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

Plaza Watch International - - Contents - WORDS NICK RICE

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.

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