View all articles

Feature: 3 Things You Should Know Before You Buy A Rolex

Being the best known and most popular luxury watch brand in the world, Rolex watches have little trouble selling themselves. Many, many people are quite happy to buy one just because it says ‘Rolex’ on it, paying little mind to what that name really stands for. Well, before you buy a Rolex, here are three things you should know.

Rolex’s Best Inventions Are Copied

When you think of the mighty Rolex, you think of the numerous different inventions the brand brought to watchmaking. The water-resistant watch, for example, in 1926. The automatic, self-winding movement in 1931. The first self-changing date in 1945.

Every single one of those developments changed watchmaking forever—and not just in the hyperbolic, sensationalist marketing sense, they actually forced other brands, much bigger brands, to change the way they operated.

Before the 1926 Oyster, for example, watchmakers considered light dust-proofness to be perfectly adequate for a wristwatch. Rolex changed that. Before the 1931 Perpetual, watchmakers were happy to let customers wind their watches by hand. Before 1945, watchmakers expected customers to buy a newspaper if they wanted to know what the date was. Only—Rolex didn’t invent any of it. Not one bit. Every single one of those ground-breaking creations already existed.

So how is Rolex credited with their creation? By doing them properly. The water-resistant watch, for example, sealed with screw threads like a jam jar, that had been in existence since Victorian times—but only as a concept. Other watchmakers had dabbled, combining bulky solutions like push-fit seals, clamping covers and locking secondary cases—but Rolex simplified the idea by threading the bezel, the case back and the crown, the result of which was sensibly proportioned, easy to use and straightforward to produce.

The same can be said of the Perpetual rotor. Variations of the self-winding movement had existed since the 1770s, but all of them were clunky and complex, requiring bulky, elaborate mechanisms to accommodate for the fact that their rotor weights couldn’t complete a 360-degree rotation. Rolex again simplified the situation, developing a rotor weight that could spin and spin and spin without interference.

And the self-changing date—the perpetual calendar had been in existence for decades in wristwatches and centuries in pocket watches—the first known a Thomas Mudge from 1762—and those all had a self-changing date in them. But once again Rolex saw an opportunity to refine and simplify this hallowed complication, taking away all the complexity to be left with just the date, and one that needed manual adjustment every month at that.

For Rolex, it’s never been about the originality of the idea, more the execution, the simplicity—the way it just works. Remind you of any other industry-leading tech manufacturers?

Most Rolex Parts Are Not In-House

Rolex came to the watchmaking game pretty late in life. By the time founder Hans Wilsdorf got into it 1905, Omega had already got a 57-year head start, Patek Philippe 66 years. There was no chance for 24-year-old Hans Wilsdorf, with no watchmaking training whatsoever, to start making watches that would come anywhere close to competing all by himself. He needed help. He needed someone to make his watches for him.

That’s fine; plenty of watchmakers get their start by outsourcing construction or buying in catalogue parts. Rolex, however, didn’t get around to bringing construction fully in-house until 2004. For 99 years, most of the company’s existence, its parts have not been made in-house. A few components, like the hands, still aren’t.

So, what gives? Back when Rolex first started, practically no one was making wristwatches. Here presented an opportunity for Wilsdorf to head his competitors off at the pass, or rather the passing of an old format, the pocket watch. The only wristwatches that existed at the time were ladies’ pendant watches, powered by inferior cylinder escapements.

First, Wilsdorf identified a company that could make movements with Swiss lever escapements small enough to fit into a wristwatch, Aegler, and then a company that could supply the hardware to fit them in, Dennison, and set about making a watch, a wristwatch, that was actually pretty decent.

The practicality of his wristwatches made them a necessity during the Great War, and so Wilsdorf upscaled the output of his manufacturers and continued to work on and develop his watches, identifying more opportunities to put Rolex on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Because that’s what Wilsdorf was, a businessman, a marketing man. Not a watchmaker. He had an uncanny sense for knowing what the public wanted and how best to deliver it, not how to put a watch together.

But there was one nagging doubt in Wilsdorf’s mind about the use of outsourcing, and that was quality. With outsourcing, the brand was vulnerable to anything from inconsistencies to outright defects, and with a reputation for tool-like precision, it was something Rolex could do without. So, one by one, the brand absorbed its suppliers, bought them outright. Piece by piece, Rolex inched towards autonomy and independence, finally purchasing the family business that had so faithfully manufactured its movements, Aegler, in 2004.

And what about the hands, still produced elsewhere? Truth be told, it’s incredibly rare for watchmakers to produce specialist parts like balance springs, synthetic crystals and rubies, and even hands and dials. After very small, very expensive independents—and Seiko—Rolex is now one of the most self-sustaining watchmakers out there.

Rolex Isn’t Even Swiss

If you’re buying Rolex, you’re buying into the idea of proper Swiss watchmaking, straight from the foothills of the Jura mountains, assembled by wizened Swiss watchmakers sustained solely with Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate. Here’s some news for you: Rolex isn’t Swiss. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf isn’t Swiss, the brand wasn’t founded in Switzerland, and the first watches weren’t made in Switzerland either.

Some background to colour in the picture: Wilsdorf was a big fan of England. At the turn of the century, he found himself looking for any excuse to up sticks from his then-job in Switzerland as a watch distributor and head across the Channel, and when an opening came up to become an international representative in London, he took it without a moment’s hesitation.

There, he was presented with a golden opportunity. Watch imports were expensive, and with English watchmaking having long since been on the downturn, there was a lucrative chance to import high quality Swiss movements, fit them into English cases and sell them at an affordable price point. His business contacts with Swiss movement manufacturer Aegler got him set up with a powertrain, while English company Dennison supplied pretty much everything else.

The plan worked, and Wilsdorf’s company showed promise. But it needed a name, one that was easy to pronounce in any language, that felt instantly recognisable, and it came to him in 1908 on a coach ride to his jewellers in Hatton Garden: Rolex. The Rolex name was bestowed upon his watches as they won accuracy award after accuracy award—but Wilsdorf’s love affair with London wasn’t to last.

The Great War was brewing, and with it hostility. Wilsdorf was natively German, and his thick accent and German name alienated him from the city he loved so much. With that, and rising import taxes, he was forced to move back to Switzerland, taking his company with him and leaving his beloved country behind. In 1920, Rolex was officially registered in Geneva, the English heritage of his brand no more.

So, if you’re thinking of buying a Rolex, now you know. It’s different to most other brands, founded under challenging circumstances and forged by clever thinking and a generous dollop of creativity. It might not be quite what you thought it was, but its trials and tribulations only make its success all the more impressive.

Looking for a Rolex watch? Click here to shop now