Rolex at Watches & Wonders 2023 (Part 2)
Rolex came to Watches & Wonders in Geneva this year with a hatful of new models: so many, in fact, that we have had to split our report on them all in two.
In the first post, we covered the new Daytona (celebrating its 60th birthday), the new size Explorer (a watch celebrating its 70th birthday) and a new bezel on the GMT-Master II.
For this second article, let’s look at what the brand has been doing behind the scenes with a few other favorites.
The New Yacht-Master
The Yacht-Master collection grew by one this year, but that one was a particularly special addition.
In truth, while not exactly expected by the Rolex cognoscenti, the new ref. 226677 was at least very much hoped for, and had been for a couple of years.
In 2020, four-time Olympic sailing gold medalist, Sir Ben Ainslie, was spotted wearing one of the extremely popular 42mm models of the YM, only available at the time in either white or yellow gold. However, there were a few differences to this specific example that caught the eye.
Firstly, there was no date function as on the standard model, a complication somewhat superfluous on a sailing watch anyhow. Secondly, it was fitted with a NATO strap as opposed to the usual Oysterflex. Nothing too ground shattering so far, but when looked at a little closer, it became clear that the metal in which this new variant was cast was not, in fact, either type of gold, nor was it in any other precious metal or even steel. This was the very first Rolex watch made purely from titanium.
Despite its laundry list of outstanding watchmaking attributes, Rolex had never made a titanium piece before, unlike sister brand Tudor with their Pelagos dive range. The reasons are unclear, but I have long suspected a certain amount of snobbery. As former CEO André Heiniger once pointed out, since the ‘80s the manufacture hasn’t really been in the watchmaking business, they’ve been in the luxury business. And in the case of timepieces, luxury is conveyed by, amongst other things, weight. Traditionally, Rolex watches have a definite heft to them, communicating a real feeling of solidity. Titanium is a conspicuously light metal which may well be the cause for the crown shying away from it.
That ended this year. Finally, Ainslie’s custom-made Yacht-Master is now available for the general public, and it’s a beauty.
On their website Rolex expound the virtues of titanium or, as they call it, RLX Titanium, a ‘specially selected grade 5 alloy’ noted for several qualities, including its ability to hold either a polished or satin finish.
On the ref. 226677 they’ve opted for both, with a gorgeously muted grain across the mid-case and bracelet and a high sheen on the crown guards and chamfered edges of the lugs. That pleasing contrast extends to the bezel as well, with raised and polished numerals popping against the matte, sand-blasted Cerachrom insert.
In many ways, this is akin to the Submariner many people have been longing for; a thoroughly modern, lightweight alternative of the ultimate classic, in the perfect size for a contemporary tool watch.
Inside it shares the Cal. 3235 fitted to the rest of the Yacht-Masters of 40mm and up, complete with its Chronergy escapement and faultless reliability.
We may have had to wait an eon for Rolex to get with the program regarding titanium and its properties but it seems it has been worth the delay. The question now is, is this the first of a new breed and are there more RLX Titanium models in the works?
The Oyster Perpetual ‘Celebration’
Who says the Swiss don’t know how to have fun? Well, a lot of people actually, but regardless, someone at Rolex clearly has something of the wildcard about them as was demonstrated this year with a new set of dials for the Oyster Perpetual collection.
Known as the ‘Celebration’ dials, they are available on the 31mm, 36mm and 41mm versions of Rolex’s quintessential classic and have a decidedly sparkling appeal.
In an entirely new take on the vivid lacquer dials introduced in 2020, these models feature green, candy pink, turquoise blue and coral red bubbles frothing across the face, all with black outlines and set against a turquoise background.
It is one of the most offbeat and idiosyncratic moments Rolex has produced for a long time, and I for one am totally here for it.
The brand has, however, said that the Celebration won’t be around for long, so time is of the (efferv-)essence!
The New Sky-Dweller
Rolex’s most technically accomplished model also got an upgrade this year.
The superbly complicated Sky-Dweller, with its dual time zone and annual calendar functions, saw the return of a white gold version on, for the first time, an Oysterflex bracelet, together with two new dial colors—a delicate mint green on the white Rolesor model (steel case with white gold fluted bezel) and a sumptuous blue-green face on their full-Everose piece.
It brings the well-stocked collection up to 29 examples, and all have been equipped with Rolex’s next generation movement. The Cal. 9002 replaces the former Cal. 9001 and brings with it the brand’s own reworking of the standard lever-type escapement, the Chronergy.
Elsewhere, the Sky-Dweller still delivers the same sophisticated performance as ever, linking its Ring Command bezel to the movement to unlock its advanced features. The most complex watch in Rolex’s history, it remains perhaps the epitome of the luxury travelers’ companion.
The New 1908 Perpetual Collection
While the likes of the Day-Date and Datejust rank as dress watches in the Rolex lineup, there was always going to be a non-Oyster sized gap left by the retiring of the Cellini range this year.
Happily, the manufacture has wasted no time in shoring up the catalog with the new 1908 Perpetual series. Taking its name from the year company founder, Hans Wilsdorf registered the trademark ‘Rolex’, the 1908 is a set of four exquisite 39mm pieces, each shot through with a number of elegant and often unexpected touches.
There are two models apiece in white and yellow gold, with either a black or white dial, and all inspired by some of the earliest watches the brand ever produced to be fitted with their own Perpetual calibers.
Up front, the handset is a delight, with a double-edged sword minute hand and an hour hand featuring a Breguet-esque circle below the tip. A small second sub dial at the six o’clock completes the handsome face.
The bezel, which itself has a whiff of the Patek Calatrava’s ‘Clous de Paris’ hobnailing about it, is actually split in two, with the upper portion domed and the lower fluted.
Power comes from the Cal. 7140, a brand new engine developed in-house specifically for the 1908. Subject to five patents, it boasts the Chronergy as above, along with Paraflex shock absorbers and, crucially, a silicon Syloxi hairspring. What’s more, the bridges and self-winding rotor have been finished with a Rolex Côtes de Genève decoration (like traditional Geneva stripes but with a polished groove between each band).
Why is that important? Because, just as with the new platinum version of the Daytona also released this year, the 1908 all have sapphire case backs. This is unexplored territory for Rolex, having never (to the best of my knowledge) released anything with a display back before. And long may it continue.
All the models come with either a brown or black alligator leather strap secured with a new Dualclasp, a double-folding fastener carefully engineered to always sit centered on the wrist.
Like the Cellini, the 1908 Perpetual is an outlier in the collection, the only watches without Oyster cases, but with a unique refinement to them. Hopefully they will be received better than the models they have replaced, and I look forward to seeing them adopt some of the Cellini’s complications in the future as well.
Rolex had a fairly eventful showing at W&W this year, by their own conservative standards. The refreshed Daytona range will, of course, steal the lion’s share of the headlines, but the portfolio has been filled out with plenty of other fascinating new pieces too.
In our next article, we’ll take a look at what a few other brands graced us with in 2023.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive & Pixabay (cc).