Rolex: An Objective Overview

Rolex Daytona (Paul Newman) Cosmograph ref.6241

Rolex is easily the most recognized name in watchmaking. And it's also the one brand most people associate with "high-end' watch making, or "luxury", etc.

In other words, Rolex sends a message of success and every Tom, Dick and Harry receives that message loud and clear.

But the truth is, based on the watches themselves, Rolex is barely a top-20 brand let alone a top-10 brand.

But if that's true, then how did Rolex become "Rolex"?

In a word: advertising.

And let me preface everything by saying not only do I like Rolex (in general), but I also own a couple Rolex myself. In other words, this is an objective look at the brand and their watches, not a subjective one.

And while I'm sure many would disagree with certain things I write, especially those that work for Rolex, they'd be wrong. Dead wrong. Period.

To start, let's put things in a certain perspective via a question: where or what would Rolex be if they had the same advertising budget as Patek Philippe (arguably the greatest watch manufacturer of all  time), or other truly top-10 brands like Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger LeCoultre, A. Lange & Sohne, IWC, Zenith, etc.?

Truthfully, they'd be nothing more than a really nice Seiko. In fact, I'd argue that Seiko is not only more "in-house" than Rolex, but Seiko has also made more technical contributions than Rolex as well.

But, to understand this, you really need to understand Rolex from their inception.

Rolex was born in England in 1905 by German Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis. Eventually they moved the company to Geneva for tax purposes. 

Their business model was to import Hermann Aegler Swiss movements and installing them in watch cases made by Dennison (and others) and that's it.

But eventually they had a great idea, which was to make a waterproof case, the Oyster.

When done, they slapped an Oyster on the wrist of Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel on October 7, 1927. And when she emerged with a dry Oyster, Rolex marketed the crap out of that and almost instantly a new category of watch was born: the luxury sport/tool watch.

What would (much) later be revealed is that the Oyster was not actually waterproof, but more water resistant. Rolex knew it could resist a long swim and that no one would think to test its depth rating (thus it's true Waterproof-ness), and got away with it.

In fact today, "waterproof" is a banned word. Only "Water Resistant" is permitted. And this would be the Rolex M.O. from there on end.

And to put things in further perspective, in that era men were not wearing watches on their wrists. They wore pocket watches. Wristwatches become "in" after the various wars because soldiers needed watches for various reasons and a pocket watch was not practical, hence the wrist.

But Rolex knew it needed more than just a solid case, so they focused on what John Harwood had done.

Harwood had invented the first truly commercial and reliable automatic movements (Perrelet and Breguet had done so previously, but not reliably nor commercially viably), known as the "bumper" movements. His movement had a rotor which rotated about 180 degrees bumping back and forth. His watches were produced by Fortis and went on sale in 1928.

Rolex decided to evolve the Harwood design and placed a semi-circular weight in the center of the movement so it could rotate 360 degrees.

But Rolex was so shrewd, they advertised it as the "first automatic movement". This was a blatant lie. So much so that in 1956 Rolex not only apologized publicly to Hardwood, but they also gave full credit to Hardwood as the true inventor of the automatic movement.

The 1956 Note of Apology in the Sunday Express

The 1956 Note of Apology in the Sunday Express

But that was more than 25 years later. Hardwood had already gone under during the depression, while Rolex flourished. In fact, a couple years earlier, they co-sponsored the Everest Expeditions by Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay where they wore Rolex Explorers to the top (or at least took pictures wearing one once they got there).

So, now according to Rolex, they conquered sea and land. Brilliant!


In other words, before being actual watchmakers, what Rolex (specifically Hans Wilsdorf) actually were, were marketing geniuses. And I don't use that term lightly. As marketers, Rolex was (easily) light years ahead of any other watch company.

This led to the possibility to conquer space. 

NASA needed a watch for their astronauts and without notifying any watch companies, had some NASA employees go out and buy some watches to test, literally off-the-shelf. Rolex was one of companies they bought a watch from. But instead of conquering space, Rolex had their proverbial butts handed to them on a plate by Omega and their legendary Lemania-based Speedmaster.

This is a very important loss for Rolex, because not only was Omega a rival, Rolex used Valjoux movements (like so many others in the day and in that competition) in their chronographs, and Valjoux's main rival was Lemania.

It was a one-two, lights-out, knock-out.

As a consumer, that's really telling because it talks to how good or not the consumer versions of the watches really were when compared to each other. And not only did the Speedmaster prove to be the only one to actually complete and win all tests, the Rolex (and the others) were essentially fails. They did not complete all tests let alone win any - think about that the next time you spend big bucks on a vintage Daytona or Explorer.  

But Rolex persisted. They capitalized on motor sports, with Paul Newman for example, wearing their watches (among other things), and began to understand the value to limiting production of specific models, with subtle dial alterations (Rolex referred to these as "exotic" dials), to well below demand.

Omega, who had the best possible name to use in motor sports (Speedmaster), did not pursue that and once the 70's rolled around, Omega was already on its way downward (more on Omega in a later post).

Rolex also understood the value of getting their watches used by militaries and the like the world over, making limited editions based on those clients specifications (more legible hands, dial markings, etc.). Remember, Rolex already had a rock solid case (easily their greatest contribution to the horological world), so it was an easy step.

One example are the watches issued to COMEX divers. A French undersea engineering company. And one of the most sought after versions is the 1680 COMEX Submariner. But not because of what it was able to do, but what it wasn't able to do. The 1680 COMEX Submariner was not pressure rated to go deep enough. So they gave them to the COMEX people who worked in the office. In other words, technically, it was a fail!

What makes them extremely valuable is the fact Rolex needed to correct that fail (they did), making those early batches rare and hard to find.

In this way, Rolex is the only company who has successfully translated their "failures" into successes. Again, brilliant!

Looking at their supposed technical innovations, if one is to be very honest, they're just not that innovative.

As mentioned, their cases are rock solid, but so is a G-shock (more so if we're to be technically correct), and while their movements are solid, accurate, reliable, thats not the same as innovative.

In fact, if you compare the flagship 3135/3136 Rolex Automatic movement to the ETA 2824 and 2892, you will find a lot more similarities than maybe Rolex would like.

In other words, *maybe* when Rolex set up the subsidiary Tudor, which uses ETA movements exclusively (99% of the time anyway), it was to do more than just market to a broader client base.

And an ETA 2892 movement, while equally reliable, accurate, etc., is a $350 movement.

There's also a great comparison of these movements (and others) here.

furthermore, Rolex has never made a 'Grande Complication' movement. If you're going to claim to be the best, you better have at least one contender in the most technologically advanced category. Like all the other truly top-10 brands do. 

It's like Cadillac trying to tell the world they make the best cars, but have yet to make a 'Super car', or now a 'Hyper car'.  

Ferrari does though. Porsche does too, etc.  

So, where does this leave us?

The point in all this is to try and objectively place Rolex where it belongs within the watch world. And to shop accordingly without being fooled by their marketing.

In my life, that means I will buy Rolex, but I will never pay MSRP. Current Rolex MSRP is inflated and obscene at best. No where near what the watches are actually worth, and certainly not worth it when you consider the competition.

It's just Rolex taking advantage of a gullible market (that means you!).

But at the same time, a Rolex is a watch you can buy and never take off until you die. To that end, what I do if I buy a Rolex is buy vintage, exclusively.

For example, on the cheap side, I can get a gorgeous DateJust 1601/3, sell the common Jubilee strap (yuk), personalize it with a custom alligator strap, all for well under $3000 (once the dust settles).

I can go even cheaper if I focus on a rock-solid Air King or Precision Oyster.

In both cases, the "Rolex message" is sent loud and clear, saving you money for another more substantial purchase later.

Rolex Explorer 1

Rolex Explorer 1

On the more expensive side, I like old Explorer 1s (ref. 1016) or Submariners (stick to ref. 5512, 5513 and 5517).

And if you really want to spend more serious cash on a single Rolex, a 1960's Daytona would be my pick. But again, stay away from modern Daytona's as they are utterly boring.

To conclude, there is more to the story than what I wrote here (in terms of the genius behind Rolex advertising and marketing), but this is the gist of it. It's the most important part to understanding what Rolex really is and how not to be fooled.

In fact, since I already brought up an automobile analogy, I will leave you with the following: in our culture, when we want to demonstrate how good something is in its particular industry or category, for example Levi's Blue Jeans, we might say something like "...Levi's are the Cadillac of jeans".

To that end, Rolex are most definitely the Cadillac of watches, they're just not the Ferrari of watches. And as log as you understand that and don't pay for a Rolex as if they are the Ferrari's of watches, you'll be fine.