Rolex represents the opposite of a lot of the Swiss watch industry, yet represents Switzerland perfectly. It is crisp, clean, relentlessly pragmatic and totally unapologetic. Rolex can be celebrated for its achievements, or derided for being, at times, dull. However, its success is unmistakable as it was placed at number 78 on Forbes’ list of most valuable brands with a value of 9.1 billion US Dollars.
In this article, I would like to, perhaps dispassionately, present why this brand is a masterpiece of marketing, a beacon of restrained innovation, and a demonstration of an absolute understanding for its clientele.
To understand Rolex, one has to first appreciate its visionary side, thus requiring one to travel to its creation in 1905. That year, a certain 24-year-old businessman by the name of Hans Wilsdorf founded Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd., a brand which focused on the production of wristwatches. This choice to embrace what, rather boldly, Wilsdorf believed to be the future. Wilsdorf’s vision was, ultimately, to foreshadow a new approach to watches in a world of pocket watches.
Having rebranded his watches under the universally pronounceable name ‘Rolex’ in 1915, Wilsdorf progressed on a path which made the pre-war pocket watch world appear antediluvian. Rolex was set on a path to create watches which were justified by their practicality and so were, arguably, the first true ‘tool-wristwatches’. Due to producing the first chronometer rated wristwatches in 1910 — an accolade vindicated by a rating of “Class A” by the Kew Observatory in 1914 (an honour usually only enjoyed by marine chronometers) — Rolex developed a reputation for accuracy. Moreover, with the creation of the first waterproof case in 1926, these truly became watches for all occasions. This was continued in 1931 with the addition of automatic winding, and once more in 1945 with the self-changing date, a complication unique in its simplicity and practicality.
Development for Everyday
Rolex offered value through means easily understood such as accuracy & durability. Where complications were concerned, whether it was the date, a second time zone or high water resistance, everything fitted a clear market or need. Such innovation has continued to the present day as Rolex presented the world with now-mainstream features such as scratch resistant sapphire crystals, and impeccably finished 904L stainless steel cases fitted to clever innovations such as the Glidelock clasp. This research and development has resulted in Rolex not innovating for show as it continues to not offer exhibition case backs, instead favouring absolute reliability; its venerable calibre 3135 is only beginning to be replaced after three decades due to changing expectations rather than reliability issues.
Rising above the Competition
However, brands such as Omega and Longines also were able to offer accurate and impressive timepieces when Rolex began this philosophy with movements as legendary as the 30T2 or 13ZN. What differentiated Rolex was, once more, its businesslike vision which drove it to prove its achievements with easily understood feats. In 1926, the Oyster was worn by cross-channel swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. It was then raised to 8,848m above sea level by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and taken to 10,916m below it in 1960 on the bathyscaphe Trieste.
Moreover, Rolex did not rest upon these achievements and, instead of noting the use of special oils for the Everest climb and a unique ‘Deep Sea Special’ for the Challenger Deep dive, they linked requisite innovation to everyday watches. This was just the tip of a remarkable advertising approach which, through the mid-20th century, associated a key function of a Rolex watch with an aspirational aim. Whether you were a diplomat, a diver, a pilot or a racing driver, you’d wear a Rolex. Of course, Rolex did also enjoy moments on the wrists of the likes of Sean Connery and, notably, Paul Newman. Yet such occurrences could also be attributed to fact that Rolex had made itself the brand to buy for these figures long before sports watches became collectable.
Making the Purchase Effortless
Above all, Rolex’s greatest weapon in a competitive luxury watch industry is how easily understood it is for a casual buyer. Whilst this could be interpreted as patronising, the fact is that brands have the responsibility to make themselves understandable to the casual buyer. Time and time again, a brand produces an incomprehensible array of spectacular watches and finds that it cannot sell them. By contrast, Rolex gives you only one mechanical choice: how complicated your watch is. Let’s use its sports watches as an example. If you want a dive watch, you have three options, and depending upon how large and complex you want it to be, you choose a Submariner, a Sea-Dweller, or a Deepsea. If you want a field watch, you have the simple Explorer, or the complex Explorer II. The same applies for the Air-King and GMT-Master II.
As enthusiasts, we may show frustration for Rolex giving the Sea-Dweller a cyclops or a steel & gold variant for the sake of purity and original purpose. However, rather ironically, the pure Rolex approach is to produce what they know can be sold and which will, in time, become part of their identity through obstinacy and marketing. In reality, Rolex’s purity is pragmatic and totally unrivalled in the watch world. That’s why they wear the crown.