Feature: Rolex Took 70 Years To Fix Its Biggest Mistake
Rolex’s rapid rise from a fledgling London watch importer to leading Swiss brand status within a few decades would be impressive if it was achieved today. But in a world without the internet and the far-reaching tentacles of social media, it was doubly so.
Within half a century a Rolex became the watch to wear, a timepiece known for its reliability, good looks and, in most cases, useful functions, be it in the ocean, on land, or in the air.
But there was one type of watch—or, rather, function—that Rolex seemed hesitant to fully embrace, a complication too bothersome to get distracted by. And that was the chronograph— ironic given the Daytona chronograph is now famous for being Rolex’s star performer at auction, with the famous Paul Newman models selling for obscene sums.
The famous Newman Daytona reference 6239 ran on a Valjoux manual-wind movement. Image courtesy of Bonhams.
So consumed was Rolex in perfecting its other tool watches that it was happy to outsource its chronograph movements for almost three quarters of a century, leaving it vulnerable at several times throughout its history.
Just what took the mighty Rolex so bafflingly long to take the chronograph seriously?
Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf wasn’t even born when Frenchman Louis Moinet invented the modern chronograph in 1816. By the time Longines and Breitling had put a basic chronograph in a wristwatch, as opposed to a pocketwatch, in 1913 and 1915, respectively, Rolex had only been registered as a company for seven years. It also had yet to make its decisive move to Switzerland where it could compete with the giants of the industry.
Around this time, the wristwatch—or ‘wristlet’, as many were still calling it—was still seen as little more than an effeminate trend. It would take the First World War, and soldiers relying on their wristwatch on the battlefield, to give it some masculine kudos.
By the 1930s, by which time it was clear the wristwatch was here to stay, Rolex had finally started making chronographs (one of the oldest Rolex chronographs on record is a gold, cushion-cased model from 1926). There was no doubt they were extremely useful. As well as timing various sporting events, they were used on the battlefield, with the telemeter scale helping to calculate artillery distances.
However there was already a clear leader in the chronograph game: Longines.
Longines Led The Way
While Hans Wilsdorf was obsessed with growing the company’s reputation and perfecting the first waterproof watch, Longines was a globally renowned powerhouse, owing largely to being one of the few vertically integrated watch companies of the era, enabling them to make everything— including chronographs—in-house.
A 1930s Rolex chronograph with two registers. Image courtesy of Bonhams
Firms without the capacity to do that relied on external suppliers. Patek Philippe certainly didn’t make their own movements, Breitling’s chronographs of this time ran mostly on movements by the Venus company, and Rolex looked to the fabled and prolific Valjoux, a name that will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to find a bargain vintage chronograph on eBay.
It’s crazy to think that the very same movement that was used in rare Rolexes can be found in defunct watch brands whose watches now sell for a couple of thousand pounds.
Losing The Lunar Battle
By the 1960s Rolex had established a strong brand identity and an enviable reputation for producing quality timepieces, especially tool watches like the Submariner and GMT Master. Its movements were made exclusively by the Aegler company which it eventually acquired, but the movements themselves remained relatively uncomplicated. For the more technically advanced chronograph it continued to rely on Valjoux—whose movements it modified slightly—even when it launched the Daytona in 1963.
A manual-wind Valjoux chronograph movement. Image courtesy of Bonhams
Failure to pass the barrage of tests when NASA needed to select a watch for its space missions in the 1960s was further proof that Rolex’s chronographs had plenty of room for improvement. Seeing an Omega on the Moon would undoubtedly have been a sore point for Rolex after its famous record-breaking PR coups with models like the Oyster Perpetual and Explorer.
The Race Of 1969
Again, Rolex was in the doldrums in the race to make the first automatic chronograph. It was a mere bystander in the late 1960s when Seiko in Japan, Zenith, and a consortium of Swiss companies including Heuer (now TAG Heuer) competed for the honour. It was also the dawn of the quartz era and mechanical Swiss watches were starting to look doomed.
Rolex’s humiliation was complete.
A yellow-gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona reference 6265 from 1979. Image courtesy of Bonhams
When it came to chronographs, Rolex, whose only chronograph model was the manually wound Daytona, now looked a bit of a dinosaur, out of touch with the modern world.
It eventually joined the quartz revolution, but it never fully embraced the battery-powered watch. The Oysterquartz model, not made in huge numbers, only ever told the time and date, and there’s no record of any quartz chronograph ever being in Rolex’s plans.
Saved by Zenith
By the 1980s a passion for mechanical chronographs—which had never really been in huge demand—was sweeping the watch world, kickstarted, as is so often the case, by style-conscious Italians.
When Rolex finally decided it wanted the Daytona to run on an automatic movement, it looked to Zenith, which had recently resumed production of its El Primero model. After several years of modifications—half the movement’s components were changed and it took away the date function—it released the new-look Daytona, run on the Caliber 4030.
Another 1930s-era Rolex chronograph. Image courtesy of Bonhams
Rolex continued to rely on Zenith’s El Primero movement until 2000 when it finally launched the in-house Caliber 4130.
At last the Daytona no longer suffered the embarrassment of being the only model in the Rolex line-up that didn’t have an in-house movement, even if the Aegler movement factory wasn’t bought outright by Rolex until four years later.
It certainly came in the nick of time. In-house movements were just starting to be the yardstick by which high-end manufactures were judged, and the last thing Rolex needed was people pointing out that its movements were outsourced.
Still Lagging Behind?
Even today as a vertically integrated manufacturer, Rolex seems reluctant to go all-in with the chronograph and still only really has one chronograph movement, the 4130, in its repertoire. The Yacht-Master II—the crown’s only other chronograph model—is run on a modified version of this calibre.
A modern Rolex Daytona in yellow gold with mother-of-pearl dial
In other words, aside from the usual Rolex micro-adjustments, it’s relied on the same chronograph movement for over 20 years.
Still, given how in-demand the Daytona is, it’s fair to say that Rolex fans couldn’t get care less.
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