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Feature: Why are Rolex watches so expensive?

The words “bargain” and “Rolex” are found together as often as “cordon bleu” and “ketchup”, with even entry-level models costing the price of a decent second-hand car. It’s not as if every Rolex is made from precious metal or comes with extra functions like a chronograph. So what is it about the brand that makes even its most affordable model so expensive? We’ve answered the most commonly asked questions relating to Rolex and its prices.

How much is the cheapest Rolex?

Let’s say you’re not overly concerned about condition or age, or whether your Rolex comes with its original box or papers—just so long as it’s authentic, moderately sized (at least 34mm) and features that iconic crown logo on the dial.

In this case, you might stumble upon a charming old Oyster Precision (i.e., manual-wind) steel model for around £2,500 at a local pawn shop.

Pay a little more, however and you enter a far more elevated level of Rolex ownership.

Rolex’s legendary Oyster Perpetual—a time-only, self-winding steel watch—is its entry-level model and a 34mm version currently sells for £4,850 at retail. The 36mm version retails at £5,100, while £5,400 gets you the largest 41mm model—still immensely wearable for all but the scrawniest of wrists.

Unfortunately, gone are the days of being able to stroll casually into an authorised Rolex dealer and buy a brand-new watch outright. Ever-increasing desirability means lengthy waiting lists, which has resulted in the market value of most Rolex watches being above retail. This applies as much to the humble Oyster Perpetual as it does to a yellow-gold Day-Date with a diamond bezel.

So, yes, while the Oyster Perpetual is still generally the cheapest Rolex available, like most things in life it’s not as cheap as it used to be. And if you’re looking for a model with a sought-after colourful dial—red, yellow or “Tiffany” blue—you can expect to pay anything up to four times the retail price.

Why are Rolex watches so expensive?

There’s no doubt about it, Rolex is a brand apart while also acting as a barometer for the entire watch industry. If Rolex is in the doldrums (which is practically never), other brands will be too. If Rolex prices are booming, it tends to be an indication that the industry is in robust health.

But how did it reach this position?

Since it was founded in 1905, Rolex has built a reputation for relentless innovation and consistency of quality, backed up with some shrewd—often genius—marketing campaigns. Famously, its watches have been associated with record-breaking feats, from endurance swims across the English Channel to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest when it supplied the expedition with watches.

It has also been highly discerning in its choice of brand ambassadors, signing up the most successful athletes from glamorous sports such as tennis, golf and skiing, as well as leading stars from music and the movies, from Michael Buble to Martin Scorsese. Enlisting such people swells the marketing spend and the price is at least partly shouldered by the customer.

Then there are the materials it uses. Unusually for a watch company, Rolex has its own foundry that produces the gold and platinum alloys used for its watches, while its 904L steel is superior to the 316L variety used by 99 percent of the industry.

It’s also known for making endless incremental improvements to its long-standing models. A contemporary Submariner, for example, may look much like one from the 1970s, but it’ll feature state-of-the art materials like fade-proof Cerachrom bezel inserts rather than aluminium ones, and glow-in-the-dark markers made from SuperLuminova, rather than the mildly radioactive tritium-based paint found on many vintage watches.

Admittedly Rolex doesn’t make mechanically complicated watches like the perpetual calendars and minute repeaters produced by the likes of Swiss rivals such as Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet—no one is claiming Rolex is the world’s most prestigious watchmaker—but it is renowned for doing the simple things exceptionally well.

Are Rolex watches a good investment?

As watch-lovers first and foremost, we always say buy a luxury watch because you love it, not to lock it away in a dark cupboard and rub your hands with glee as its value appreciates—or wring them in despair as it does exactly the opposite!

Yes, the value of certain watches does increase, and Rolex benefits from this more than most brands, but there are certainly no guarantees.

Arguably the watches most likely to increase in value are vintage Daytonas and Submariners, as well as Milgauss and Explorer models from the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. As to what current models might be good future investments, consider the more elusive, top-tier models like the jewel-festooned “Rainbow” Daytona or a gold Day-Date with a diamond-set dial. That said, popular entry-level models like the Oyster Perpetual or Air-King should hold their value relatively well and might even continue to sell above retail.

Can I just buy a Rolex?

Quite simply, yes. And… no. Currently, very few people can walk into an official Rolex boutique/authorised dealer and buy the Rolex watch of their choice. Rocketing demand means that customers now have to join long wait lists, sometimes waiting several years to get their hands on the most desirable models.

Image: Nathan Aguirre on Unsplash

Image: Nathan Aguirre on Unsplash

It’s no secret that customers who have built up a relationship with an authorised dealer—perhaps by buying watches by other brands, or other products such as jewellery—get looked on favourably and can jump the queue. However, cultivating such a relationship can take as long as the waiting list itself.

And who wants to purchase eighteen pairs of cufflinks you don’t really need and a diamond broach for your grandma in the hope of one day getting a Rolex?

You can, of course, buy a pre-owned Rolex without such complex manoeuvrings. Even the most sought-after models are available on the second-hand market, albeit often for more than the retail price. Whether you want a vintage piece or an unworn model from the current catalogue, you should be able to get your dream Rolex fairly easily—if you have the funds, that is.

Are Rolex watches worth the price?

As we’ve already mentioned, Rolex isn’t the most prestigious watch brand in the world, but for ticking those boxes that really matter to watch collectors—desirability, durability, superb design, re-saleability, cult appeal—it’s probably the best.

Ardent fans of Omega, Grand Seiko, Breitling and others may argue that those brands offer better value, and that their watches are just as technologically accomplished as a Rolex—and they’d have a point. But, aside from rare exceptions, would you be able to sell any of these watches for more than you paid for them? This is what sets Rolex apart from the competition.

You may have many feelings after purchasing a Rolex, but regret is unlikely to be one of them.

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