it may have had some initial detractors, it didn’t take long for it to gain an enthusiastic fan base, attracted just as much by its position as a slice of Submariner history as its unorthodox color scheme.
The first Sub to wear a Maxi dial, with its fatter hands and indexes, it also became the first to be made from Rolex’s new steel. The proportions of that bombproof case are regarded as possibly the most graceful in the series to date; subsequent iterations have taken on a more bulky, muscular frame.
But it’s the bezel that remains at the heart of the 16610LV’s appeal. Too early for Cerachrom, there’s a unique way the aluminum insert reflects light. It means the green changes color depending on the time of day, from a bright emerald to almost black. A real prize among collectors, the Kermit made for a fitting birthday present.
The Sea-Dweller Deepsea ref. 116660
While the venerable Submariner might be more likely to be worn under an immaculately tailored shirtsleeve than strapped around a wetsuit, the Sea-Dweller Deepsea is a very different animal.
Although it may be cast in the same mold as the Sub, the Deepsea was designed to go places no human, or even nuclear submarine, can venture. Kind of like comparing a Land Rover to a tank, the ref. 116660 launched in 2008 was aimed very much at the uncompromising professional.
Rated waterproof to an outrageous 12,800ft, the innovative Ringlock System gives the watch the ability to survive pressures of more than 5,500lbs of pressure per square inch.
To achieve that, the watch contains an inner compression ring made of Biodur 108, an alloy commonly used for surgical implants that is three times stronger than even the 904L steel of the Deepsea’s case and bracelet. The ring takes the bulk of the force pressing down on the crystal, the element with the largest surface area, and spreads it evenly around its circumference and onto the two-part case back. The TA6V titanium alloy of the back gives it the ability to flex, letting it soak up much of the pressure.
With Rolex’s usual engineering prowess, the new alloys and revolutionary construction allows the Deepsea to be much smaller than a watch that could happily survive a trip to the Titanic’s final resting place should be.
Even so, it is still a Kraken. The crystal alone is 5.5mm, the thickness of some dress watches. In all, it stands 17.7mm high with a 44mm diameter case, making it the brand’s biggest offering.
The culmination of Rolex’s long association with the world’s underwater pioneers, the Sea-Dweller Deepsea rewrote the rules for what a dive watch could achieve.
The Yacht-Master II ref. 116688/9
The lack of complications in Rolex’s range has long been the subject of scorn from the brand’s detractors, who have accused them of either a lack of imagination, or worse, of not possessing the necessary technical skills to compete with the likes of Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantine.
For decades, Rolex was quietly stoic about the jibes thrown their way, preferring to concentrate on producing and perfecting iconic, simple, three hand watches and leaving the gimmicks to others. The Day-Date was about as complicated as they were prepared to go.
But eventually, in 2007, it seems they were finally pushed too far. Proving they could mix it with the best of them, they released the Yacht-Master II, their most exquisitely complex watch ever, and one that redefined the word ‘niche’.
The yellow gold ref. 116688 and the white gold 116689 debuted simultaneously, with first-of-its-kind functionality aimed at solving that age-old problem that’s plagued us all at one time or another—timing the starting sequence of a sailing regatta.
While that may be the most specific reason ever to pour thousands of man-hours into creating an entirely new watch (35,000 went into designing the caliber alone), the result was nothing short of spectacular.
The launch of the Yacht-Master II caused a massive stir amongst brand followers, not just for the engineering brilliance, but also for its grandiose styling. A world away from Rolex’s usual understated minimalism, the latest release was a big, bold extrovert, screaming for attention.
However, it was its performance that silenced the critics. The first watch to feature a programmable countdown with a mechanical memory, it was able to precisely time the convoluted starting procedures of a yacht race.
Introducing the concept of a Ring Command System, which has since found its way on to the Sky-Dweller, the bright blue bezel is directly linked to the watch’s movement and rotating it through 90 degrees unlocks the watch’s functions. The crown is used to set the stopwatch countdown, with the central dial displaying the elapsed seconds and the minutes indicated on the horseshoe-shaped track at the top.
But, the clever bit comes should you need to adjust the countdown at any time, if you either jumped the gun or were too late setting off. Pressing the lower pusher causes the seconds hand to ‘fly back’ and reset to their starting position, while the red minute hand also synchronizes to the nearest minute to compensate.
It enables wearers to precisely coordinate their approach to the regatta start line, avoiding any penalties for crossing too early and giving them the best chance of a strong race.
While it may be an acquired taste looks-wise for many brand purists, even Rolex cynics had to admit that, as a complication, it takes some beating. Powered by a new caliber, the Cal. 4160, very loosely based on the Daytona’s 4130, it was also Rolex’s most intricate movement, with 390 separate components.
A great big, colorful attention grabber, the Yacht-Master II was proof that if Rolex decide they want to dip their toes into the world of watch complications, they’ll come up with one of the best ever.
A new millennium signaled a host of fresh innovations pouring forth from Geneva, sealing Rolex’s status as the frontrunner for all things horology.
Next week, we’ll come right up to date with their most popular watches of the current decade.