When marketing executives face looming deadlines, calling their newest charge ‘the Rolls Royce of…’ is an easy and dependable fallback to successfully demonstrate a product of unassailable quality.
The Silver Cross pram is the ‘Rolls Royce of baby strollers’. Chef and professional potty mouth Gordon Ramsey cooks the ‘Rolls Royce of beef Wellingtons’ at the Savoy Grill.
Rolls Royce is no longer a car manufacturer, it is a statement of uncompromising excellence and trustworthiness.
In 2016, Rolex out-Rolls Royce’d Rolls Royce. For the first time, the Swiss watchmaking icon topped the Global RepTrak 100, the world’s largest annual corporate reputation study. Published by the Reputation Institute (RI), it ranks international firms on factors such as the public’s perception of their honesty and reliability and their willingness to recommend them to others.
This year, they went one better. In addition to again beating over 100,000 other brands to the top spot, Rolex were both the only watch manufacturer to break into the top 100 list and the only company ever to achieve ‘Excellent’ status—amassing more than an 80% positive reaction.
It is the culmination of more than a century of evolution and perfectionism that has opened up a chasm between them and anything even approaching a competitor.
In terms of Swiss watchmaking, there’s Rolex and then there’s everyone else.
Rolex in the 2010s
Far from slowing down and basking in the glory, the pace at Rolex HQ is only accelerating. The present decade has seen the company stretching its legs and flexing its muscles, adding to their range with both updated favorites as well as an all-new flagship model that continues their drive towards more complicated pieces.
While the rest of the industry battens down the hatches and tries to weather the Smartwatch storm, which is doing for the luxury mechanical end of the market what quartz did in the 70s, Rolex marches ever onwards and upwards, insulated by the scale of its reputation and the superiority of is offerings.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the standouts of the 2010s so far.
Rolex proved in 2007 they were more than capable of producing a complicated watch if so called upon. While the Yacht-Master II silenced many of their critics, it seems it also gave the brand a taste for the ultra functional, and 2012 saw them one-up themselves when they launched the even more complex Sky-Dweller.
Before it was unveiled at that year’s Baselworld event, the Rolex rumor mill had been in overdrive with fans speculating on just what the brand’s first new watch in a generation would bring. Outsiders knew nothing beyond the name, and many were convinced the crown’s latest would be an upgraded, tougher version of their other aviation-themed watch, the GMT-Master; much like a Sea-Dweller to the venerable Submariner.
Instead, what emerged was more along the lines of a reworked, GMT version of the Day-Date. Initially only available in precious metal variants, this was an unashamedly opulent watch for luxury travelers rather than a sturdy sports model for hardworking professionals.
Taking the crown as both the most complicated and most expensive member of the family, the Sky-Dweller continues the modern day Rolex aesthetic of heightened functionality, housed inside an opinion splitting, progressive visual design.
The Yacht-Master II’s looks proved challenging to a number of the brand faithful when it first appeared, and the Sky-Dweller’s unorthodox off-center sub dial proved likewise.
But, as is so often the way with Rolex, they have managed to find the most elegant, understated way to present a lot of information. In a watch with no pushers, no bezel engraving and just an hour, minute and seconds hand, they have created both an annual calendar and a dual time display.
How Does it Work?
The small oblique dial marked with a 24-hour track remains set to the reference time; that is, the time back home where you’ll return after your travels. A red arrow below the Rolex logo points to the hour. The main dial is for the local time, with a date window, complete with Cyclops, at three o’clock.
Look closely and you’ll also spot little cutout apertures above each hour index, one of which is a different color. These represent the months of the year—so a colored window in the one o’clock position is for January, two for February, etc. What the watch would have looked like if there had been more months in a year than hours in a day is fortunately not our concern.
The brilliance of the Sky-Dweller lies in its control. The fluted bezel, a Rolex design feature that goes back to their very earliest days, is actually another low-key version of the Ring Command we first saw on the Yacht-Master. But where that had either an on or off mode, the Sky-Dweller’s three-position bezel allows every aspect of the watch’s complications to be operated by just the crown. With each quarter turn of the bezel, a different function is unlocked—first, the date adjustment. Another turn lets you set the local time and finally, the last setting synchs all of the functions to allow the reference time in the GMT dial to be fixed.
It means the crown, the weakest spot for any mechanical watch, only has to be pulled out to one position, giving the whole structure an inherent strength, and does away with the need for additional buttons.
Inside, a brand new caliber regulates the whole process. The Cal. 9001 was built specifically for the Sky-Dweller; Rolex’s most intricate and complex movement to date, it consists of over 380 parts—60 for the bezel alone.
It all adds up to a new era, where the Sky-Dweller unseats the President at Rolex’s top table. It is an extravagant watch certainly, and one that makes no apology for it, but it is one that is eminently practical.
With Rolex, there are no complications for complications’ sake. Everything on the Sky-Dweller is useful—it is a beautiful slice of luxury, but one intended to make your everyday life just that little bit easier.
The Milgauss Z Blue Dial ref. 116400GV
A watch designed for scientists and engineers was never going to have the same all-encompassing appeal as one aimed at underwater adventurers or champions of motorsport. Even though the likes of the Submariner or the Daytona rarely made their way on to the wrists of their professed targets, the reflected glamor of the professions was enough to capture the imagination of mere mortals.
The Milgauss therefore had always been the dark horse in the Rolex stable. Its USP was something very few ordinary people had to contend with when it first made an appearance in the 1950s. By shrouding its mechanism in a soft iron cage, it protected the watch from the effects of magnetic fields up to 1,000 Gauss—hence the name, with Gauss being the unit of magnetic flux density and mille the French for 1,000.
While it had, and still has, a cult following among collectors, Rolex pulled the plug on the model in 1988. It wasn’t until 2007 that it was reintroduced, when modern living made a watch that was shielded from the number one enemy of mechanical calibers much more relevant. These days, we are surrounded by far stronger electromagnetic fields than ever before; in our computers, phones, microwaves, etc. With 50-100 Gauss being more than enough to disrupt the delicate inner workings of a movement, the Milgauss suddenly seemed much more compatible with our everyday lives.
For that reissued reference, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Milgauss name, Rolex employed a green tinted sapphire crystal—the first time a colored glass had ever covered one of their watches. The process needed to create it was so complicated, not even Rolex, which owns copyrights numbering into the thousands, bothered to patent it.
In 2014, they took their gentle Swiss quirkiness one step further and released the Z Blue Dial ref. 116400GV. The same green glass now enclosed a face of electric blue which, coupled with its encircling orange minute track and trademark lightning bolt seconds hand, set the Milgauss apart as perhaps the most colorful model in the whole range.
Still very much the odd Rolex out in the brand’s professional collection, the Milgauss is enjoying something of a mini revival. While its tool watch brethren are released in more and more precious metal variants, with fancy ceramic bezels and other gentrifying additions, the Milgauss is what it has always been; a simple timepiece, there to do a job. Beloved by those who miss the old days of Rolex, its idiosyncrasies have won it a new legion of followers.
The GMT-Master II ref. 116710BLNR
When 2005 saw the introduction of Cerachrom, Rolex’s proprietary ceramic that gradually phased out the aluminum bezel inserts on many of their collection, it solved one of the age old ‘problems’ that had always plagued their vintage models. Over time, and with a watch’s usual everyday wear and tear, any piece’s bezel can be marked or start to fade.
With Cerachrom, an outrageously tough and resilient new material, those flaws became a thing of the past. Scratchproof, virtually unbreakable, and with a diamond polished surface that holds its color forever, it keeps the latest generation of Rolex bezels looking as if they just rolled out of the workshop whatever age they are.
However, while these are generally assumed to be good things, Rolex enthusiasts, and especially vintage collectors, are a slightly different breed. As far as they are concerned, the introduction of Cerachrom had two major disadvantages.
Firstly, ask anyone with an interest in older Rolexes and they will tell you that a time-aged bezel on a classic watch is a huge plus point. Not only does it tell the piece’s life story, it also sets it apart from any other example—no two faded bezels look the same.
And secondly, when it first appeared, Rolex’s official line was that it was impossible to add a dual color scheme to their new brainchild. So, why they chose the GMT-Master II, the watch with the most famous two-tone bezel in the world, to first showcase Cerachrom is one of the big horology mysteries.
The ref. 116718LN appeared with an all-black surround—a beautiful watch certainly and as dependable and rugged as ever, but almost indistinguishable at a glance from a Submariner. Online Rolex forums, not known for pulling any punches, were ablaze.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Rolex finally downgraded ‘impossible’ to ‘difficult’. That year, the first bi-color Cerachrom GMT-Master II appeared with the ref. 116710BLNR. When rumors the brand had cracked the process were confirmed, speculation was rife as to whether we should all expect the Coke or the Pepsi bezel on the inaugural offering.
In fact, Rolex surprised everyone. What emerged was a blue and black combination that quickly adopted the nickname The Batman.
As a color scheme, it actually made more practical sense than the Coke’s black and red or the Pepsi’s red and blue. Originally intended as a quick way for international travelers to visualize whether their destination was currently experiencing daylight or nighttime hours, what better way to picture it than with blue and black?
With formidable waiting lists drawn up even before the launch, the Batman proved a massive success and was the star of Baselworld 2013.
The GMT-Master series has always been one of the top four; Rolex’s biggest hitters and perennial fan favorites. With the reintroduction of a two-color bezel, it secured its rightful place among the Subs, Datejusts and Daytonas of the world and when, just a year later, the Cerachrom Pepsi appeared, the archetypal globetrotter’s watch completed its triumphant comeback.
For over 100 years, Rolex has led the way with innovation after innovation, creating emblematic, timeless watches that have defined the industry.
As a brand, they have no equal, either in the quality of product or the status of their name. Today, they are stronger than ever—and we can only wait and see what the next 100 years brings.