Rolex has mastered the alchemy of allure. It is a monumental brand: a language and currency of its own. Famously guarded and discreet, invitations into the Rolex universe are rare. Nick Rice gladly accepts his and travels to Switzerland to see where the m
Nick Rice gets a rare invite to visit the four sites that comprise the Rolex Manufacture.
The word Rolex immediately conjures up a range of thoughts and associations. This short word, selected by founder Hans Wilsdorf for being memorable and easy to say in any language, is freighted with connotations. It triggers an immediate emotional response. In a world where consumers don’t buy luxury products, but rather a dream, a symbolic expression – Rolex is king.
The reaction is not necessarily always positive though. Prior to visiting the Rolex manufacture, my thoughts about the brand were mixed. I knew that Rolex created watches of the highest quality and were world-renowned for it, but the image of owning a Rolex… the messages about status being transmitted by wearing one, did not appeal to me. It seemed to me that having a Rolex granted access to an elite club, but one that I had little interest in being a member of.
So when the rare invitation to visit the Rolex manufacture arrived, it was an opportunity to see the substance behind the sheen. I wanted to witness the real integrity of the product and venture beyond the less tangible marketing magic.
The Rolex World Headquarters was established in 1965 but underwent massive renovation a decade ago. The four Rolex sites that comprise the manufacture were built, extended and modified right up until 2012 with the finalisation of the movement manufacture in Bienne. The expansion was a direct result of the fundamental new business strategy deployed by Rolex in the mid-90s.
In order to vouchsafe the complete independence of the manufacture, Rolex purchased all the companies that supplied their essential components. In a prescient move, which leaves them blissfully unaffected by any industry-wide changes in the supply chain, Rolex became a true proprietary watchmaker. The vertical integration of the business means that the company is beholden to no one. Rolex is free to operate in ways that other companies, watchmakers or otherwise, cannot.
Rolex does not answer to shareholders. If the figures are 1.34 per cent down on the previous quarter… who cares? No one is banging fists on tables and demanding things improve. Rolex marches to the beat of its own drum.
The company operates the way it sees fit, with dedication to the Rolex core values of elegance, excellence and prestige. It’s their world and they rule it. Yes, I know, it sounds like I’ve drunk the Kool Aid… but visit the Rolex universe and I defy you to be unconvinced.
Rolex only permits 10 guests from the press to enter their hallowed realm each year. Two visits of five guests, and we are the first delegation. My companions are all luxury watch connoisseurs and highly respected writers in the industry. As we
drive towards Rolex HQ the sense of anticipation almost crackles in the air. Allow Plaza Watch to take you through the many different doors of the Rolex manufacture.
Acacias, Geneva: World Headquarters & Final Assembly
Arriving at Acacias the impression is very much aligned with the brand attributes. It’s an impressively domineering building with clean aesthetic appeal that looms above our small party. The original property from the 1960s has been transformed into a 21st Century base, with new extensions and a regal green glass façade wrapped around the entire site. Inside we are greeted by senior Rolex employees and escorted to the Andre Heiniger Auditorium. Although everybody is perfectly charming and genial, there is also an austere sense of formality about the proceedings. A sense of gravitas pervades as we take our seats for the official welcome presentation. Just as I’m musing that it feels like we’re in the secret lair of a master villain in a James Bond movie, the ceiling un-swirls like a huge camera shutter – exactly like the opening shot of all the Bond films. Thankfully this is not to unleash some deadly weapon, but merely to release the film projectors.
Virginie Chevallier, Manager of Press and Public Relations, takes the podium and welcomes us. She’s not stroking a white cat and is actually unflappably charming – the mood relaxes and we are introduced to the newly finished Rolex advertising campaign on a vast screen. Following on from the hugely popular Icons campaign, the new theme is ‘The Rolex Way’. “Rolex: there is no word for what we do, only a way. The Rolex way.”
The film reveals in a few minutes what we have the pleasure of seeing over two days – namely the meticulous creation of a Rolex watch, from the drawing board to the final article. For decades Rolex have cultivated a sense of mystique, displaying notorious discretion and safeguarding an untouchable, ineffable allure. Now it seems the brand is very subtly, cautiously even, opening up a little. The first visits were permitted in 2006 and since then, very few people have entered the inner sanctum. But steadily, the oyster is unfurling.
The company recognises that a position of non-communication in this omni-connected world is untenable.
“You have to communicate in the modern world,” says Chevallier, fully aware that she’s stating the obvious.
And when Rolex does communicate – they leave everyone else behind. Rival watch brands have been active in the world of digital communication and social media networks for years. But, not being a brand to jump on any bandwagons – be it that of quartz or Facebook – Rolex sat back and observed. When they finally deemed social media of some merit, they acted. Launching only last year, Rolex now has 3 million fans on Facebook, outstripping all other competitors. Rolex is also the most-searched-for watch brand worldwide. The instant online success may beg the question “why wait so long to join?” – but as we begin to learn… the answer to many questions is simply, ‘It’s the Rolex way’.
With the official welcome concluded, we put on white coats and take our opening excursion behind the curtain… heading first for a tour of the Final Assembly section. This is a Controlled Environment Zone and the air is renewed four to five times a day, keeping dust and other foreign elements to a strict minimum.
Rolex don’t make public the amount of watches
The casting of Rolex gold i n t h e f o u n d ry.
T h e c a r e f u l f i tt ing of th e Ro l e x b r acel e t.