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Feature: How Tudor Stepped Out of Rolex’s Shadow

As sibling relationships go, that of Rolex and Tudor has been a relatively harmonious one. Less the Gallagher brothers of Oasis fame, more Venus and Serena. But only recently has Tudor stepped out of the shadow of its ‘big sister’ to forge its own distinct identity.

From early on, Rolex co-founder Hans Wilsdorf was determined to add a modestly priced watch brand to his stable. But having conjured up a catchy name for his first-born, he struggled to come up with a suitable moniker for his second.

Elvira, Falcon, Hofex and the hideously clunky-sounding Rolwatco were just a few that Wilsdorf went as far as registering, without actually doing anything with them.

Tudor Is Born

Wilsdorf eventually settled on the name Tudor, which seems fitting given his fondness for all things English. London was, after all, where he had met Rolex co-founder Alfred Davies and kickstarted the company. However he discovered that another watchmaker had beaten him to the name and so he had to acquire the legal rights to it. This was in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1946 that Wilsdorf founded Montres Tudor SA, to give it its full title.

An early Tudor advert mentioning Rolex

An early Tudor advert mentioning Rolex

Tudor seems to have struggled with its identity early on, lurking tentatively beside the stage as Rolex hogged the limelight and soaked up the standing ovations. However it certainly didn’t shy away from any association with its sibling. The words ‘Made by Rolex’ appeared in some Tudor newspaper adverts, while ‘Rolex Watch Co LTD’ was a feature of some early Tudor dials.

It even changed its logo, its early dials bearing a Tudor rose until, sticking with a medieval theme, it was replaced in the late 1960s with the shield of today.

Affordable Excellence

As Rolex nabbed all the plaudits in the ensuing decades, Tudor quietly went about doing its thing. And its ‘thing’ was to provide its wearer with a whole host of technical attributes at which its bigger sister excelled, but for nowhere near the cost.

Sticking to tool and sport watches, it also stayed well away from the dressier side of the design spectrum, leaving Cellini-style elegance to Rolex (although it did make a watch with an alarm function, something Rolex has never done.)

So exactly how ‘Rolex’ was a Tudor watch? Well, Wilsdorf knew it didn’t make sense to undercut the Rolex quality that he had so far painstakingly created and maintained. Therefore things likes cases, bracelets and the assembly itself used the same industrial platform as Rolex, while its established distribution and after-sales expertise also came in handy.

The vast majority of its movements however – with the exception of its chronographs, which used Valjoux – came not from Aegler, Rolex’s exclusive supplier for much of its history, but from the very non-exclusive ETA. And this, crucially, was how Tudor managed to keep the costs down.

Breaking out

Like many children who have been living in their older sibling’s shadow, it was only a matter of time before Tudor began stamping its feet and demanding a bigger share of the attention. In 2007 it came out with a new strategy that saw it delve into its archives and bring out re-editions of several of its classic models, something with which Longines has had huge success in recent years.

An Oyster Date Chronograph, later re-issued as the Heritage Chrono Blue

An Oyster Date Chronograph, later re-issued as the Heritage Chrono Blue

The strategy also involved some much-needed re-branding of certain models which sounded similar to those of Rolex. Therefore its Oyster Date Chronograph from 1973 – with its prominent “butterfly” design dial – became the Heritage Chrono Blue, while its Submariner model morphed into the Heritage Black Bay and Pelagos models. Both sport the prominent snow-flake hands that have become a signature design trait of the brand.

The Oyster Prince Ranger (basically Tudor’s version of the Explorer) became, naturally, the Heritage Ranger and there were also brand-new models like the sporty Fastrider.

Furthermore, from 2015 Tudor began fitting some of its watches with its own in-house movements, which are COSC-certified and made at its own atelier in Bienne (the town where Rolex and various other brands are based).

Strap options

And let’s not forget Tudor’s nifty fabric strap options, a highly un-Rolex move, but one which proved the brand was totally in tune with the zeitgeist. The Heritage Chrono Blue, for example, comes with a head-turning orange, white and blue number that matches its dial, while the Fastrider model, inspired by motorcycle racing, has the option of a nylon strap with go-faster stripes.

It was as if Rolex, thinking itself the bees-knees in its Oscar de la Renta evening gown, had arrived at the party to find its little sister getting all the attention by donning a pair of flashy Air Jordans.

There was also the matter of price. Rolex had become increasingly unaffordable to the masses, whereas Tudor’s mid-market price points were hugely appealing.

Tudor ambassador, David Beckham

Tudor ambassador, David Beckham

Signing up celebrity brand ambassadors including David Beckham and Lady Gaga has also hammered home the message, as if it was needed, that Tudor really is dancing to the beat of its own drum these days.

What its advertising campaigns lack in refinement, they make up for in youthful exuberance and accessibility. And if anyone thought Tudor was merely a gateway brand to Rolex, they surely don’t anymore.

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