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

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHRISHALL

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

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