Rolex Versus the Rest
I had a friend once who claimed he hated The Beatles.
He would actually get quite vociferous about it, putting forward all manner of ill-thought out explanations as to why he considered them overrated—they lacked creativity, they had average musical ability at best, they were more a product of hype than talent, etc.
What it really boiled down to was my friend’s desire to appear edgy, alternative, someone far too cool to listen to anything so beloved by such huge swathes of the population. (To illustrate my point, his favorite band was Big Country. No, there’s no reason why you would’veheard of them).
He comes to mind every now and then, although I’ve not seen him in 25 years, usually when I read someone decrying the quality and popularity of Rolex watches.
If there is a horological equivalent of The Beatles, it is Rolex. The most recognizable watch brand in the world, by an almost immeasurable distance, they too have transcended their origins and become interwoven into our very consciousness. Put anyone on the spot and ask them to name the first luxury watchmaker that comes to mind, you are going to hear a lot of people say Rolex.
Yet there has always been a fairly sizeable contingent who have railed against them. Those who seem to take exception to what they see as the hysteria-led propaganda that is part and parcel of the Rolex name. Admittedly, there is very little anyone can teach the brand about the dark arts of marketing and self-promotion. Pretty much no other company can peddle their wares with the same effectiveness.
But glitz and glamor only get you so far. If the product itself is lacking, no amount of ambassadorial endorsement or sporting event sponsorship will bring customers to your door. First and foremost, Rolex produces world-class watches.
So that got us thinking. How exactly does the crown’s portfolio measure up, in real terms, to their competition?
Read on below for the results.
Rolex has been making watches now for 114 years; longer than some, not as long as others.
What the brand has done during its time however is commit to constantly and relentlessly improving each aspect of its products. Every component, from the tiniest spring to the cases themselves to the bracelets they sit on, are in a continual state of flux. At the moment, they are as good as they can be, but as new technologies and materials are developed, more often than not by Rolex, they will be updated and enhanced.
It is what has kept them at the forefront of the industry for so long, and it has a name; The Rolex Way.
It means their watches are tested far beyond any extremes they are ever likely to encounter, in order to perform perfectly in real-world conditions. Their models are the end result, so far, of a litany of innovation that goes back to the very earliest days of the company.
As far as quality is concerned, there is little else out there, produced on the same scale, as a Rolex.
Perhaps the only brand that has the crown looking over its shoulder in recent years is Omega. At one time the two shared equal billing in the tool watch stakes, but the quartz crisis of the 70s hit Omega hard. They experimented endlessly with the new technology, and it ended up diversifying their catalog so much potential customers were eventually put off by all the confusion. Rolex, while they engaged to some degree, maintained their focus very much on the traditional, and it paid off once the public’s love affair with electronics cooled.
It is only really since the 1990s that Omega has started to make significant strides at a comeback. Their adoption of the Co-Axial escapement ranks as probably the most important development of the latter half of the 20thcentury. But, although it is in the process of being rolled out across their collection, some of their models still use ETA movements.
Rolex meanwhile can claim to be one of the only manufactures (possibly the only one at their price point) who make every caliber they use themselves. What’s more, they also forge every type of metal in their watches in their own foundry, giving them total autonomy over the production process and quality control. That includes their 904L stainless steel (Oystersteel as it is now known) which is pretty much unique to them.
So confident are they of the excellence of their engineering, they lead the industry in warranties (5 years) and servicing schedules (10 years) for new watches.
Omega may well be catching up, but Rolex is still out in front.
The idea of collecting watches as a hobby didn’t really arrive until the 1980s.
Before then, Rolexes were bought by those professionals who needed one tough yet stylish watch that was going to pair with anything and last them a lifetime.
As such, they were built to last. Movements were kept as simple and robust as possible. The strongest alloys were employed for cases and bracelets. They were one of the first mass producers to introduce scratchproof sapphire crystals. The underlying message was clear; you buy a Rolex and you have it forever.
In addition, that sense of durability also extended to the aesthetics. A model from the 1950s is still recognizably from the same design book as its latest iteration. There are a core of watches at the heart of the Rolex range which are virtual trademarks of the brand. The Submariner, the GMT-Master, the Datejust and Day-Date—none of them have altered beyond recognition in the last 60+ years because, simply, they haven’t had to. The look was nailed down right from the get-go.
Rolex is a pretty conservative, slow moving company. You get the impression that before any big decision is made, it has to be widely discussed and then left to simmer for a while. It frustrates some fans, but it leaves the brand safe from bandwagon jumping. Watch fashions come and go while they are still quietly debating all the pros and cons.
The use of titanium seems to be a prime example. It is certainly the metal du jour, with many watchmakers (including Omega) embracing it for its light weight and impressive strength.
Yet, for the kinds of watches Rolex make, titanium would be a poor choice of material. It might be stronger than steel, but it also scratches easily and oxidizes quickly, leaving a dull surface.
Rolex appears to know all that and are just waiting for their competition to reach the same conclusion.
The issue of pricing when it comes to Rolex watches is one of the more confusing factors of ownership. Although to most people when they hear the name Rolex, they immediately think ‘expensive’ (and Rolex likes it that way) in reality it is not quite as simple.
To get the true cost of the watch, you also have to factor in things like buying brand new or preowned, modern or vintage, the resale value, and availability.
The biggest influence on the total expense is actually the last of those, availability, and it is currently a major sore spot.
If we look at brand new models; in an ideal world you would walk into a Rolex Authorized Dealer, pick out your favorite watch, pay for it with your favorite credit card and walk out again.
I think the last time that happened was at some point in the mid 1990s. Rolex, after the passing of the quartz crisis, reinvented themselves more as the purveyors of an opulent lifestyle than merely the makers of fine timepieces. It led to them producing more of their tool watch collection in precious metals, alongside a hike in prices across the board and a restriction in supply of their most popular editions. It was all in the name of cultivating that dictionary definition of luxury; exclusivity.
The upshot of it in the last few years has been that it is now almost impossible for the average buyer to purchase any of the real big hitters through official retailers without joining an extremely lengthy waiting list.
Last year and the year before it was the Cerachrom Daytonas which headed up the most sought after watches money couldn’t buy. More recently, the Pepsi and Batman GMT-Master IIs are the ones causing the massive frustration.
It has led to the rise of the watch speculator, those people with huge buying power and an already established relationship with a number of ADs. They are the ones well enough connected to hurdle the lists generated by the severely limited allocation of the most in demand pieces, snapping them up for themselves and then selling them, sometimes for more than twice the retail price, on the secondary market.
So, if a ceramic Daytona officially costs around $11,500 brand new from Rolex, you would be very lucky to find one you can actually buy today for less than $25,000.
It is a situation that is becoming an issue with a number of the biggest brands, but Rolex is by far the worst affected, purely because of the reputation they carry with them. Everybody wants a Rolex, preferably a steel sports model, and there are never any shortage of buyers even at the inflated prices.
Of course, there is the natural silver lining to that. If you are in the market to buy yourself a luxury watch with one eye on its future resale value, you can’t do better for the outlay.
With the exception of Patek Philippe, which is another level removed in terms of cost, no other watch holds its value as well as a Rolex.
On the preowned market, it is still possible to very find well priced models.
Those pieces which are traditionally less in demand and haven’t caused quite the same feeding frenzy we’ve seen recently can be a great investment. They are the models purchased brand new several years ago and the original owner has been the one to shoulder the depreciation that occurs on any luxury good, before putting it up for sale. You then have the opportunity to buy a watch that, at worst, is likely to retain its value. At best, if you have chosen wisely enough, you could well see it rise in price as collectors go on the hunt for the next big thing in the future.
Obviously, the rarer the watch, the more likely that is to happen, so a certain amount of research and a healthy dollop of luck are called for. Looking for those references of well-loved models which weren’t around for long is the ideal starting point. Pieces such as the last of the 40mm Sea-Dwellers, the ref. 116600. It was the comeback release after a six year absence, but was only in production itself for three years. It was also the last SD with no Cyclops lens over the date window, something the purists have long cherished about it.
A short production run and a handful of tempting features could well see the ref. 116600 as a great asset down the line.
Rolex Versus the Rest
Taking everything into account; the quality of production, the durability in both looks and build, and the financials, Rolex is still in a league of its own.
There may be competing brands that are as well made—Omega, Breitling, even sister company Tudor for instance, are producing some exceptionally well made watches recently. But they can’t compete in value retention. They also don’t have the same cohesive design Rolex has, and for Omega especially, their release of special editions every other day has weakened their standing amongst fans.
If you want to liken Rolex to the Patek Philippes, Audemars Piguets or A. Lange & Söhnes of the world, yes those brands will have a higher level of finishing to the movement and more impressive complications. But the buy-in prices for those pinnacles of haute horology are fearsome by comparison.
In short, pound for pound, there really is nothing else that performs quite like a Rolex.
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.