A place to show and talk about watches

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Rolex... Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Recently during one of our weekly Show and Tell meetings at our local brewery, my friend Terry and I were discussing if any serious watch collection could be complete without a Rolex timepiece. Multiple times before, we have talked about the inflated prices for Rolex watches and the possible reasons for this phenomenon. The amount of money Rolex spends in marketing, as well as brand recognition and perception are common topics of conversation.

As a fairly new mechanical watch aficionado, it is difficult to remove oneself from the stereotypical image of the Rolex owner. The car salesman, the pawnshop owner, the pimp (probably a fake), the new-money wannabe, or the person who thinks that wearing a Rolex means that he/she has made it in life are —fairly or not —  the images that come to mind.  It’s difficult to ignore the number of blingy Instagram photos, and vulgar displays of unfounded arrogance and elitism wildly available for consumption in YouTube.

Some time ago, Terry told me a story of a guy who didn’t even know the Rolex model he was wearing. Terry had asked him, “Hey, that looks like a nice watch you are wearing, a Submariner?” The man replied, “It is a Rolex” with the look of somebody who had just been asked if a bicycle in fact rolls on two wheels.

Any well-informed mechanical watch enthusiast would agree that there are a number of watch brands that have the same or higher level of history and heritage, product engineering, craftsmanship, and attention to detail than Rolex. However, Rolex continues to drive significantly higher prices for its products than brands with similar offerings. Case in point: the overly popular and cult status victor Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520 was in fact based on Zenith’s El Primero 400 caliber. (We can extensively talk about the modifications that Rolex made to caliber 400 before making it available for the Daytona, but that would demand a separate post.) And while the Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520 can bring around $11,000 in the secondhand market, a Zenith watch with El Primero movement in similar condition and age will hardly bring half of that amount.

 In 2013, Benjamin Clymer (Founder of Hodinkee) during an interview with John Goldberger (Collector, and Author) found very interesting that Rolex Ref.4113 (one example recently bringing in over a million dollars at Christie's) costs significantly more than 3 other references sharing the same Valjoux 55VBR movement. One of those being an extremely rare (50 pieces made) NOS Universal Geneve designed for nocturnal navigation by the Italian Airforce. Benjamin Clymer asked “why is the Rolex worth X while these are worth Y?” John Goldberger simply answered with a smirk: “because Rolex on the dial”, only to add after a very brief pause: “it is also better designed than the others, the cases are thinner and lighter, they made 12 examples, and it is Rolex.”
For a long time, the negative connotations associated to Rolex kept me from connecting with the brand, or a particular model in the catalog. However, as I learned more about horological history as it relates to watches, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the contributions that the company has made to the industry. Consequently, still fairly reluctant, I bought my first Rolex. While I had already seen, touched, and tried a proper Rolex before this purchase: an 18K president that my friend Terry has owned for years, this simple pre-owned three-hand Rolex 6694 with a manual wind movement, acrylic crystal, and oyster bracelet was going to be my personal gateway to the Rolex world.

Did I fall in love with the 6694? No, I did not. It was a nice watch in pristine condition, and I believe that it represented the original values associated with the brand: quality, practical simplicity, and classic design. However, I didn’t hesitate to sell it in order to buy a vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox with K825 caliber right after one became available. On the other hand, my brief fling with Rolex motivated me to learn more about Rolex the company; it did force me to get pass the murkiness  that surrounds the brand.

Rolex significant innovations include: first waterproof wristwatch, first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial, first wristwatch waterproof to a depth of 100 meters, first wristwatch to show two time zones at once, first wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial, first watchmaker to earn chronometer certification for a wristwatch, first watchmaker to patent the helium escape valve, and first brand to use 904L stainless steel.

Today, Rolex is the largest single luxury watch brand; it manufactures products of exceptional quality with timeless designs using world-class industrial practices that allow the company to produce about 2,000 watches per day. To top things off, Rolex is among Forbes’ 75 most powerful global brands, thanks to its world class marketing strategy.

Rolex, in my opinion, is a victim of its own success. If we look beyond stereotypes and misconceptions, analyze what the brand represents in terms of contributions to watchmaking, and judge its products as we would judge products from its competitors, we can find legitimate reasons why we should consider Rolex to be part of our collection.

Do I have a Rolex today? Yes I do: an Explorer I Ref. 14270. Will I keep it for a long time? That, I’m afraid, I cannot answer with certainty. After all, you never know when that one special Jaeger-LeCoultre may cross your path.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Luis,

    Your points are all well-made. I don't have a Rolex (yet) and I may or may not end up with one, but this I know: there are several I like very much, but I do not see them as sound investments, but instead as watches I'd love to have and wear. I cannot imagine anything more self-defeating than limiting oneself to one watch-brand or another--or being a watch hater of any stripe. I do understand, however, that watch collectors are different in terms of their life styles, financial resources and opportunities to wear an enjoy a variety of watches. I can enjoy others' watches that way and have a huge collection! Cheers, Bill