Feature: 5 Rolex Alternatives That Are Actually Better
A quarter of the international luxury watch market, which comprises of hundreds, if not thousands of brands, is dominated by Rolex. It’s the Stairway to Heaven of the watch industry, the sexy kitten Halloween costume, the three-point landing—brilliant, but it’s been done now. A lot. So, let’s reset for a minute, take a moment to bathe our eyes and ears with something different, something—dare I say it—better.
Grand Seiko Snowflake SBGA211G
You may well groan at this first choice, because yes, at this point the retort of “Grand Seiko” to Rolex is like the hipster watch collector’s battle cry, but as they say, there’s no smoke without fire. Enough people sing the praises of Grand Seiko for it to be worth a consideration rather than blind rejection. The amount of Rolex diehards who recoil at the thought of a Japanese brand with the word Seiko in the title possibly matching or even surpassing the beloved Swiss watchmaker is embarrassing, like they’d just been told Santa wasn’t real.
But it’s kind of understandable. There’s a lot of well-executed brand conditioning to undo to accept that Grand Seiko might just be worth a shot. And if you’re going to shoot in any particular direction it may as well be towards the brand’s posterchild, the 41mm SBGA211 Snowflake in titanium. From the get-go, there’s no pretence that this is not a Japanese watch—it says so right on the dial for a start—because the design fully embraces the cultural love of the beauty of nature with a representation of the snowfields outside the Shinshu Watch Studio where this watch was born.
Where the Grand Seiko really shines, however, is in the quality of its execution. The finish of the dial, the markers and the hands is as close to flawless as is possible to achieve, not just in its price segment of £5,500, but in the entirety of watchmaking. That, when you think about it, is quite incredible. Almost as incredible as the calibre 9R65, which takes the mechanics of a Swiss movement and combines them with a self-powering quartz to create the ultimate combination of mechanical independence and accuracy—and the famed sweeping second hand.
Jaquet Droz Grand Seconde Email Ivoire J003033204
Where you may have heard of Grand Seiko before, Jaquet Droz may be completely new to you. It’s not new to the industry however, a name that was first used in watchmaking in 1738. That’s older than Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe. But age, as my body will quite quickly remind me, does not automatically equal quality. In the case of Jaquet Droz, however, we’re talking about a watchmaker that found fame making the 18th century mechanical equivalent of robots. Yes, Jaquet Droz is basically the precursor to Boston Dynamics.
The Swiss watchmaker made clocks and watches as well, naturally, and continues to do so today, taking a leaf from its history books with its elegant designs. This 43mm Grande Seconde Email Ivoire in rose gold specifically borrows from some pages that date back to a pocket watch of 1784, with—as the name suggests—a big second hand navigating an ivory-coloured enamel dial. The big seconds back then was basically a brag: “Look how smoothly and accurately this movement runs,” it says.
Today, an accurate mechanical movement doesn’t have quite the wow-factor it used to, but nevertheless the calibre 2663 is a beautiful example, and surprisingly modern, with a plump 68 hours of power reserve coming from twin barrels to smooth out the torque curve for greater prolonged accuracy. The finishing, however, is everything traditional, grained, striped and polished as you would expect from an old master. The price for this history, beauty and mechanical charm? You can find one for less than £10,000.
Vacheron Constantin FiftySix 4600E/000A-B442
When the 40mm Vacheron Constantin Fifty-Six in stainless steel first came out, the immediate response was that it wasn’t powered by a fully in-house Vacheron Constantin movement, that it wasn’t certified with the Geneva Seal and that it wasn’t as stunning as some of Vacheron Constantin’s other models. Okay, that may well all be true, but let me tell you what also does none of those things: a Rolex.
What the Fifty-Six does do, however, is have its calibre 1326 hand-finished by Vacheron Constantin watchmakers. It may not be emblazoned with the Geneva Seal, but it’s finished to a level that would be awarded one if it were submitted. And, at least in my opinion, it’s still a stunning watch.
What you get is an entry into the Vacheron Constantin collection that costs just £10,000 or very close to it. The upper echelons of the Fifty-Six collection start to add some of the missing pieces back, but with it, of course, comes cost. And the whole point of the Fifty-Six is to be cost-effective. Instead of what it isn’t, the way to look at it is with what it is: a watch from a top three watchmaker with a hand-finished movement for less than the RRP of the Daytona. Can’t say fairer than that.
Glashütte Original Senator Panorama Date Moon Phase 100-04-05-12-30
Straying away from Switzerland again for a moment, we find ourselves next door in the land of beer and sausages—Germany. Germany and Switzerland have been intertwined in the watchmaking journey since day one—in fact, the Swiss government offered some pretty sweet incentives that had the German locals emerging from the Black Forest to hop the border into Switzerland.
For those who stayed behind, however, is Glashütte Original, which, as the name suggests, is the original watchmaker from the town of Glashütte. Well, kind of. A. Lange & Söhne is the original watchmaker in Glashütte, but it and the other watchmakers that followed were absorbed into one single public company during the communist era. When that was all over, A. Lange & Söhne re-emerged and what was left became Glashütte Original. So, it’s technically correct, which, let’s face it, is for a watchmaker the best kind of correct.
And what re-emerged is no communist-era Lada of a watchmaker. It’s properly good. Take this Senator Excellence Panorama Date Moon Phase in 42mm stainless steel. The Germanic style hits you immediately, the off-centre big date and moon phase placed just so presumably because of reasons of movement-building efficiency. And speaking of the movement, the calibre 36-04 is a thing of beauty, worth the ticket price of £10,400 alone.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique 5008-1130-B52A
If the Rolex marketing machine were to be believed, it would be inferred that the Submariner was the very genesis of the modern dive watch. Sure, it’s certainly hugely influential and incredibly popular—but the first? That credit goes to this, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. Before Steve McQueen was to be found with his 5512 hanging loosely on his wrist, before Jacques Cousteau unravelled the mysteries of the deep with a Submariner as his most trusted companion, there was this.
Looks very similar, no? The rotating bezel, the simple markers, the big luminous hands. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think this was an outright rip-off of Rolex’s most famous creation. After all, there are many, many, many other watchmakers that did indeed rip off the Submariner.
But no. The Fifty Fathoms, here at 40mm in stainless steel, came first. It was so experimental it wasn’t even available for public purchase—until Blancpain saw the commercial success of the Submariner, that is. The original Fifty Fathoms was built to the design requirements of French special forces divers, an elite squad whose very lives depended on the performance of the watch—hence the simple, functional design. With an RRP of just under £12,000 and the build quality of one of watchmaking’s oldest watchmakers, it deserves more than a second glance.
Next time you hear someone talking about getting a Rolex, maybe these suggestions will help to illustrate that Rolex’s dominance doesn’t mean that it really is the leader of the pack. There are many options out there that bring greater quality, history and value. There’s no wrong answer mind you, a Rolex is still a great watch—but at least this way, armed with all the information, that decision can be made with greater perspective. Which watches would you recommend to someone thinking of a Rolex?
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