“Looking at Rolex is like looking at the sun”
Praise just doesn’t come higher than that, but what exactly makes The Crown so special ? Why is the brand so respected, revered, and even feared in the industry, while simultaneously producing such frequently lamented and even detested symbols of the nouveau riches, arrivistes, poseurs, and generally brain-dead consumers ? Why is it such a polarising thing ? Like Tesla, but with heritage, and on your wrist ?
Perhaps part of it is that wearing a Rolex is too obvious to the point that the well-intentioned skeptic seems perfectly justified in assuming that the products themselves can’t possibly be any good, that they’re some kind of stupid tax on the gauche. But then you see them on the wrists of highly respectable collectors and you wonder if you’re missing something.i Guess what, you are!
As I’m just starting to come around to the brand myself, in order to help the skeptics among you along as well, here are a few things that make Rolex so special :
1. Force of Nature : A million watches a year might sound like peanuts in an industry that produces a billion or so annually across all market segments, or it might sound like an astronomical number of “unnecessary”ii luxury goods whose prices start at $5k for a basic time-only sports watch and climb to $150k for their gem-set masterpieces (and well into the $millions in the vintage space) but the truth lies somewhere in between. While the Asians sell all the volume at the low-end, Rolex is still the 800 lbs gorilla in Swiss watchmaking, and even luxury watchmaking more broadly. There’s obviously more to the luxury watch world than just Switzerland, but even staying within that world, the market impact (and dare I say cultural contribution) of Grand Seiko or A. Lange & Sohne are drops in the bucket compared to what Rolex does. Through marvelously disciplined management, Rolex makes the most incremental improvements over time, behaving much more like an epochal force of nature than your typical “trending” luxury goods company. Like the sun, there’s nothing “of the moment” about Rolex. It feels like it’s always been there and it always will be.iii
2. Branding : Golf,iv F1, endurance racing, equestrian, tennis, yachting, etc. etc. etc. The Crown is everywhere. You can’t miss it. It’s on major billboards in every major city in the world and even a lot of not-so-major cities. The brand is bigger than the watches themselves, for better or for worse. This is undoubtedly the aspect of the company that rubs so many people the wrong way but it’s also the reason for the entire line-up’s improbably broad strength (see #4).
3. Liquidity : It’s been said that wearing your Rolex while traveling is “insurance” in case your wallet gets stolen, because as long as you still have your passport, you can trade your watch for a (business class) ticket home from anywhere in the world. From a more likely-to-be-practical perspective, buying and selling Rolexes is closer to trading bullion than fine art, which is a claim that Rolex and Rolex alone can make in the watch industry.
4. Value retention : Closely relating to #3 but still distinct enough to warrant its own category is the fact that Rolex watches hold their value better than any other (semi-)mass produced watch in the world. Patek has a few hot pieces *cough*Nautilus*cough* that hold their value very well and so does Richard Mille, but neither can boast of the consistent strength across the product range, which is remarkable enough on its own but absolutely staggering once we account for overall production numbers (RM makes a few thousand a year, PP a few tens of thousands). Needless to say, buying a Rolex is more like buying a US Savings Bond (that you can wear on your wrist) compared to most “investments” in the luxury watch world that really behave more like luxury automobiles, depreciating drastically, immediately, and only rarely recovering decades down the line. There’s quite simply no other company in any segment of any industry with this breadth of value retention across the line-up. Not LV, not Apple, not Mercedes… Rolex stands alone.v
5. Durability : While Rolex is only “mid-tier” in the world of high horology, it’s seemingly as expensive as you can make a mechanical watch and still have it capable of taking a serious beating. Any higher up the luxury food chain and you’re looking at fragile snowflakes that can certainly be used under controlled conditions but wouldn’t handle a typical American weekend of gardening, golfing, and getting shit-faced any better than a Ming vase. If you’re an elder statesman, then most luxury watches are fine, but if you need your shit to take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’, you probably want a Rollie.vi
6. Technical merit : Far be it for me to try to improve on what Tim Mosso is in the midst of doing with his thoroughly research multi-part exploration of Rolex’s mechanical innovation for Quill & Pad, so I’ll just link the first part here (archived) and let you follow the breadcrumbs from there.
So that’s it. Six things that make Rolex so special : it’s a force of nature with unbeatable branding, liquidity, value retention, durability, and technical merit. Now I don’t own a Rolex at the moment,vii mostly because there’s a shit ton of baggage that comes with The Crown, but I’m coming around.viii Even just a year ago, all I could see was the repulsive superficiality that most of you probably associate with Rolex. However, now that I’m digging deeper and deeper into this little hobby, I’m starting to see the forest for the trees and in doing so coming around to the realisation that Rolex is the Redwood amongst the oaks and firs, and I’d be an idiot to ignore that. If you’re even moderately into watches, you would be too.
In closing, let’s do some wrist shots (my wrist, not my watches), which we might as well do properly with two of Rolex’s hottest wares at the moment, the 116500LN and 126710BLRO, respectively :
Until next time, Mr. Sunshine!
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- Unless you’re one of those highly uncritical blokes who wholly imagines that The Only True Scotsman Is A Poor Scotsman Like Me, in which case there’s absolutely no helping you.↩
- As I mentioned in the comments of Riverside Green to JB and Ronnie, I take considerable exception to the notion that art is in any way “unnecessary.” If it were so, we’d have natural experiments to prove it, id est examples of human societies without any “art” whatsoever. Do we see that ? No, we do not see that. So to reiterate what I said on RG :
Why do Gilded Age toys have to be “simply” toys ? What could be more necessary than art ? To quote CS Lewis, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
Lest you misinterpret this CS Lewis quote, as Ronnie did…
I took the first half of Lewis’ quote to be facetious, or at least rhetorical. That anything could give value to survival is at best a philosophical trompe d’oeil. It’s certainly no Darwinian/Freudian explanation of cause.
Are we in a Gilded Age ? Sure we are. We’re in the first phase of the second major breakthrough of the Information Age (first was personal computing, second, Bitcoin) and that means that some people are getting insanely rich and the rest are treading water wondering why the fuck the upwind clouds are getting so much darker. But that doesn’t suddenly make art “unnecessary.” Arguably art and his best friend religion are needed now more than ever. ↩
- Rolex’s nuanced pace of development isn’t dismissively described as “glacial” for nothing, yet it’s this same steadiness and surety that allows the brand to attract “the purist and the tourist,” to borrow a phrase from Virgil Abloh that he uses to guide his designs and developments at both Off-White and Vuitton, Few brands embody that ideal as well as Rolex. ↩
- Speaking of golf and specifically the most recent Masters, FUCK YEAH TIGER!!!!1 ↩
- As we’ve explored on these pages previously, value “retention” is an awfully modest ambition because it neglects opportunity cost, granting that this financial capitalist is definitely counter-intuitive! The psychology of your average bloke prefers stability to volatility and “de-risking” to reward. ↩
- Much of this durability comes down to the fact that Rolex watches aren’t a single man’s labour of love, certainly not in the way a Philippe Dufour is, but rather a Rolex watch is the product of a highly refined and continuously improved industrial process that aims to eliminate errors and increase apparent quality (while also increasing anti-counterfeiting measures). The watches are so accurate and durable because man’s craftsmanship is turned to the making of the machines that make the watches rather than the watches themselves. ↩
- Well, at least not for more than a few days between taking “delivery” and giving it as a gift. Seriously, why would you gift someone a mechanical watch that wasn’t a Rolex ? It’s basically the perfect gift watch, especially if they’re not really into watches!! Eh, I’m sure there are edge cases where this isn’t true, but by and large, it just is. As you can see, I’m not exactly talking myself out of buying one, now am I… ↩
- It seems that I’m slowly emerging from Jack Forster‘s thoughtfully described Second Level of Rolex Appreciation (aka “Rolex Is For Suckers – New Connoisseur Version.”) to the Third Level (Rolexes Are Actually Pretty Good Watches – Grizzled Veteran Version). This took time! Less than most (obviously?) – under two years, I reckon – but still, time. ↩