Why Rolex is on to a winning formula
Rolex is a mature brand, but that doesn’t mean time stands still for the Swiss watchmaker
By and large, the codes of what make Rolex Rolex were laid down between 1945 and 1963. That 18-year period saw the debuts of nearly every watch that made the company famous: in order, the Datejust, Air-King, Explorer, Submariner, GMTMaster, Milgauss, Day-Date and Daytona were all born between those years – the majority of them in a particularly purple patch between 1953 and 1956.
Of course there were other models: the Deepsea and SeaDweller, the Explorer II and the Yacht-Master and, latterly, the somewhat unloved Sky-Dweller. But they are mostly evolutions of the core line-up rather than revolutionary additions. By the standards of most watch companies, Rolex’s attitude to new products is sluggish, verging on glacially slow. In addition, Rolex rarely discontinues a model – a version, maybe, but a whole model? Almost never.
Does this mean the world’s most famous watch brand has done nothing of note for 60 years? On the contrary: everything it does is accorded the utmost importance, be it a minor aesthetic change or a tweak to a movement. Dial details – right down to the typography, or the precise order of the words – can make a tenfold difference in value between vintage Rolexes. In short: Rolex fans live for the small things.
Let’s be clear, in the last decade Rolex has led the way on unglamorous but vital improvements such as increasing servicing intervals (now five years), and improving daily accuracy – its movements are guaranteed to a standard far better than COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres), the official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute, which is the industry benchmark for accuracy. Together with brands such as Patek Philippe and Ulysse Nardin, it has spearheaded the adoption of modern materials and production practices in movement assembly.
As far as the casual observer is concerned, however, Rolex is really the king of incremental changes. And this brings us to a conundrum: is Rolex the powerhouse brand that it is because it only makes minor alterations to its watches, or do we inflate the importance of these details because that’s all we have to go on?
Certainly Rolex understands how to manipulate the supplyand-demand environment of news; the law of diminishing returns that can hamper incessant innovation. One small
adjustment to a classic, when finely judged, can have a greater impact than an entire new range of underwhelming watches. And – as the cynics will say – by avoiding such moves, Rolex reduces the risk of diluting the strength of its brand.
This year, for example, it released a new version of the GMT-Master II. The key point here concerns the colours of the bezel; for a long while available only in steel with a black and red bezel, it now returns to its original 1955 colours of red and blue (aka a “Pepsi” bezel). Such a visibly simple change is rendered more complex by the manufacturing process required to make the two-tone bezel in ceramic without one colour bleeding into the other, as it is fired at 800 degrees. But nevertheless, as headline news, outside of Planet Rolex, it’s not earthshattering stuff.
Elsewhere, the watch receives an upgraded movement, which will make barely perceptible differences to the life of the owner: it will run for 70 hours as opposed to the previous 50, and boast improved resistance to fluctuations in temperature and to shock.
Last but not least, the Rolex GMT-Master II in stainless steel will be available on a new bracelet. I say new – the Jubilee bracelet dates back as far as 1945 – but its appearance on this year’s watch is nevertheless big news. Hopefully, by now you are starting to see what I mean about incremental changes.
All this might give the impression I’m unimpressed by Rolex. Perish the thought. This is the magic of the brand – to get it right the first time is an achievement; to have the confidence and maturity to resist the pressure to reinvent the wheel every five years is, in the watch world, incredible.
Do I wish Rolex would do something crazy every now and then? Such as bring out an entirely new watch; reinvent the Submariner; produce watches in materials other than steel or gold? Of course I do. But I understand why it can’t – to do so would be to shatter the illusion (and besides, that’s what Tudor is for). The 2018 GMTMaster is a classy, future-proof iteration of a classic formula. The king is dead; long live the king. The GMT-Master II has returned to its original colours of red and blue (aka the “Pepsi” bezel)
Rolex GMTMaster II in 18-carat Everose gold with a twocolour bezel