View all articles

Feature: You’ve Never Seen A Rolex Defect Like This

Mistakes happen, it’s a fact of life. When you’re Rolex, however, making some of the very best watches in the world, they don’t happen very often—if at all. But they do still occur from time to time, and this one—it’s a doozy.

When you’re the premier luxury watchmaker, furnishing hundreds of thousands of people with fine, premium watches every year, you need to uphold a reputation for quality. It’s no secret that Rolex goes to great lengths to provide a service that’s up there with the very best, using a blend of hand-crafted artisanal tradition and state-of-the-art technology to ensure that every watch is a masterpiece.

That’s no hyperbole; there are four main Rolex manufacturing facilities, where everything can be regulated by the brand to prevent anything untoward happening. Over the years, as Rolex has purchased its suppliers, it’s gained full control over virtually every part of a watch’s production—but that hasn’t always been the case.

Back in the mid-20th century, when Rolex used third-party suppliers to produce the component parts of its watches, variation—and as a by-product defects—were much more common. From mild nuisances like deviation in fonts and design, to full on critical failures like extreme paint discolouration and cracking lacquer, a Rolex watch had its fair share of foibles.

But even then, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf knew the answer was a unified brand, a vertically integrated solution where nothing could be left to chance. Back when other brands were ordering out of parts catalogues, Wilsdorf was having parts custom made to his specification—and being a businessman and marketeer, even had the factories where his parts were made rebranded with the Rolex name in his promotional materials.

One of the big successes of the Rolex brand was to procure its suppliers over time, finally purchasing the last piece of the puzzle, movement manufacturer Aegler, in 2004. This eliminated the issues experienced at the mercy of the suppliers; with everything in-house, there is no reason to get things wrong.

And Rolex really does take every precaution. It’s quite incredible, really. From the iris scanner-protected automated stock system, its 60,000 storage compartments patrolled and operated just by robots; to the controlled environment zones where the watches are assembled, clean rooms free of dust and humidity to a level that would impress NASA’s JPL; and of course the quality control testing using COMEX-designed pressurised tanks and high-resolution imaging machines that scan every watch for even the smallest flaw—Rolex has got quality covered.

And all that only goes to make this defect even more amazing.

That a defect on a modern Rolex is as much of a sensation as it is, is a testament to the success of the brand’s operation as a whole. I can’t think of anything in recent years outside of a misaligned bezel insert or an off-centre date cyclops, or at most uneven print on the dial or hands—but even these are so minor as to be almost imperceptible.

The question is … have you noticed the defect yet? I’ll give you a minute before I point it out. It’s right there, and it’ll jump out at you when you spot it. Seen it? Give up? Well, here it is: this Rolex Air-King 116900 has no ‘three’ marker. It has two ‘nines’ instead.

It can be hard to see at first despite the enormity of the defect because the three and the nine are very, very similar, the three effectively a nine with a chunk missing, but once you’ve seen it, it’s almost impossible to believe. Just think, the person assembling the dial didn’t notice it, the person assembling the case didn’t notice it, the person quality checking the watch didn’t notice it—and you can kind of see why. It blends in rather well.

Added to that, the person who sold it didn’t notice either, and neither did the person who bought it—at least not right away. It was pointed out by someone else—someone Rolex should perhaps be offering a job.

Given the huge expense Rolex commits to pursuing excellence, the double nines really do make for quite the novelty. It reminds me of a term from back in my civil engineering days, ‘number blindness’. Hour upon hour spent designing drainage, road levels, flood plains or whatever, and the brain slowly turns to mush—until the senior checking the work turns to you and says, ‘You’ve got water flowing uphill.’

So, I wonder, how did the water manage to flow uphill for Rolex? Did the stars align and sync all the bad days together for everyone in the chain? Or is the mistake just so big that it’s too far removed from the infinitesimally small scale the QC window usually operates in? Who knows.

I’ll tell you what I do know, however, and that’s this: in recent years, the Rolex machine has been untouchable in a cold, almost emotionless way, removed from the feisty go-getter Hans Wilsdorf created—or at least, it certainly seems that way. But this kind of thing, this simple little mistake, reminds us that Rolex is human after all, that these watches are built by hand by people with lives, families, kids and dogs, who, every now and then, make a mistake.

An error like this really is one in a million. Actually, probably even less than that. And who knows, maybe one day there will be books, blogs, forums and collectors’ meets where the fabled ‘ninety-nine’ is talked about in hushed tones. ‘Remember when Rolex got it wrong?’ they’ll say in wonder. Perhaps it will spawn all sorts of rumours, rumblings and conspiracies, spark controversy, division and argument—all because, once, someone mistook a nine for a three. Watchmaking’s a funny old business, isn’t it?

Looking for a Rolex watch? Click here to shop now