Rolex’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, was onto something when he made his company logo a crown – it has remained the king of watch brands for more than a century. Its enormous brand equity is partly because Rolex gives so little away, a key to its mystique. It is frequently ranked first in surveys of super-brands in the UK and is resident in Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful brands. Ask 100 people to name a luxury watch and most of them will say Rolex.
But this reputation is not mere marketing – Rolex is Rolex because it makes peerless products. We love the fact that so many of the classic Rolex models were made not just to look good, but for specific, adventurous purposes. The GMT-Master, for example, was created for Pan-Am’s pilots, then experiencing a new phenomenon called jet-lag — they wanted a watch that showed two time zones simultaneously. The Submariner was made for divers. The Milgauss was introduced in the Fifties as an anti-magnetic watch for people who worked in power plants, medical facilities and early nuclear research labs, where strong electromagnetic fields were present.
Collectors are particularly passionate about Rolex sports models, which have long been associated with explorers, adventures and athletes. In addition to the famous James Bond Submariner, an early version of the GMT was worn by US flying ace Chuck Yeager as well as several astronauts. Rolexes lend themselves to being dressed up and down more than other luxury watch brands and the company has mastered the art of the design tweak: collectors wax lyrical over a different coloured bezel here, or a bigger crown there. All this contributes something to their collectability and value – if you’re going to buy a watch to invest in, buy a Rolex. According to Christie’s, Rolexes gain value faster and more steadily than any other brand.
Wilsdorf had a gift for foresight. He bet on the wristwatch very early and each of his major innovations (putting a timepiece on the wrist, making it accurate, making it waterproof and making it automatic) helped create the modern wristwatch as we know it. The downside, some argue, is that Rolex varies its designs even less than other companies: and that’s saying something for the watch world, where a ‘revolutionary breakthrough’ amounts to a new case size or deploying a slightly different type of gold. There is no Rolex tourbillon, or sign of the zodiac complication. A 2019 Submariner resembles one from 50 years ago.
The counter-argument is that you don’t go messing with perfection. Instead of visible whistles and bells, the company concentrates on research and engineering, continually update the technology inside its watches on the quiet.